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.

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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.

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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?”

4. 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.

5. 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.

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.

Related content: Stop Aggressive Behavior in Kids and Tweens: Is Your Child Screaming, Pushing and Hitting?

About

Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

Comments (24)
  • EF
    I'm not sure why all these articles about aggressive kids say "tell the child to go to their room." My child absolutely will not. She's too big to physically make her go and she will absolutely defy any requests. (Whether it's to practice deep breathing or to go to herMore room and calm down) She just digs her heels in and keeps screaming / throwing things. I am starting to wonder if she has ODD so I'm taking your ODD course now. I have been asking for help from her pediatrician since she was 3. I'm a teacher, I know kids, I have other kids not like this, she's so different. Something has been wrong for a long time. Standard methods don't work with her. Keeps me humble anyway. :/
  • Michelle
    My son is very aggressive toward me. He is 16 and like 6ft. I try to not become aggressive bc it will just esculate the situation. Hes now involved with the courts. He doesnt respect authority school or police. Im getting so tired of the disrespect and nothing I doMore is working. They have locked him up. We have him in group of making good choices. Counseling isnt working. I am out of solutions. He cusses at me when hes done something wrong. I would never say things to my mother like he has said to me. Im wore down and think he is bipolar. He goes from one extreme to the next. Its like Jeckle and Heid. Hes a good person but when it comes to telling him what to do or punishment he becomes abusive. What can I do for him to find out why he behaves like this?
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I’m so sorry to hear about the aggressive behavior you are experiencing with your son. Although no parent wants to see their child locked up and involved with the courts, having your son experience the natural legal consequences of his actions can be a valuable learning experience for him.More It’s also normal to wonder why your son is behaving this way. If you feel that there might be some underlying issue contributing to your son’s aggression, you might consider checking in with the medical team at his facility, or your son’s doctor. Because a doctor has the ability to directly interact with and observe your son, s/he will be in a better position to rule out any additional issues, or provide referrals for follow up as needed. Keep in mind, though, that even if your son has a diagnosis, this does not excuse his violent or aggressive behavior as James Lehman outlines in When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”. I can only imagine how difficult this must be for you, and I wish you and your son all the best moving forward. Take care.
  • Jim
    What to do about a 6 year old who refuses to talk about his aggression at school? All we get is "I don't know" despite our best efforts to talk. He has an IEP, but is getting worse and worse. We are getting him evaluated to see if thereMore is something else going on
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      I hear you. It can be so frustrating when your child refuses to talk with you about what is going on for him at school. I’m glad to hear that you are having him evaluated, and taking steps to determine if there might be other underlying factors forMore his aggression. I encourage you to continue working with his teachers and the school to see if there are any common patterns or triggers for his aggression at school, as well as to hold him accountable for his behavior there. You might find some additional tips in Stop Aggressive Behavior in Kids and Tweens: Is Your Child Screaming, Pushing and Hitting? I recognize how challenging this situation must be for you, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your son. Take care.
  • Anon
    Your image is very triggering. Why not choose an image depicting the resolution of this issue, rather than the aggression?
    • Jim
      Life is triggering, its filled with unpleasant and scary stuff. You are much better off managing those scary feelings than try to spend your life avoiding them.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    @Mona 

    I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles you are having with

    your parents, and I appreciate your reaching out for support.  It sounds

    like you have a lot going on right now, between your studies at the university,

    your mother’s illness, and your increased responsibilities in the

    household.  Suicide is not the answer, and there is help out there. 

    In Pakistan, you can call the national suicide helpline at 15/115.  You

    might also consider looking into services available for you at your university,

    or talking with your doctor about the way you are feeling.  I recognize

    how overwhelming this must be for you, and I wish you all the best moving

    forward.  Take care.

