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.

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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.

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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, and the 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.

Related Content:
How to Manage Aggressive Child Behavior

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James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.

Comments (13)
  • Dr. Alexander Rieger
    Great article.
  • What about lying?
    What if your child lies about everything that happens in school? I mean, literally this child is incapable of telling the truth, even with full knowledge of the fact that he never gets away with it, he knows the consequences are only amplified, and he knows that we always knowMore the full story. Still, he lies. I've read many articles about lying and how it's an inability to cope with a situation in a truthful manner, but should I sit there and listen to his BS, knowing he's lying, and giving said BS an audience?
  • Lauinseville

    Hello, my 14 years old son is very challenging. He has Asperger which makes him be more inflexible and stubborn, have a lake of social skills, and he shows also oppositional behavior. We found out quiet late is condition and he started taking medication and working on social abilities 5 years ago. He is really improving, but this month I'm really struggling with him. He is getting back to the bully behavior he used to have with me, rising his hand like he is gonna hit me, insulting me and trying to frighten me or hurt me saying that he is better with his father. This happens every time he is asked to do something (brush his teeth, tidy his room). When he does what he wants and he is under no pressure, he is really lovely. But obviously I cannot let him have his way of avoiding responsibilities of his age. I'm struggling to keep calm as I really don't want him to get back to old behaviour (also now he is 1,80m tall, he really needs to control himself). And cannot say nothing to his father because he would say that my son is better with him then, and that it is my fault if my son doesn't respect me, for not hitting him hard if he tries to hit me so I scare him off... I don't think having my son having his way of going back with his father is the solution. I'm very patient but not enough. I give him consequences, don't let him have his way, but still it is exhausting, he always tries again and again.

    Do you have any suggestion?

    Thank you

    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent CoachEP Coach
      I hear you. It can be so challenging when a child starts behaving aggressively in order to get his way and solve his problems. It’s great that you have been doing your best to remain calm, and not reward this behavior by giving in or letting him haveMore his way. Something to keep in mind, though, is that if your son doesn’t have other, more appropriate strategies to use when he experiences strong emotions, he is likely to continue using the bullying, aggressive behavior. When things are calm and he’s in a good mood, it could be useful to talk about what he can do differently the next time he is told to do something. You can find some tips on how to structure this conversation in The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. I recognize how difficult this must be for you right now, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your son. Take care.
  • mike c
    My 13 yr old recently was caught cheating on a test in school and isn't 100% on top of home work assignments and I was in 7th grade once too and I get it. The real issue is that apparently he is being rather aggressive ( hitting, slapping, punching,)More other kids at school/on the bus/ in the neighborhood. (both boys and girls). He isn't getting caught by the teachers, but my girlfriends daughter and her friends are in the same grade and have been mentioning it and I had a hard time believing it because he is so good around the house. He had come to live with me this year because he needed a "fresh start" after living with his mom and moving every 2 years for the last 10 years and changing schools multiple times. He is well provided for and I hate to think he has become a bully or is acting out for some reason. But the incidents have really escalated lately and I am concerned. Is it a phase? I want to make sure to address this properly as I don't want him to end up jeopardizing his future if he ends up with assault charges. He already has lost most of his friends in the neighborhood and has become a bit of a loner and has nobody to blame but himself because of this behavior.
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I understand your concern for your son’s behavior, and I’m glad that you are writing in for support. When your child is becoming aggressive with others, it’s natural to wonder if it’s just a phase or if it’s something more serious. In general, aggressive behavior doesn’t tend toMore be a phase that your son will simply outgrow. I recommend directly addressing your concerns with your son, and helping him to develop more appropriate skills he can use instead of acting out. You might find some helpful information in our two-part article series, Is It an Adolescent Phase—or Out-of-Control Behavior? and Is It an Adolescent Phase or Out-of-Control Behavior? Part II: 8 Ways to Manage Acting-out Kids. I recognize what a challenging time this must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Concerned mom
    My 15 yr old has ADHD (refuses to use medication because his father told him he doesn't need it). The sad thing about this is my teenager knows it worked in the past with no side effects. He doesn't want to let his father down. He hasMore an IEP at his school which is great! He's getting the support he's needs from school. However he isn't getting good grades because of one or more of the following... He refuses to complete the work he's not interested in and or he doesn't hand work in on time, he refuses to take the help that is available to him, not to mention that when he is taking a test or completing school work he picks random answers instead of reading the question and answers. He shows us all that he really doesn't care about his education. He recently was in trouble for holding onto a vaporizer for a friend who was caught with it. Because of this, he is now off the basketball team. The next day when the school processed it with him he took ownership and was very saddened and angry. The same day he ended up in a fight with a kid that had been bullying him. His consequences came from the school which included 1 day suspension. He went to his father's house that day so I could not discuss this with him. His father wants to pull him out of this school because he feels they are not helping him. This is the only trouble he has been in this year. Last year there was a few behavior incidents with teachers and students and the year before was even worse. He has matured alot since 2 years ago. His behaviors have improved significantly. Do you feel his father is right about changing schools? In the past changing schools has never been an easy transition for him. I feel that the school has helped our son significantly with his behaviors. What advise do you have?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear how much you’re struggling with your son’s behavior right now, and I’m glad that you are here reaching out for support. Something we often talk about is that inappropriate behavior often occurs as a result of faulty problem-solving skills. Therefore, while consequences are important in holdingMore your son accountable for his choices, they are typically not enough if he is not also learning more appropriate strategies to use moving forward. In the end, the decision of whether to transfer schools or not is going to be up to you and his dad, using your judgment of what will be best for your son. Regardless of what you decide, I encourage you to work with your son to develop more appropriate problem-solving strategies to avoid getting into trouble. You might find some helpful tips in The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. Please be sure to write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family. Take care.
  • Kit
    Last Year my 13 year old boy developed quite the attitude.  He got into a fight in school, over the embarrassment of a situation with a girl.  He also has gotten thrown out of 2 soccer games.  I understand why he got mad, but I cannot find the right wordsMore to say to him when someone, for instance, is constantly pushing and tripping him on the field and to not do it back.  How do you explain to kids that he needs to turn the other cheek when someone is really provoking him?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      You ask a great question. One productive approach for

