“You know the kid that no one wants to play with? The kid who stands alone at recess or lunch? Who never gets invited to birthday parties? That’s my kid. And it breaks my heart.”

When a child is aggressive toward others—hitting, screaming, pushing, throwing things—the natural response of others is to avoid this child. And this response—avoiding the aggressive child—is understandable, for it’s frightening to see kids whose anger has reached a point where it seems out of control.

But parents of aggressive kids know that this is also a terrible situation for the aggressive child who is just learning to make his way in the world and is not being successful. And is now being shunned.

If your elementary or middle school-age child is behaving aggressively toward others, it’s important to address the issue now, before it escalates to serious consequences such as suspension, legal problems or serious harm to others.

“It’s easy to feel vulnerable as a parent—embarrassed or ashamed that your child is the one on the playground that no one wants to get near for fear of his behavior.”

There are a variety of reasons a child may behave aggressively. Here are some tips when it comes to identifying why your child is aggressive.

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Don’t Assume the Reason for the Behavior

Don’t assume that you know the reason for your child’s aggressive behavior. The behavior is typically a symptom of an underlying problem that needs to be addressed. And that underlying problem is not always obvious.

We often guess at what’s going on inside someone just based on their behaviors. For example, if a woman is crying, we guess she’s sad. In fact, she may be angry, she may be scared, or she just have something in her eye.

Likewise, just because your child hits or bites someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s angry. He could be hurt, scared, sad, or feeling threatened.

Does Your Child Have a Medical or Sensory Issue?

It is important to determine if your child has a medical or sensory issue. We all have minor sensitivities. Maybe you don’t like scratchy sweaters or the way certain fabric feels. Maybe you doodle when you’re in a meeting as a way of self-stimulating. Usually the sensitivity is somewhat annoying, but bearable.

Understand, though, that some children are extremely sensitive to noises, lights, and sensations. And their sensitivity is often many, many times greater than the minor annoyances you experience.

For these kids, multiply the way the way that you feel by a hundred. It’s that bad. These kids feel as if they could come out of their skin sometimes. In a situation where they are over-stimulated, they may respond with behavior that is aggressive because they don’t know how to express what they’re feeling.

There are occupational therapists who can evaluate your child to see if there are sensory issues triggering or contributing to her behavior problems. Most schools offer occupational therapy assessments as part of special education testing. Contact your local school district office or your child’s school social worker if you think your child may need an evaluation.

For more information on sensory processing issues and children, please see this article from the The Child Mind Institute: Sensory Processing Issues Explained.

Rule Out Allergies

Rule out allergies to foods or environmental factors as a primary cause of aggression. One parent we know had her son tested for allergies and found that whenever he ate something with red dye in it (such as red licorice) he became very agitated.

If your child has episodes of violence or aggression, you may want to schedule a physical exam or occupational therapy assessment.

Keep a Journal

Track your child’s behavior for a week and notice what situations or feelings seem to trigger the aggression. Write your findings in a journal with dates and times and locations.

Again, don’t assume you know what your child was feeling when he hit or kicked someone. When the situation has calmed down and everyone is safe, help him identify what happened. Find out the following:

  • Was he feeling threatened by someone who called him a name?
  • Was he frustrated because he was told he couldn’t do something he wanted to do?
  • Are there particular situations or people that seem to trigger the behavior?
  • Was something bothering him or making him uncomfortable

The answers to these questions will help identifying both the problem and a solution.

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Is Your Child an Exploder or an Imploder?

When a child is experiencing emotions or sensations that are extreme, it’s going to come out in some way. Some children will explode. In other words, the emotion will be turned outward onto others, like an exploding soda can. Emotions build, and so at some point your child releases his anger, frustration, fear or hurt by lashing out.

Other children will implode. Their intense emotions will be turned inward. Emotions build and at some point your child shuts down or behaves in a way that is destructive or aggressive toward herself. She may even self-harm as a way of releasing those intense feelings that she just can’t tolerate.

If you suspect your child may be at risk for hurting himself or herself, we suggest contacting your pediatrician right away or, if that isn’t feasible, then you can get help finding services in your area by contacting 211.org.

