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How to Manage Aggressive Child Behavior

by Janet Lehman, MSW
How to Manage Aggressive Child Behavior

I’ve talked with a lot of parents who feel out of control in the face of their child’s anger and aggression. In fact, I can’t tell you how many moms and dads have said, “I feel like I’m failing at parenting." In my opinion, it’s not so important why you as a parent aren’t effective at times—what’s more important is what you do about it. The very first step is to be aware of the patterns that have been created over the years with your child. Ask yourself, “What's the behavior I’m seeing, and what am I doing in reaction to it?”

Intimidation, name calling, bullying or other kinds of acting out behavior are about your child and his inability to solve his problems appropriately.

Understand that patterns are particular to each person, situation and child. For example, some parents have trouble dealing with anger themselves. They jump right in, as soon as they hear or see a problem, and get in the kid’s face. This only escalates the situation because if you respond aggressively, it teaches your child that aggression is how you solve problems.  As a result, the child may not learn to behave any differently: he’ll also lose his temper and be aggressive. In contrast, some parents are more passive—but their child may become aggressive due to his parent backing down and not dealing with issues directly. Let me be clear: you can be a gentle, quiet person and an effective parent—the two aren’t mutually exclusive—but you still need to be firm and set clear limits.

Related: Learn how to set clear, firm limits with your child.

If you’re a parent who’s caught in an ineffective pattern of responding to your child, realize that change doesn’t happen overnight—it takes time.  How you respond doesn’t classify you as a “good” or “bad” parent—but it might mean that you’re part of the problem, and thus can be part of the solution. If your child is aggressive and acting out, it’s not your fault, but you do need to teach him how to do things differently.  

Your child may have a label, like ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Bipolar. But regardless of what your child is dishing out or what kind of label they have, you can still learn to be more effective. Aggressive behaviors need to change—and despite the labels, parents need to change, too.  As my husband James Lehman would say, “Parents need to be empowered in order to be successful.”  I truly believe that at any time in our lives, we are all capable of change. That’s true for parents and it’s true for kids. It may feel daunting because of the demands that are placed on you every day, but if you don’t respond to your kid’s aggressive behavior, things will only get worse.

The way you handle aggression with your child may change from age to age, stage to stage. Here are some tips to help you at various stages of your child's life.

Pre-school Age Kids and Aggression

1. Be Consistent: For younger kids, the key is to be consistent. You can’t ignore behaviors one day and respond by screaming at your child the next. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, try to be consistent. If your child has a problem with hitting his siblings, respond with something like, “Hitting is not OK. You need to spend some time by yourself and calm down.” Do your best to make sure you respond the same way every time.

2. Remove your child from the situation: Sometimes you need to take your child out of a situation to help him regain control of his emotions. If you’re at the grocery store and your toddler is having a tantrum and kicking at the shopping cart because you’re not buying the cereal he likes, you can say, “You’re making too much noise. We’re not going to buy this cereal, and if you don’t stop we’ll have to leave.” If your child doesn’t stop, follow through and take him out of the store.

3. Offer a pep talk ahead of time. If you know there are situations that are difficult for your child, give him a little pep talk ahead of time. If your child always has trouble when he goes to your relative’s house—let’s say he gets stirred up and starts hitting his cousins—it’s worth having a very brief discussion with him telling him what you expect before you enter the house. “You need to play nicely. If you start hitting him or hurt your cousins, we will leave immediately. Do you understand?”

Related: How to give consequences that really work.

5. Give time outs: Give younger children a timeout or a time away in a quiet place with some time alone. You can say, “I want you to be quiet and calm down. You cannot hit your brother when you’re mad. When you’re quiet for two minutes, you can come back and play with your brother.” Do very little talking and be very clear with your directions.

6. Coordinate with other caregivers: It’s important to remember that misbehaviors, like fighting and physical aggression, occur in daycare and pre-school as well. It’s part of the way kids learn to get along with each other, but you need to deal with it immediately if your child is aggressive. You also need to coordinate your intervention with the caregiver so that you’re both consistent. Check in with the caregiver regularly to make sure that the behavior is improving.