      helping your child develop better ways of dealing with challenging situations

      is having problem solving conversations with him. Sitting down with him at a

      calm time and talking with him about more appropriate ways he could handle his

      frustrations will usually result in better behavior. Sara Bean explains how to

      have these important conversations with your child in her article I hope

      you find this information useful for this situation. Take care.

  • Jkav

    My 9 year old had been always a good child but all of a sudden since past six months he had started getting involved in fights... Now it has become very serious, he picks up fights with children at school every now and then. He fights and then he just stickes to his story what he had imagined. He is not ready to accept the truth presented to him by his teachers. They have CCTV coverage in each class and in his school they take decisions after monitoring the recording of incident. Yesterday he hit one boy saying he stole his CDs which they all received from school, after investigation they found out that my son had kept his CDs on the desk and when they tried to tell him, he didn't agree to them. Even while talking to me my son is denying saying the CDs which are found on his desk are not his. His CDs are with the boy whom he hit.

    I don't understand why he is not accepting facts presented to him, he is not ready to leave the story he has in his mind about incident. Can you put some light on this issue?

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport


      What a challenging situation! It can be tough to know how to

      respond when you know your child is lying (you have video evidence!) yet he is

      bound and determined to stick to his story no matter what. Sometimes kids get

      so caught up in their own stories that, even when confronted with the truth,

      they still refuse to admit they are wrong or that they made the story up. As

      Janet Lehman explains in the article, there can be many reasons why

      kids lie. It’s important, though, not to lose sight of what is actually at

      issue here – how your son responded when he thought his class mate took his

      CDs. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter whether the other child took your son’s CDs

      or not. Hitting and fighting is not an effective or appropriate way of dealing

      with the issue. Instead of trying to make your son admit the truth, I would

      focus on helping him develop better ways of coping with the challenges he

      faces. The above article offers some useful tools for how to address this

      distressing behavior. Another article you may find helpful is We appreciate you writing in and sharing your story. Be sure to

      check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.

      • Jkav
        DeniseR_ParentalSupport Thanks a lot for supporting words. Yesterday, we met the school counselor and had a talk about same.  She too told that he is amazing child but whenever he gets angry he just looses all of his senses. The reasoning mind seems stop working. Normally he is very helpfulMore and works with the children who are lagging behind in finishing their classwork or project work. He takes care of classmates if someone is teasing them, but the anger is the issue which kind of becomes his enemy. We will keep you posted on the progress we make with the tips given in the article above and his school counselor. Thanks once again!
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