Ways to Manage Aggressive Behavior

This rest article will focus on the exploder. Exploders are more common and tend to get more attention because their behavior becomes a problem for parents, peers, and teachers. If your child tends to explode, below are helpful ways to manage their aggressive behavior.

Be Involved

As a parent, it’s your job to guide and teach your child how to handle emotions and stressful situations. Understand that doesn’t mean it’s your fault that your child is behaving aggressively. It just means your child is experiencing something emotions that he isn’t equipped to handle. He needs you to show him how to deal with these emotions.

Create a Comfortable Relationship

Is your child comfortable enough to come to you for help? Or is she afraid you’ll get angry? Does she think that you will discount her by saying, “That’s no excuse! You don’t hit!”

Tell your child there’s nothing you can’t work through together and that you’re there to support her. Then show her, through your own behavior, that when you are upset (such as when you find out she bit someone), you handle your emotions in a way that is constructive, without exploding.

Give Your Child Words

Many children don’t have the ability to name an emotion they’re feeling. Your child may think he’s mad, but underneath he may be feeling hurt that he’s been left out of a game or social interaction. He may be feeling embarrassed that he didn’t know an answer in class.

Help your child identify the feelings that are causing his anger. Then validate those feelings as normal. Even though the behavior (screaming, hitting, throwing things) isn’t okay, the feeling that triggered the behavior is valid. You can say:

“Of course you felt sad when your friend left to hang out with someone else. But throwing rocks at him isn’t the way to handle it.”

Teach Your Child Coping Skills

No matter what causes aggressive behavior, your child must learn to cope with his intense emotions to function well in life.

Talk together about what helps him calm down. He may need a way to release energy that doesn’t impact others. Can he go to the gym and shoot some baskets when he’s having a rough day at school? Can he sit in a quiet room by himself to calm down? Does he need to avoid certain people or situations?

Some kids are triggered during unsupervised times at school such as lunch, recess, and the time between classes. These are times teachers have more difficulty monitoring. Does your child need to pass between classes a few minutes before others do? Ask your child’s school if this is permissible.

Also, don’t be afraid to enlist the help of teachers or relatives. But only if you trust their intentions and they truly want to support your child in coping positively. Present your ideas in a positive manner of helping your child behave appropriately with others. Don’t try to shame your child.

Try different things until you find what works for your child. And don’t be afraid to be creative.

Get Help With Behavior and Mood Disorders

Aggression can be part of a bigger picture. If your child continues to exhibit aggression despite your efforts to help her manage emotions, you may want to schedule an appointment with a counselor or therapist.

Chemical imbalances, ADHD and behavior patterns such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) can all contribute to aggressive behavior. In those cases – or if there’s a tendency to implode – your child might benefit from more intensive support from a mental health professional.

Try to Stay Calm When Responding to Aggression

Remain calm if your child does resort to aggression. Remember, it will very likely take some practice to replace aggression with new, positive behaviors. So try your best to stay calm and assess the situation.

If he’s behaving aggressively toward you, give him some space. Understand that trying to restrain an already agitated child can quickly escalate the situation further. If you can safely allow him to calm down by giving him space, that’s the best option.

Also, when you’re in the middle of the tornado, it’s not the time to talk about triggers or consequences. Instead, just reassure your child. Say:

“I know you’re upset. Take a few minutes to calm down.”

After the emotional storm has passed, you can discuss things such as triggers, why your child wasn’t able to use some of the positive coping skills you’ve been identifying with him, and ways to hold him accountable for anything he may have broken.

Related content: How to Find the Behavioral Triggers That Set Your Kid Off

Consider Consequences

Does the situation call for a consequence? That’s up to you, as his parent, to decide. Did he break something? If so, he’ll need to pay for it out of his allowance, his birthday money, or work it off in chores. Did he harm you or someone else physically? You can encourage him to apologize and take responsibility for his behavior.