Elementary School Age Children

If you have a child in elementary school and aggressive behavior is happening on a regular basis, you need to have regular communication, probably daily, with the school to monitor this behavior. Find out what the consequences are at school—and make sure that there are consequences for misbehavior at school. You may want to encourage your child's teacher to be consistent with the behavioral expectations and the consequences for aggressive behavior.

Misbehaviors like chewing gum or running in the hall should be handled by the school—it’s their job to manage routine behavior, and you as a parent don't need to give an extra consequence at home for that. But behaviors that are physically aggressive or verbally abusive are about your child and his inability to solve his problems appropriately. This behavior should be followed up at home with a discussion and a possible consequence. 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 your child about alternatives. If it’s the first time something has happened, help him figure out where his coping skills broke down by having a problem-solving conversation, and then work with him on coming up with some appropriate ones. Ask him, "What will you do differently next time?" On the other hand, if the misbehavior has happened before, not only should you talk about where his skills broke down, there should also 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.

By the way, if these aggressive behaviors are only happening at school and not in other areas of your child’s life, it’s important to find out what’s happening. This is a little tricky because you don’t want to take the side of your child against the school—that’s not going to be helpful. But if your child who’s not aggressive in other situations is acting out at school, you need to find out why. Hear what your child may be saying about his classmates or the other kids. Talk to the teacher while still holding your child accountable for any kind of aggressive behavior. Certainly, if you see the same behaviors at home, have a consistent consequence and let the school know what it is.

At home, you need to set limits around aggressive behavior. Be clear with your expectations about your child’s behavior and what the consequences will be. You can either say the rules out loud or you can write them down; it often works well for kids to see things in black and white. Prepare your child by saying, “This is what I expect. If you can’t do what I expect, if you get aggressive or intimidating, then these will be the consequences.”

Aggressive Teens

There is no excuse for abuse, physical or otherwise. That rule should be written on an index card with a black magic marker and posted on your refrigerator. The message to your child is, “If you’re abusive, there’s no excuse. I don’t want to hear what the reason was. There’s no justification for it. There’s nobody you can blame. You are responsible and accountable for your abusive behavior. And by ‘responsible,’ I mean it’s nobody else’s fault, and by ‘accountable’ I mean there will be consequences.”

When your child is aggresssive or abuses anyone in your family, remind him of the rule. Say,You’re not allowed to abuse people. Go to your room.” Be prepared for him to blame the victim, because that’s what abusive people do; it’s an easy way out. Abusive people say, “I wouldn’t have abused you but you…” and fill in the blank. So your child might say, “I’m sorry I hit you, but you yelled at me.” What they’re really saying is, “I’m sorry I hit you, but it was your fault.” And if you listen to the apologies of many of these abusive kids, that’s what you get. “I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t give me a cookie.” “I’m sorry I called her a name but she wouldn’t let me play the video game.” What they’re constantly saying is, “I’m sorry, but it’s your fault,” and it absolutely does not mean they’re sorry. It means, “I’m sorry, but it’s not my responsibility.” And when a child doesn’t take responsibility for a certain behavior, they see no reason to change it. They’ve just learned to mimic the words. It becomes another false social construct that comes out of their mouths without any meaning or understanding behind it whatsoever—and if you buy into it, you’re allowing that child to continue his abusive behavior and power thrusting.

When children use aggressive or abusive behavior to solve their problems, it’s important that they learn a way to replace that behavior with healthier problem-solving skills. It’s just not enough to point out—and give consequences for—that  behavior. It’s also important to help your child replace their inappropriate behavior with something that will help him solve the problem at hand without getting into trouble or hurting others. Here’s the bottom line: if we don’t help kids replace their inappropriate behavior with something healthier, they’re going to fall back on the inappropriate behavior every time. That’s their default program.

Develop ways to have problem-solving conversations with your teen so the next time they’re faced with a similar situation, they'll be able to ask themselves what they can do to solve the problem differently, besides being aggressive or threatening. For instance, the next time your son calls his little sister names and threatens her physically in order to get her off the computer, you should not only correct him, but later, have a conversation with him when things calm down. That conversation should be, “The next time you’re frustrated when you want to get on the computer, what can you do differently so you don’t get into trouble and get more consequences. What can you do to get more rewards?”

