Aggressive Child Behavior Part II: 7 Tools to Stop Fighting in School and at Home

by James Lehman, MSW
Aggressive Child Behavior Part II: 7 Tools to Stop Fighting in School and at Home

In part 2 of this two-part series, James discusses exactly what to do when your children get in trouble for fighting at school or at home—and the right kinds of consequences to give them so they learn to use appropriate behavior instead of lashing out when they feel like hitting someone the next time. Read on to find out the steps you can take toward resolving the problem of fighting at school, plus get advice on how to handle fights that break out between siblings at home!

"Remember, if two kids with distorted perceptions get into a physical fight, there may not be a truth; there might just be their distorted perceptions compounded by the absence of … problem-solving skills."

When your children use fighting or other negative physical behavior as their main coping skills, you’ll find that it usually doesn’t stop at home—they will use it at school, in the neighborhood, on the ball field or at the mall. If your son uses physical fighting, for example, or your daughter uses verbal abuse in place of the problem-solving skills they need to learn in order to function successfully as adults—skills like communication, negotiation and compromise—make no mistake, you need to address this problem immediately. If you don’t, understand that it’s as if your children will be entering the world with a couple of hammers to handle their problems, when what they really need is a wide range of sophisticated tools in order to be successful.

How to Handle Fighting at School and at Home: 7 Tools You Can Use Today

When your child is disciplined at school for getting into a fight, I think the absolute best thing you can do is first find out from the school exactly what happened. That way, you’ll have a framework for your eventual discussion with your child.

In my opinion, the most effective way to handle news about fighting at school is to do the following:

  • 1. Give Your Child Time to Transition:
    When your child gets home, give him ten minutes to reorient to the house. Let him have his snack or listen to some music. Don’t challenge him immediately, because transition is difficult for people of all ages, and it is not a time to deal with any issues at all. For instance, if a child acts out at the mall, or there’s a problem with the next door neighbors, when you get him back in the house, give him ten minutes before you talk with him. The time to talk about any episode is not right when he gets home. It’s hard for people to process emotions during transitions. Rather, the time to talk about it is ten minutes later, after your child has calmed down.
  • 2. Be Direct and Don’t Trap Him:
    When you talk, try to avoid blaming, tricking or trapping your child. Instead, be very direct and straightforward; put the facts out there. “I spoke to the school today and they were concerned. Would you like to tell me what happened?” Don’t try to trap your child by saying things like, “Did anything happen at school today that you want to talk about?” Over time, trick or “trap” questions will increase your child's anxiety and make him not trust you, because he will never know what you're going to confront him with.
  • 3. Listen to What He Has to Say—Even If He’s Wrong:
    Let your child tell you the whole story first, if he's willing to talk. Don't cut him off halfway through by saying, “Well, that's not what they said.” If you do that, you're never going to hear his side of the story. By the way, your child’s account may not be accurate or honest, and his perceptions may not be valid. But the bottom line is that if you hear the whole story, at least then you've got something comprehensive to work with.

    If you stop your child when he sounds like he's not telling the truth, you may miss the point that shines light on the fact that it's a matter of different perceptions. Often, a child’s perceptions aren't the same as an adult’s—and you won't learn that unless you hear the whole story. By the way, these misperceptions will need to be corrected. So encourage your child to talk.
  • 4. Use Active Listening Methods:
    When you say, “The school called me today about a fight. Can you tell me what happened?” your child may tell you something, or he may not. If he decides to talk, let him tell you as much as he can. Always use statements such as, “Uh huh.”“Tell me more.” “I see.” and “What happened next?” Those are active listening methods that get kids to talk more and be comfortable. Don't forget, our goal is not to intimidate or punish. Our goal is to investigate and learn information. On the other hand, if he refuses to talk about what happened, I recommend that he not be allowed to play, watch TV, use electronics, or do anything else until he’s ready to talk.