  • Bobert1069
    When was this wrote?
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Bobert1069 Thank you for your question.  This article was published on June 3, 2011.  Take care.
  • Ross5ta
    I have a 6 year old boy who seems to be aggressive. He used to hug his schoolmate so tightly, because he finds her so cuite. And another case, he hug his male friend on his neck because he like him so much for playing togather. He is the onlyMore son and has no siblings. Other than that, he is very smart boy. He likes to analyse and is a perfectionist. Some say that he is ADHD..but i doubt so as he do not show any signs of them. I do feel like a failure. i do scold him but most of the times, i spoke gently on what he has done wrong. I am a working mum and most of the time he is in a childcare. Feel really bad each time, the teacher tells me this. :(
  • Fadijoin

    My 5 years boy is becomming very aggressive

    Especially with our new housemaid, he doesnt listen to her and keeps hitting her if she refuses any of his requests, this is making me very angry, i talked to him, i explained to him that she is ine of our family and that she supports her own children by working at us..

    I dont know what to do

    • Marissa EP

      Fadijoin 

      I can understand your

      concern about your son’s increasing aggressive behaviors. It is not uncommon

      for young children to act this way when they don’t yet have the skills to

      express their dislike of the limits that are being set in a safer, more

      appropriate way. It is important to establish a clear and consistent rule with your

      son that hitting, kicking or biting are never allowed. It is equally important

      to help him identify some safer tools he can utilize when he is angry or upset

      with limits that are being set. Dr. Joan Simeo Munson offers some great tips on

      how to do this in her article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/hitting-biting-and-kicking-how-to-stop-aggressive-behavior-in-young-children/%20/. I

      wish you and your family the best of luck as you continue to address this

      behavior with your son.

  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    @Anonymous 

    I a

    so sorry you have to deal with such aggressive behavior from your sister. I can

    only imagine how distressing it must be to face this while your mother is so

    sick. Since our website is focused on helping parents develop more effective

    ways of managing acting out behavior, we are limited in the coaching and

    support we are able to offer you. There is a website that may be able to offer

    you the support you are looking for. http://www.yourlifeyourvoice.org/

    is an online community for teens and young adults. They offer support in

    various ways, through e-mail, text, online chat, and a call in helpline

    (1-800-448-3000). I encourage you to check

    out their site to see what they have to offer. Best of luck to you and your

    family moving forward. Take care.

  • Tonia Jones
    I need advice on handling my 16 yr old son. He has made it clear that he wants to be his own personal and have his freedom. I'm willing to do that. A little at a time, he is on probation right now with the law. He is running fromMore us and not listening to us. Last night while camping he ran from us all day and punched out the window to my car. We waited for him to come back. Finally about 2 hours later my brother who lives about 30 miles from camp sight called and said someone dropped him off there. Should we call the police on him for our car window while he is already on probation?
    • Darlene EP

      Tonia Jones 

      I am sorry you are dealing with

      such aggressive and challenging behaviors. It is normal for teenagers to want

      more independence and freedom and it sounds like you are trying to balance that

      the best you can given the circumstances. Because I do not know the conditions

      of your son’s probation, I am not able to directly answer your question. What I

      would recommend doing is contacting his probation officer and discussing the

      recent situation with him or her. I hope this turns around for you and your

      family soon. Thank you for writing in. Take care.

  • Anonymous
    I'm having an issue with a little boy that I care for, he's almost 7 years old. I just learned that his parents don't do time-outs and kind of just tell him that his abusive behavior is not okay and then they just leave it alone after that. I'm notMore sure what I can do on my end because I do not want to tolerate any of his physically abusive behavior towards his little brother or myself/others. Time-outs were not working and he would totally shut down if I tried to speak to him about it. I asked his parents what to do, obviously they weren't much help. What do you think I can do? I'm only with them three times a week, it's difficult for me to have an impact on him when we're not all consistent in the way we handle his behavior. They are also home-schooled so he isn't getting any reaction from peers or teachers that I know of. I don't think he understands that there should be consequences for his actions when he's with me because he doesn't get any from his parents.  I think they're totally out of ideas for him and I'm nearing that point as well. I don't want to just ignore the problem because I don't want his little brother to think that it is okay for him to be abused by his older sibling. But I also don't want the older one to think that I'm constantly ganging up on him.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @Anonymous

      I can hear how discouraged you are that the approaches you

      and his parents have been using don’t seem to be working. It’s not uncommon for

      young kids to act out aggressively when they are upset or angry. At 7, this boy

      probably has a low tolerance for frustration. He also lacks the skills for dealing with

      frustration effectively or appropriately. That’s where his aggression stems

      from. Not giving too much attention to the behavior is going to be helpful.