I think the focus should be on how the aggressive child should avoid getting into trouble and being given consequences, rather than on how they should not hurt their brother. Abusive people don’t care about their victims. I don’t think we should be appealing to their sense of empathy and humanity. I think we should be appealing to their self-interest, because self-interest is a very powerful motivator. Look at it this way: if they had empathy or sympathy, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

I want to note that if there’s physical aggression to the point where you or other family members aren’t safe, you really need to consider calling the police for help. This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed as a parent. Rather, you’re recognizing that you need some support. I know that calling the police is not an easy decision, but it’s not the end of the world either—it’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s sometimes a way to regain control.

If you have a teen who’s been acting out aggressively his whole life, I want to stress again that even if these behaviors are ingrained, they can change—and they can change at any time.  When you start changing your response to your child and become more empowered, your child will probably act out more initially. You need to stick with it. It’s scary for kids when their parents begin to take charge. Your child has been used to a certain response from you over the years. In some ways there’s a sense of loss of control on their part. So as a result, you have to be a little bit stronger.

Related: Do you feel like you're not getting through to your defiant, disrespectful teen?

I also think it's vital to start structuring things differently in your home so that your child knows that change is happening. It may not be anything big at first, just something that says you’re back in the driver’s seat. You might say to your child, “We need to get you to be a more responsible part of our family. So when you get home from school, I want you to do the dishes. You also need to do your homework before you can have the car. If you don’t do those two things, you can’t have the car.” So you begin to set some limits. This is also when you need to start looking for things to change. Does the dishwasher actually get emptied? Is the homework getting done? It doesn’t mean that his aggressive behavior goes away totally; we’re not looking at a complete turnaround in 24 hours. Instead, we’re looking at those small steps that indicate that you’re in charge in the home and your child is not. Kids want their parents to have a sense of control; it gives them a sense of security and safety.

Changing and becoming a more effective parent can be a very long process. You need to keep sticking with it and understand that you can gain in your ability to be effective. The key is to be open to different ideas and different ways of doing things. Above all, I want to say this: don’t get discouraged. Things can change at any moment and at any time. In my practice with children and families, it was amazing to watch parents become more empowered. They developed a clear sense of who they were and how they could be more effective. And while your children are not going to thank you for becoming a more effective parent, down the road you will see them exhibiting the positive behaviors you helped them develop, which is the best reward of all.

*This article touches on some of the concerns parents have when they have a defiant, aggressive child. For a comprehensive approach to dealing with aggressive kids, my husband James Lehman and I created the Total Transformation Program for parents. It’s a step-by-step guide that helps you change your child’s behavior. Please click here for more information.


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Janet Lehman, MSW has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years and is the co-creator of The Total Transformation Program. She is a social worker who has held a variety of positions during her career, including juvenile probation officer, case manager, therapist and program director for 22 years in traditional residential care and in group homes for difficult children.

READER'S COMMENTS

I loved reading this article and actually got excited because I kept saying to myself, "I can't believe that she is describing my house!" I feel hopeless and helpless alot of the time but, you are encouraging and I pray that I can see this through and that my son will lead a productive and happy life someday.

Comment By : tiredmom

Parenting is as tough an enterprise as growing up. I really appreciate that you model some of the very behavior in your guidance to parents that we should extend to our kids; clear instruction, gentle problem-solving support, and encouragement without condemnation.

Comment By : imjjill

I have a 10 yo male child with ADHD. Just today I placed 100 dollars on the island in our kitchen for the house keeper, my son was the last out of the house this a.m. Later the housekeeper called to ask for her money, I know my son is responsible for this how should I handle this situation? HELP!

Comment By : Tana

Thank you so much for your great advice when dealing with my kids with aggressive behavior. But another problem comes up. My teen boy, lately is very irresponsible, he does not care if he does not finish his Kumon homework, get up late in the morning, do not want to study at all and do not put effort on anything and always give himself excuess. For example, when he lose on basketball game or receive bad grades in school he would always just say:"I just did not try hard enough " He keeps making excuess. His attitude always makes me so frustrated and I keep telling him, even the teachers tells hime the samething,"you are 13 years old, a teeanager already, you should be responsible on your own work and things you do" He knows he need to get good grade but he just keep saying without action. What should I do to him, I try my best to motiveated him but he does not puting work into action. I sometimes feel he is hopefless. I just feel how come other kids are so mature, able to plan their future and know what do do. But my son still act and think as a little kid. How can I make him act and think mature.