    When you are talking with your child, if he gets stuck for a minute, repeat back what you’ve heard him saying in this manner: “So what I hear you saying is, Jared came and kicked you today for no reason, so you hit him. Is that right?” Get it straight so that you're both on the same page. When your child is done, ask, “Did the school punish you?” and then ask how. Let him tell you what the school did and then say, “OK, when I spoke to the school, this is what they told me.” First, start with the points your child and the school agreed on. “They did say you and Jared were having an argument and that it was almost lunch time.” Or “They did say that Michael was being rude to you in the cafeteria and that he was teasing you about the shirt you wore today.”
  • 5. Avoid Using the Word “But”:
    Here’s an important rule of thumb—when disagreeing with your child or wanting to point out something to him, avoid using the word “but”—use a word like “and” instead. Understand that the word “but” cuts down on communication, because it really means, “Now I'm going to tell you where you were wrong,” This simply sets up a kid’s defenses. For example, if you say, “You did a nice job cleaning your room today, but…” he knows something negative is coming. “But it still smells in there.” That’s not as helpful as saying, “You did a nice job cleaning your room, and now I’d like you to spray it with room deodorizer.” You’ll get the same result, but you’re doing it in a more affirmative, pleasant way.

    So you can say, “I heard about what Michael said to you…and the teacher also said that he heard Michael say insulting things about your shirt. And then the teacher told you to go to the lunch counter, and said that he would take care of Michael for you. Instead, you chose to curse at Michael and started walking toward him in a threatening way. What were you trying to accomplish when you cursed at Michael and walked in his direction?” Keep probing, trying to find out what he wanted to accomplish. Most importantly, you want your child to make an admission about what happened so he can learn from it.

    One of the things you want to do if you can is point out the exact moment when your child’s problem-solving skills stopped working, because that’s the point where the learning can take place. If your son says, “I started walking toward Michael because he was being mean to me,” you can respond, “You know, you were right that he was being mean and you were right to get angry, but if the teacher says he’s going to take care of it, you have to stop or you’ll get into trouble. If somebody insulted my clothes or called me names, I wouldn’t like it either. So I understand.”
  • 6. When Talking with the School about Consequences:
    Find out what the school’s usual consequences are for fighting when you talk with them. If they ask you, “What do you think we should do?” I think you should say, “Well, what are the standard consequences for this behavior? Is there any reason why you shouldn’t follow them? I think you should follow your policy.”

    Let me be clear here: anything that your child does that is physically aggressive, physically abusive, or verbally abusive should be followed up at home with a discussion and possible consequence. (Any functional problem—running in the hall, chewing gum, throwing something—should be handled by the school. It’s their job to manage routine behavior.)

    The reason you have to challenge the more disruptive behaviors at home is because home is the place where you have the time to teach him about alternatives. If it’s the first time, help him figure out where his coping skills broke down, and then work with him on coming up with some appropriate ones. On the other hand, if this is the second time this has happened at school, not only should you talk about where his skills broke down, but there should be a consequence to keep him accountable. That consequence could include any task that you think would be helpful to his learning about the situation for the amount of time it takes him to complete it. So grounding him for six hours is not helpful, but having him write ten things he could do differently next time is helpful.

    If your child is suspended from school, I recommend that he loses all his privileges and electronics until he’s off suspension. That timeline is easy; the school has already set it for you. Remember, if your child is suspended to home, then you put the keyboard, the cable box, the iPod and the cell phone in the back of your car when you go to work.
  • And here's how I recommend that parents deal with siblings fighting at home:
  • 7. How to Handle Fighting at Home:
    Fighting at home differs from fighting in school for a parent because if you weren't there when the fight started, the reality is, there's no way to tell who's telling the truth—or if in fact there is a truth. Remember, if two kids with distorted perceptions get into a physical fight, there may not be a truth; there might just be their distorted perceptions compounded by the absence of communication and problem-solving skills. Either way, if you weren’t there to see the fight start, the best way to deal with it is to give both kids the same consequence and learning lesson. To begin with, meet with each child briefly to get their perceptions. Then give each kid the same consequence and learning lesson, no matter who you think was responsible for starting it. So that might be, “You will both go to your rooms until you write three paragraphs (depending upon how old your child is) on what you're going to do differently next time.” Or “Each of you has to go and write an apology to your brother. Until it’s done, you both stay in your rooms.” If your kids share a room, then send one to the kitchen. Separating them is important because not only will it stop the fight, it will help your kids calm down.

    With younger kids, they can be sent to their room for a while to play on their own. And with older kids, let them listen to music in their rooms. The idea is that they should calm down and then write their essays. (With younger kids who can’t write yet, you might just have them tell you what they will do differently next time.) By the way, each child should be dealt with separately, regarding how they respond to the consequence. So if one child is resistant and defiant and the other is not, that's taken into consideration, in terms of how long they have to stay in their rooms or go without privileges.

