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

by James Lehman, MSW
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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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."


WOW!! This is great! I have 4 teens who, in any combination, fight almost daily for all three reasons! I am DEFF going to start asking "what" instead of "why"!!

Comment By : Tygermomof4

Reading your article and listening to your tapes I think what you say makes sense and confirms much about what I am learning about being autonomous.I know that without changing ones behavior or faulty thinking information alone will not bring results. If I do not change my behavior then I know my grandchild will not have a chance to learn coping skills that are more mature.I understand why asking "why" and not "what happen" does not solve the problem and only brings about excuses.It is easy to slip into old patterns so these articles keep me thinking. Thank you for the intelligence you bring to parenting.

Comment By : Libby

What great and yet simple advice that one question is: "What are you trying to accomplish?" I plan to use it early and often whenever my child gets out of line. Maybe he will start thinking about how to solve problems in the appropriate manner. Thank you, James Lehman.

Comment By : Worried Mom

My daughter is 6 and won't understand the word accomplish so I'm going to have to change it to something else. I can't wait for next week's article because I need your advice SO BAD in regards to her fighting at school!!!

Comment By : desperateinpa

Thank you so much. I work as a therapist at a residential facility with boys ages 12-18. I have one boy in paritcular who provokes, fights, and annoys others constantly. I read this article yesterday and today in group when he began these behaviors I asked him what he was trying to accomplish instead of why he did it. He tried about two more times but using the same approach almost instantly shut down his behavior. Amazing. I always read the articles here and have found them very helpful, both to suggest to parents and for myself. But this was the first time something so simple had such a wonderful effect.

Comment By : Residential therapist

Thank you for your two questions about diffusing the fighting teens by asking what were you trying to accomplish and how can you respond differently next time.And thank you for the two statements about the child cannot feel his way to better behavior but he can behave his way to better feelings. I purchased the total transformational kit but I was the only one who changed my ways. My children have a lot of growing up to do. Thank you James Lehman for your brilliant kit and wisdom to teach parents a better way to teach our children. Alisha

Comment By : Alisha Eaglenest

I have three nephews who are constantly yelling at (more like is deafening sometimes) and hitting each other...sometimes making the 11 year old cry (16 year old twins). Not my place to intervene, but yet this gives me some ideas on how to help me help them when they are with me.

Comment By : The Aunt

I have a 7-year-old who says kids call him names on the school bus and he hits them. We've made a move to another state and I understand he had problems adjusting. He seems to be doing better in class, but the bad behavior on the bus isn't stopping. He's really a sweet, funny, and intelligent kid. It's really sad that these other kids only see this bad behavior. We've walked him through it all... he needs to tell someone about the name-calling, rather than hitting and getting in trouble for it. And that hitting is wrong, it isn't going to make someone like you, and it isn't going to stop the name-calling. We've also issued consequences for the bad behavior, as well as rewards for the good days. I'm at my wit's end and am considering professional counseling or a "scared straight" program. Please tell me there's something else I can do!

Comment By : KnoxMom

* Dear KnoxMom You’re correct to tell your son that hitting is not an option when he’s upset. Tell him what he can do when he’s upset, such as ‘count to ten’ and slow down his breathing. In additional to holding your son accountable for his actions, challenge the school to provide a better environment on the bus. Your son deserves to ride the bus and not be bullied. Contact the school and ask to speak to the bus driver to see what can be changed. Perhaps there could be a parent monitor who rides the bus that can be made aware of the bullying and intervene.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Thanks so much, Carole... I really, really appreciate it. We will try all of your suggestions ASAP! :)

Comment By : KnoxMom

My 16 year old daughter is not physically aggressive but is verbally aggressive. She dislikes any rules or schedules. For example, if her teacher says do not use the phone she will do exactly that. With me she is very aggressive. She just does not listen to anything that I say. She makes me think that whatever I tell is wrong and does exactly the opposite. Now I have a report from her school that she curses and swears. I am at a loss as I never swear or curse.

Comment By : SG

I find myself asking why all too often. It just seems to fly right out of my mouth when I am confronted with my child's inappropriate behavior, because that is my first thought. I am excited to start trying the what instead of why.

Comment By : rierayh

Thank u James for taking time to help me understand an effect ways to help my 10yr son.I'm a single mom not we r not out doing things weuse just lost job so money is an issue..he don't get rewards like he use..talkn back wrecking room omg what a mess..not diing home work...teacher calling it's fifth grade omg help....he's such a good kid most if timeso any input will be greatly appreciated ...I would luv all help so he can be happy guy once again.......

Comment By : badkittens

* To “badkittens”: Thank you for writing in and sharing your story. I am sorry to hear you have been having these hardships. Being a single parent can be difficult enough without the added strain of poor health and financial challenges. I am sure you are doing the best you can right now. It is possible to reward your son with non-monetary things, like a trip to the skate park or spending one on one time with you doing an activity like a game or craft. It’s also possible to use everyday privileges, such as TV time, computer time or video game time, to motivate him to complete his daily tasks. For example, you could link his television privilege to him completing his chores. Or you could let him know that as soon as his homework is complete he can outside and play with his friends. It’s also going to be beneficial to coach you son to help him make better choices. Here is a link to an article that addresses how to coach your child: Why Consequences Aren't Enough, Part 1: How to Coach Your Child to Better Behavior. We wish you and your son the best as you work through this challenge. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Well. I have a 12 year old who has been out of control for 10 years. I have tried therepists, psychologists, school programs for behaviour..nothing has worked. He is on a 20 day suspension right now and this is suspension #8 for this year and its only been 3 months. He swears, screams, throws things, punches holes in walls and doors and his screen window is punched out. He says no, he doesn't listen, he has attitude, is rude and ignorant, and doesn't care at all. He also lacks a heck of a lot of respect. My health is just going down the drain over this and so is my relationship with his step dad for 6 yrs. I also have a 14mth old son. Today is the first day he took his anger out and his little brother got pushed down. Tell me I need this program. And a 'scared straight' program. The success rate for those places are slim anyways. Please help me. How can I get my hands on a copy???

Comment By : Vincesmom

* To “Vincesmom”: Thank you for writing into Empowering Parents and sharing your story. It does sound as if you have been dealing with some very challenging behaviors over the years. I’m sorry to hear this is starting to have an effect on your health and is also starting to affect your younger child. Many parents are challenged with knowing how to respond to such defiant behaviors. The Total Transformation program has helped hundreds of thousands of parents become empowered by teaching them more effective ways of parenting defiant children. You can find information on this and our other parenting programs here: The Total Transformation Program. I would also encourage you to continue reading our articles on Empowering Parents. Here are a couple you may find informative: Calm Parenting: Stop Letting Your Child's Behavior Make You Crazy & My ODD Child is Physically Abusive to Siblings and Parents—Help!. When a child begins to act out physically it can create an unsafe situation for other family members. Another thing you might consider is contacting your local police department. We would suggest calling the non-emergency or business line and inquiring how they might be able to assist you when your son acts out physically towards his younger brother or anyone else in the family. Take care and keep in touch.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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