Comment By : Desperated mom

* Tana: Before you say anything to your son, stop and take some deep breaths. I know you must be really angry right now. However, accusing your son without any proof that he took the money is not going to be helpful. It is important that you take care of yourself and your emotions. Take some time to consider all the possibilities here. What else could have happened to that money? What other possible explanations are there for this? The best way for you to approach your son about this is by asking for his help, not accusing him of taking it because we have no way of knowing for sure if he did. Ask him if he has seen it, ask him to help you figure out what happened. If you have other kids in the house, have a family meeting and talk to everyone about it. Establish a safe place for your son (and other kids if you have any) to leave the money if he has it. If someone has the money and leaves it in the safe place, there will be no consequence. Let everyone know that if you do find out someone has it and didn’t leave it in the safe place, there will be consequences but it doesn’t have to turn out that way. Please read this blog about accusations: Ask PSL: “Is It OK to Accuse Your Child of Something without Concrete Proof?”. We wish you luck as you try to get to the bottom of this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To ‘Desperated mom’: I can tell that you are really frustrated with your son. You want him to do more on his own, you think he “should” do things on his own, but he doesn’t. 13 year olds can seem really grown up in some ways, but remember that in other ways they are still pretty young. A lot of kids your son’s age are not planning their futures and they don’t like to do homework or get out of bed. Be careful about comparing your son to other kids who seem to be more grown up or more advanced than your son. If your son senses that you’re comparing him to other children or that you feel he is “hopeless,” he will become even less motivated because he will start to believe that he can’t do what you are asking of him, so why try? It would be helpful for you to pick one specific behavior to focus on and help him figure out what your son can do differently to be more successful with that behavior, a specific plan he can use. He probably doesn’t have the skills to do better and he needs you to teach him. Also, ask yourself what you can do to help him. What kind of structure or limits do you need to set to hold him accountable? Your son may need you to look at your role as a parent a little differently in order for him to start to change. Parenting teens is very involved and requires that you do lots of skill development and hold them accountable. I am including some articles that talk more about accountability and problem solving for more information. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.
Good Behavior is not “Magic”—It’s a Skill The Three Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior
How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home
Do You Feel Like Your Child's Behavior is Your Fault?

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

This article came at the perfect time. I just received a phone call from my 13 y/o's school. During graduation practice he was acting up. So the teacher kept redirecting him. (He has ADHD) Apparently he told the teacher that if she didn't be quiet he was going to hit her. He was sent to the office and suspended for the rest of the day and Monday. His graduation is Tuesday. He has 2 graduation parties tomorrow. I will not allow him to attend EITHER of the two parties. Do you feel that this is a suitable consequence for his action?

Comment By : TiredMom

* To ‘TiredMom’: It can be really hard for parents to hear that their kids are making threats to hurt other people. It’s common to feel that it’s a reflection on you as a parent. It’s important to keep in mind that James Lehman felt that kids act out because they don’t have good problem solving skills. My concern about your consequence is twofold. First, your son will only graduate from middle school one time. This is a special time to be celebrated with family and friends. Once those parties are gone, he can never get them back. James Lehman does not suggest using something like this a consequence, which leads to my second concern: he won’t learn the skills he needs to prevent this issue from happening again. Here’s what will be more effective for you. Talk with him at a time when you are calm. Ask him what he was thinking when he said that, what was his reason for it? Talk to him about what he can do differently. You can allow him to go to the parties after you have finished your conversation and he has written an amends letter to the teacher he threatened that summarizes your conversation and offers an apology. You can hold onto the letter for the weekend and have him turn it in to the school when he returns on Tuesday. In the meantime, do your best to enjoy this special time. Take care.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Sara, thank you so much for your response. I too ended up feeling that taking away BOTH graduation parties was harsh. Instead I had him write a 5 paragraph essay where he explained action vs consequence & why it is not appropriate to threaten ANY human being. I also had him choose one of the two parties and let him attend that one. Since I was letting him attend one of the parties I also let him come up with an additional consequence that he thought was suitable for what he had done. He decided to give up his Xbox for one week as well. This website has truly been a Godsend. Thank you.