Understand that your kids may have another fight an hour later, and they might have to go back in their rooms again and again. The important thing here is that when they write those apologies or alternative behaviors, the part of their mind that’s trying to solve problems and learn how to communicate better is beginning to work. Part of any learning experience is to get that area of the mind—the learning, problem-solving, communicating area of the mind—working. It's like exercising: as long as your body is doing push-ups, your muscles are going to get bigger. When you stop doing push-ups, those muscles don't get bigger anymore. And certainly, if you want to teach your child how to communicate and problem solve, you have to use those situations as much as you can. Think of it as practice for the future—you are helping your kids build muscles that will help them behave appropriately for the rest of their lives.

Whenever possible, build on past successes. What has the child done in this type of situation that worked for him in the past? You can ask, “Yesterday your brother was annoying to you, but you didn’t hit him then. What made today different? It seemed like you handled it great yesterday. What did you do then that you didn’t do today? What did you say to control yourself? How is this different?” Pointing out a previous success in a similar situation can provide insight and direction for the future, and that’s exactly what you want to give your child.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


I think your program is great. I used this program because I didn't have the coping skills on how to handle oppositional defiance behavior. She wasn't getting in trouble at school but every day was tedious and difficult. She didn't listen and had an answer for everything. It was overwhelming and confusing for me as a parent. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of disrespect and obnoxiousness. Your program gave me insight and direction and I thank you for it. You should conduct parenting classes at colleges or libraries. It really has made a difference. The best confirmation is when her teachers come up to me and tell me what a difference they see. I'm not saying its easy now. Its constant work and constant implementing to try to improve what I'm doing. But I wouldn't be where I am, without your program.

Comment By : Dawn

I love this article. Helps with so many issues in our home right now. One question that I have is even when the school deals with the consequence and one is they may have detention after school. I carpool with other parents and I mainly pick up in the afternoon. If my daughter has to stay after school, then I have to make 2 extra trips to go back and pick her up. So, do I come up with more chores to help pay for the gas or do I do anything at all? I feel she needs to reimburse us somehow. Please help!

Comment By : JAR

* Dear JAR: Remember that in James Lehman’s Total Transformation program, consequences are only one part of a system that changes behavior. A much more important part of that system is teaching your child how to problem solve. At times, the natural consequence of our kid’s choices is all they need to experience but if there is no natural consequence, finding a consequence that is closely related to our kid’s poor behavior choices is a good technique. Since your daughter’s detention is causing you to make more then one trip to school, this is taking some time out of your day. You could ask your daughter to do one of your chores that you usually do yourself. When you have that problem solving conversation with her--asking her what she can do differently next time in order to avoid getting a detention--you can also say to her that because the extra trip is taking time out of your day, she will need to help you cook dinner, for example. Don’t forget the Support Line is available to assist you in applying the techniques from the Total Transformation program. Give us a call. We look forward to hearing from you.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

This article was great that it also talked about handling younger kids fight and disbutes. I am a parent of 5 and 9 year old girls and although they are different in age sometimes they act the same. I have a question about, when a 5 year old girl gets so upset and hung up on little things from dressing in the morning to brushing hair. etc... time out and consequences are not doing the trick what do i do?

Comment By : katifarhady

* Dear ‘katifarhady’: Morning rush is difficult and stressful for a lot of families and kids. And a 5-year-old is probably still learning the skills to get ready and out the door in time. Too much stress can bring things to a halt. James Lehman talks about the importance of “halting over-stimulation,” because the more stress or stimulation, the more some kids act out. Five-year-olds still require a few reminders and suggestions. Your best approach may be to make sure she has enough time in the mornings, and enough assistance from you, spoken in the calmest voice you can muster. And rewards, instead of consequences, can help at this age. Telling her if she doesn’t hurry up she will lose a privilege will probably backfire by increasing her stress and slowing her down. Work on having her do one thing at a time all by herself and use rewards, such as “If you brush your teeth first thing in the morning without a reminder, we’re going to give you a star on this chart. When you earn five stars, you can pick a reward.” And it’s never too early to start using James Lehman’s problem-solving language. “Looking at all your shirts over again is not going to get you dressed on time. Put on what you chose to wear last night.” You may enjoy reading this post by the Empowering Parents Editor, Elisabeth Wilkins, Is Your Dawdling Child Making You Crazy? Many parents have written in to share their morning rush stories and ideas. You’re not alone. Thanks for your question and keep in touch. We’re here to help.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Having major communication problems with school authorities. My 8 year old daughter was involved in a minor physical altercation with another girl, not the first time this year. The school sent a letter with a basic outline and the action they took. My requests of "what happened" so I can work through this with my daughter have been ignored both times. I am at the end of my rope with these people, I can not get any cooperation from them. How should I proceed?

