Aggressive Child Behavior Part I: Fighting in School and at Home


Aggressive Child Behavior Part I: Fighting in School and at Home

Does your child always seem to get in trouble for fighting? You’ve tried talking to him, but the aggressive behavior hasn’t stopped—he still roughhouses with his siblings at home to the point of injury, brawls with kids on the bus and gets into fistfights at school. In part 1 of this two-part series on aggressive child and teen behavior, James Lehman explains why kids get into fights in the first place—and tells you the three basic types of fighting that you need to address as a parent.

"The question 'why' doesn't lead to a change in behavior, but the question "What were you trying to accomplish" does…"

Why is fighting on the rise for both boys and girls these days? In fact, why are so many child behavior problems increasing? It's not only fighting; many kids also have a much harder time showing respect for authority, following parental structure, responding to simple directions and completing tasks. It seems like on all levels of measurable behavior, kids are falling further and further behind.

In my experience, all of these behaviors are part of the same larger issue. For one reason or another, many children are not learning the problem-solving skills they need in order to avoid getting into a physical fight. As a result, they develop ineffective coping skills.

If your child uses fighting as a coping skill, you may naturally feel frustrated and unsure about how to handle this issue. Often, parents panic when they start to wake up to the fact that things are getting worse with their child’s behavior. They react by using the same tools they used in the past, only they use them harder or louder or more punitively. The problem is that if your child isn't responding to your parenting methods in the first place, doing it louder or stronger probably isn’t going to change that. In my opinion, it's not that parents need to use their skills more intensely—it's that they need to develop more intense skills.

How Kids Develop into Fighters
Are some kids more prone to get into fistfights and shoving matches than others? Perhaps. Many children have difficulties solving social problems, and this can often lead to aggressive behavior. A social problem can be anything from learning how to get food when you’re hungry, to sharing toys, to responding appropriately when an adult says “no,” to not using drugs when your friends do, and avoiding unsafe sex. Most children learn how to handle these problems as they mature. But some kids get sidetracked at some point in their development, perhaps because of a learning disability or some other hidden factor. In any case, they don't develop the problem-solving skills they need to function at their level. These are the kids who often resort to violence and aggression—they use verbal abuse and fighting in place of the coping skills they should have learned along the way.

Sometimes we unknowingly misdirect our kids’ coping skill development by teaching them how to make excuses and blame others. When a parent says to a child, “Why did you hit your little brother, Tommy?” not only are they asking Tommy to make an excuse, but if he doesn’t, they’ll readily provide one: “Maybe you were angry.” The question “why” always indicates that we’re looking for an excuse or reason, when really what we want to learn is what he was trying to accomplish. So a better question is “What were you trying to accomplish when you hit your brother?” because it gets to the facts of the action. Why Tommy did what he did is not as important as what he was trying to accomplish.

Don’t Ask Your Child "Why"—Ask “What Were You Trying to Accomplish?”
The question “why” doesn’t lead to a change in behavior, but the question “What were you trying to accomplish” does lead to that change, because when a person tells you what they were trying to accomplish, there’s a window there where you can tell them how they can do it differently next time. If we’re not careful, by the time kids are five or six, we’ve taught them how to make excuses and justify inappropriate behavior. If they’re old enough to process this, you can ask them, “What can you do differently next time to accomplish this without hitting your younger brother or getting into trouble?" Younger kids often can’t process this yet, so you walk through it with them. Give them some suggestions: “You can go to your room; you can walk away; you can come and tell me that you need some time alone.”

There are many professionals who think asking “why” is important. They believe if your child knows why he did something, he’ll understand his feelings better—and if he understands his feelings, he won’t get aggressive. That’s not what I’ve learned from experience. For children and adolescents, understanding their feelings better simply does not lead to a change in behavior. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A child cannot feel his way to better behavior, but he can behave his way to better feelings. So we always want to focus on what the behavior was and then what the behavior should be.

The Three Types of Fighting
When we think of fighting, we think typically of two people getting angry at each other and coming to physical blows. But certainly, kids fight in many ways and for different reasons.

  1. Oppositional and Defiant Fighting: One form of fighting is being oppositional and defiant toward everything. These are kids who fight and don't even know why. And the more we try to explore the “why” with them, the more they act defiantly. These are the kids to whom parents are most prone to unwittingly teach excuses.
  2. Verbal Abuse and Temper Tantrums: Kids often fight by being verbally abusive; that’s how they strike out at you. The goal when you intervene with kids who are being verbally abusive is to teach them how to do things differently next time—the same as if they were fighting or hitting.
  3. Angry and Antagonistic Behavior: Sometimes kids get angry or antagonized by another child and hit them. Or two or more kids will have an argument that escalates until they come to blows. Some children are easily antagonized, and will often use a fist in place of other coping skills.

I think all of these kids who fight for these reasons have one thing in common: they simply have not developed their social problem-solving skills—whether it's an ability to communicate, accept boundaries, meet responsibilities, or get along with others—in a way that gives them adequate control over their angry and frustrated impulses.

Dealing with a child who is aggressive and gets into fights all the time is really tough; I understand that very well. I see a lot of frustrated parents today who feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Even though they have talked to other parents, read books and watched TV shows about parenting, they aren’t able to change their child’s behavior—and their own techniques continue to be ineffective. I'm not saying there's a magic cure, but I do believe parents need to seek out information and learn new skills as much as they can. Sadly, many parents put a lot of effort into getting a diagnosis for their acting-out children by going from therapist to therapist, but often they don't get enough information on how to become more effective parents themselves, regardless of the diagnosis.

Next week, James gives you practical advice on how to deal with fighting at home and at school. He’ll address the importance of talking with your child after he’s gotten in trouble for fighting at school—and tell you exactly how to do this, step-by-step. Be sure to “tune in” to EP for solutions from James Lehman that you can use right away.

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About James Lehman, MSW

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."

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