Comment By : TiredMom

I have tried these same things over and over. My child simply tells me what she should do and then does the exact same thing again. I got tired of the cycle and eventually spanked her. Guess what...the behavior has not happened since. Sometimes parents just need to be parents and stop trying all this talking and explaining nonsense. It doesnt work every time.

Comment By : Amazed

Reading your article on this topic highlighted how parents should conduct themselves when disciplining their children, especially when their children are acting up. I firmly believe that when a child misbehaves, the way parents react to the situation can exacerbate it without them realising it. Reading your article really touched on this point. I really like the sound advice you offer parents on how they should respond to their child's actions, which I think is sensible. On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and look forward to visiting this site more often.

Comment By : Rhys Klu

I have a 3 year old son that goes to daycare full time. Several times during the day he is mixed in with the age ranges of 2 1/2 - 4 year old children. Within the last year my husband and I have had 3 visits with his teachers about his behavior. He has been hitting his classmates. It started out with random children but now is focused on a particular child. I must also mention that the other child has been hitting my son. They are in the same class and have a love/hate relationship. However, I have been spoken to about the behavior issues while the other child's parents have not. I realize my son starts some of the trouble but he also tells me that other kids are mean to him. When we asked his teachers about this they tell us that might be the case but they don't always see it. The teachers are telling me that talking to him and time outs are not working and they don't know what more they can do and his behavior has become a real issue. The two boys cannot be split up into different classrooms either and the daycare said they should not have to do this anyway. When he is at home he doesn't always listen and occasionally hits us when he's in trouble but we thought this was just normal 3 year old behavior. He also shows some aggression when at home. When we are at social gatherings with other children (younder and older) he doesn't seem to have these issues. He gets excited but what 3 year old doesn't? We have read books to him about how hitting is bad and have even made up a book about him. These seem to work for a little while but he gets tired of reading the same book day after day. He knows hitting is bad and knows he shouldn't do it but yet it continues. Should we take our son to a doctor and have him checked out or is this something we can work on at home? We're worried he's going to get thrown out of his daycare and we can't let that happen!!! Any advice is much appreciated.

Comment By : Desperate Mommy

* To 'Desperate Mommy': It is certainly hard when your young child is acting up at school, and at home with aggressive behavior. You can take him to his doctor to have him checked out, and make sure that everything is going OK with him physically. It is also going to be helpful to talk with your son about what he can do instead of hitting when the other kids are mean to him. For example, maybe he can go to another area of the classroom, or go talk with a teacher instead. You can also talk about what he can do instead of hitting when he is at home. It is better to be simple and clear about this with younger kids; for example, “No hitting. Hitting hurts.” Then you can give a simple redirection of what to do with his anger, like stomping his feet or drawing an angry picture. This may take some time and practice with him at first, and that is normal. I am including a link to an article you might find helpful: Hitting, Biting and Kicking: How to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Young Children. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

My daughter is 9 years old (an only child). She has two half-brothers aged 18 and 17 (from my husband’s previous marriage but they do not live with us and visits us every 3 weeks and during school holidays). She has problems with friends at school and her good intentions and sense of humour are often misunderstood and then she becomes cheeky. Her existing friends make new friends and then they "take her friends away”, which makes her extremely angry and she becomes very aggressive and swears when she tells me about it. Also, when she does home work like preparing for a spelling test, I ask her to write the words down. When there is a mistake she will tear up the paper and throw the pen. What do I do? Help me please!!!

Comment By : Feeling incompetent

* To ‘Feeling incompetent’: It’s normal to sometimes feel that you are ill-equipped to help your child do well in life. Even the most prepared and effective parents cannot predict what kinds of challenges their child will face as they grow up. James Lehman felt that kids act out because they don’t have the skills to manage life’s problems effectively—problems such as being misunderstood, having a conflict with a friend, or getting frustrated with homework. The best thing you can do for your daughter right now is to help her learn some new skills to manage these situations that she is struggling with. We have an article about how to help your child when she is having issues with peers as well as one that will give you more information on teaching your daughter more effective problem solving skills. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Dear Sara, thank you very much for your insight. Your advice will certainly help me going forward. Regards

Comment By : Feeling incompetent

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