Comment By : De

* Dear De: It can be really frustrating working through these issues but be careful not to share your poor opinion of the administration with your child. We don’t want your daughter to think that the school is in the wrong because this tends to lead kids into believing that they don’t have to pay attention to the school rules or the teachers. As James Lehman says, it’s important to teach our kids to be personally responsible for their own behavior choices. Working through this with your daughter should involve a problem solving conversation with her that includes helping her see what she could do differently next time instead of getting physical with someone. Following the conversation guidelines in this article will help you to learn ‘what happened’ from your daughter’s perspective. What you’re looking for is her faulty thinking—why she thought it was okay to get into a fight. You want to help her by challenging that faulty thinking, such as, “Just because she said something unkind does not mean its okay to fight with her.” Next comes problem solving. You ask your daughter what she will do differently next time. If you need more help with this technique, we’d be glad to go over this with you. Give the Support Line a call. We’d love to hear from you.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

i think that this article is great BUT the only thing is IF you have kids that WON'T sit and let you talk to them... or they run away and shut the door and want nothing to do with you then what do you do ?

Comment By : frosty falone

* Dear ‘frosty falone’: We appreciate your question and we do have an answer to you. James Lehman has developed a successful technique for handling this situation--because there are times when kids will refuse to participate in a problem solving conversation or get angry and walk out in the middle of that conversation. James suggests that you say to your child, “It looks like you’re not ready to have this conversation right now. Take a break until you are ready, but understand—you’re on restriction until we finish this discussion.” In order to prevent further power struggles between you and your child, James recommends that after your child has calmed down and is ready to talk, drop what you’re doing and complete the problem solving conversation.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

One of the more helpful articles I've read. Thanks.`` A helpful article with specific advice-thanks.

Comment By : Anah

my son is 22 years old am i too late to have him respect me? he drop off school at 16 and didn't do anything, he is working part time now but use his money to eat and have fun, but got extremely frustrated and aggressive when ever i approach him to talk, but is an almost sorry mommy i do love u and i know am wrong , but he always complaint against society and feel so discriminate what can i do he doesn't even want to go to therapy

Comment By : kari15

* To kari15: When you have an adult child living with you at home who is showing troublesome behavior, it is natural to think, “Am I too late to help him change his behavior?” What we find is that it is never too late for someone to change. First, we advise looking at what your goal is for your son. Do you want him to contribute to the household in the form of money and/or chores? Do you want him to return to school? Do you simply want him to treat you with respect, such as not being aggressive or verbally abusive toward you? Be specific with your goal and what your expectations are. We then recommend talking with your son about his behavior when both of you are calm, and what your expectations are from him while he is living in your house. Be sure to include in your conversation what specifically he is going to do to meet this, and how you are going to hold him accountable. For example, you might tell him, “Since you are working part-time, you are going to be responsible for paying for your cell phone from now on. If you do not pay your bill on time, I want to let you know that I will not pay it for you.” It might be helpful for you to write up these expectations in a document, such as a living agreement. For more information about how to set this up, please see the article series I am including here:
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part II
Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part III
Good luck to you as you work through this with your son.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

This article is a great help. I am at my wits end with my 6 yr old and 8 yr old boys. My 8 yr old has been in a lot of trouble in school and now camp for hitting. Nothing seems to matter to him no matter what the consequences are. I literally just want to cry and don't want to be around him. I just received the total transformation program and I am on disk 3 currently. I feel terrible that I have this feeling but I can't seem to get through to him. Nothing is ever good enough no matter what we do and it is always what are we going to do next.

Comment By : Frustrated

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