      Setting the limit and walking away is a good way of responding in the moment.

      It’s also going to be beneficial to help him develop better coping skills by

      having problem solving conversations with him after things have calmed down. A

      great article for learning this technique is https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/. It is

      going to be important to coordinate your approach with his parents by checking

      in with them before moving forward with any of our suggestions. Best of luck

      moving forward. Take care.

  • Anonymous

    what should be done if a teenage girl (14 years old) of a divorced mother who wants to get marry again; hits her mom, become aggresive..verbally abuse her..& that mother can't defend it physically because she is not strong enough & that teenage girl screams very loud & hits her mom whenever her mom tries to tell her things nicely or stop her when she is hitting her younger sister..demands things most of the time, it could put that mother in a really helpless situation, she can't just sit & face aggression from her own child for whom she is been doing everything she could in her life, a verbal abuse is something that ''you want to get married for having sex..you are a bad mother..you sleep with people for money'' then throw things at her mom & physically hurt her, these things are being said just to stop her mother from getting married again & keep a hold on a house & her mom & younger sister, what could be done in a situation like that? where a child understands everything & is miss using the circamstances knowing nobody will support her mom?

    life of that mother could become hell...what could be done to stop this?

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @Anonymous

      What a distressing situation. It’s understandable you would

      be upset. A parent should never have to face such aggressive and abusive

      behavior from their child.  It might be useful to contact your local

      police department to find out if they would be able to offer you any assistance

      in this situation, as Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner suggest in the

      article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/how-to-talk-to-police-when-your-child-is-physically-abusive/. It might also be

      of benefit to look into available support services in your community. Working with

      a family counselor or being part of a parent support group might offer you and

      your family help in dealing with these challenging issues. The 211 Helpline

      would be able to give you information on resources such as support groups and

      counselors in your area. You can reach the Helpline 24 hours a day by calling

      1-800-273-6222. You can also find information online at http://www.211.org/. Best of luck to you and your family

      moving forward. Take care.

  • Dustin
    what i want to know is with the aggressive behavior why is it always a him? I'm sure that females have the same problems, just kind of feels a little sexist.
    • anonymous

      @Dustin Dustin you bring up a point that has been bothering me all the way through reading this information. As an elementary teacher, I agree with a lot of the information and find this helpful. I am nannying for a family this summer and I am trying to find more information about dealing with aggression for a 9 year old girl. It used to be that boys typically have aggression whereas, girls don't just like struggling readers and ADHD and dyslexia "typically found in boys"  which is not true. 

      In some cases they are not being sexist, it is easier to write "him" rather than "him or her" which I understand, at the beginning of college I used to do the same thing because I wasn't sure how to word it, I learned to write "him/her" instead. 

      Thank you Dustin for bringing this up.

  • Teengirl
    I have read a lot of articles and i would like to know for once what an effective in the moment or later on consequence is for a teen being aggressive. Could use a suggestion not a referral to another article.
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @Teengirl

      You bring up a tough situation. Many parents are unsure how

      to respond in the face of angry, aggressive behavior. Truthfully, it’s not

      generally effective to give a consequence in the moment. A better response

      would be to disconnect and walk away until the situation has calmed down. You

      can always go back after things have calmed down and hold your teenager

      accountable. One possible consequence might be loss of a privilege, such as

      cell phone or driving privileges, until your teen can go for 24 hours without

      being aggressive. If the aggression makes a situation unsafe, for either your

      child or other family members, we would recommend calling the police. I hope

      this answers your question. Take care.

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