Keep in mind that oppositional defiant kids may dig their heels in and refuse to apologize. How will you respond to that? You can go straight to the consequence if you believe it’s warranted. Or you may give your child a choice:

“Jake, you hurt your sister when threw that toy and it hit her. You have a choice: you can apologize or you will lose your video game for one week.”

Related content: Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work

Final Thoughts

A child’s aggression can be scary – not just for parents, teachers and peers, but for the child himself. It can be frightening to feel such intense emotions or sensations and not know how to handle it.

For parents, it’s easy to feel embarrassed and ashamed that your child is the one on the playground that no one wants to get near for fear of his behavior. Nevertheless, try to stay patient, even in the face of a volcanic eruption of emotion.

It’s ultimately your child’s responsibility to manage behavior appropriately, but there are ways you can support him in that journey.

Related content: How to Manage Aggressive Child Behavior

About and

Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline® for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence™, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

Comments (11)
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
    Anonymous253 We appreciate you writing in to Empowering Parents and sharing your story.  I’m sorry to hear about the way your sister is treating you, and you deserve to be safe in your home. Because we are a website aimed at helping people become more effective parents, we are limitedMore in the advice and suggestions we can give to those outside of a direct parenting role. It may be helpful to look into local resources, such as counseling or housing services, to help you address your particular issues, and to help you make a plan to move forward.  We wish you the best going forward. Take care.
  • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

    @Rachel 

    We appreciate you writing in to Empowering Parents and

    sharing your story. I am sorry to hear about the way that your cousin is

    treating you and other family members.  Because we are a website aimed at

    helping people become more effective parents, we are limited in the advice and

    suggestions we can give to those outside of a direct parenting role. 

    Another resource which might be more useful to you is the Boys Town National

    Hotline, which you can reach by calling 1-800-448-3000, 24/7. They have trained

    counselors who talk with kids, teens and young adults everyday about issues

    they are facing, and they can help you to look at your options and come up with

    a plan.  They also have options to communicate via text, email, and live

    chat which you can find on their website, http://www.yourlifeyourvoice.org/ We wish you

    the best going forward. Take care.

  • Ow0524
    Hello my cousin gets angry really easy he is mean and when he gets mean he his and screams I noticed this a lot when we play video games. It is usually him, his sister and I and he his and kicks his sister and does the same to meMore I have bruises from him. He is mean to adults. Should I tell his parents but I know they would just yell at him. I think he need help.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Ow0524 

      We appreciate you writing in to Empowering Parents and

      sharing your story. I am sorry to hear about the way that your cousin is

      treating you.  Because we are a website aimed at helping people become

      more effective parents, we are limited in the advice and suggestions we can

      give to those outside of a direct parenting role.  Another resource which

      might be more useful to you is the Boys Town National Hotline, which you can

      reach by calling 1-800-448-3000, 24/7. They have trained counselors who talk

      with kids, teens and young adults everyday about issues they are facing, and

      they can help you to look at your options and come up with a plan.  They

      also have options to communicate via chat, email, and live chat which you can

      find on their website, http://www.yourlifeyourvoice.org/

      We wish you the best going forward. Take care.

  • melan
    hello. i have 1 and only  6 yr old daughter..she is very sweet and lovable especially if you give her what she wants..most of the time she behave not nice to us..it happens when you ask her to do something like packing away her toys, to take a bath,  stopMore watching tv, time to study and when she do something wrong and we correct she got mad and scream ..she dont listen to us even we talk to her in a nice calm way.In school last year she spank her classmate ad we try to talk to her ,she understand and did not happened again.My problem is how can we (parent) approach her that she will answer in a calm way and not screaming?Please give us some advice. We are really greatful if you do. Thank you
    • Darlene EP

      melan 

      We hear from many parents who

      describe similar behaviors, so you’re not alone. It is common for kids to get

      mad or raise their voice when they are asked to do something they don’t want to

      do. They are trying to engage you in a power struggle and get out of doing what

      you asked. The best thing you can do is stay very calm, walk away, and ignore

      her protesting. If it does not get a reaction, it does not work for her. James

      Lehman talks more about this in his article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/managing-the-meltdown/. Thank you for writing in. Let us know if you have any further

      questions.

  • Burden
    My child has began to become defiant and aggressive, starting to hit me...
  • What Do I do next

    My 9 year old son is out of control, me and his mother aren't living together but we try to stay on the same page for the most part. He isn't as bad at my house, I'm the disciplinarian but at her house he punches, kicks and slaps his mom, today he kicked her in the crotch region and he lies, says he did nothing wrong, seems to have no respect for anyone and the threat of Military School doesn't even seem to work. 

    My son was diagnosed with ODD and he was seeing a counselor but nothing seems to work and I don't know where to go from here. He was kicked out of school for his behavior and now he's in a school that are certified to put him in holds if he's bad and he's been excellent at school. When he gets home he's an absolute nightmare but then there are days he's just such a nice lovable kid, almost like the excorcist has taken over his body. He has been to 3 counselors that end and nothing is ever done after that, they over no resolution but want him to continue counseling. He's seen his pediatrician and was diagnosed with ODD and he was on riddilin and it wasn't good and my son was feeling ill all the time from it. 

    Counseling is a waste of time imo, I'd love to try to help my boy without the use of drugs but if he has to take them then so be it, what is my next step? I'm lost and nobody offers any resolution, just take him here or there but it's an endless road of no help, I know this isn't a quick fix and there is no miracle drug to take this out of my son but there must be a place or a profession other than counseling that i can take him to to get help isn't there?

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      What Do I do next 

      Parenting a child with ODD can be extremely challenging, and we speak

      with many parents who are frustrated with an apparent http://www.empoweringparents.com/Why-Child-Counseling-Doesnt-Always-Work.php.  It’s helpful to keep in

      mind that sometimes it does take some time and meeting with a variety of

      counselors before you find one that is a good fit for you and your

      family.  I am pleased to hear that you are trying to co-parent with his

      mother as much as possible to create a consistent set of rules and expectations

      for your son.  We recommend having a clear rule that abusive and

      aggressive behavior is not OK, and letting him know how you will respond if he

      is becoming aggressive.  I advise only giving him consequences that you

      are able to follow through on, because telling your son empty threats and/or

      not following through on consequences will only serve to undermine your authority. 

      I also encourage you to problem-solve with him during calm moments about how he

      can handle difficult situations more appropriately.  Kim Abraham and

      Marney Studaker-Cordner, authors of our https://store.empoweringparents.com/product/the-oppositional-defiant-disorder-lifeline/, outline how to do this in their article http://www.empoweringparents.com/how-to-manage-violent-behavior-in-children-and-teens.php.  I

      recognize how difficult this is, and I appreciate your reaching out to us for

      support.  Please let us know if you have any additional questions.

  • Losing Hope

    My 12-year old was just diagnosed with Conduct Disorder and ADHD, and I'm struggling with how to cope. I don't always feel safe in the house with him. Some days he's happy and pleasant, but I am always on edge when I pick him up from the school bus. Anything can trigger him: a reminder that we're going to go to his brother's ball game...or I don't take him to Dunkin Donut on demand...or I don't believe him when he says that his school agenda is wrong, and that he doesn't have homework. At times he's shoved and punched me hard, thrown stuff at me. All the while spewing nasty commentary - most of it is made up (I don't know if he actually believes what he is saying, which would be ever scarier).

    What do I do when he goes from 0 to 100 in a few seconds? Sometimes I call spouse, but I want to be empowered on what I can do to defuse the situation. Lately I've been walking away or outside to give him space, but he will follow me from room to room, ranting, threatening and pushing me. He will not listen to any kind of talk during this rage. Once it's over, he's rather happy, sometimes even giddy, sometimes acting lovey dovey as though nothing happened.

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      @Losing Hope

      You bring up an important point: sometimes a child’s acting

      out behavior is so extreme, it causes http://www.empoweringparents.com/Abusive-Sibling-Rivalry-Families-Children-Teen-Behavior-Problems.php

      for other members of his/her family. I am so

      sorry you are dealing with such difficulties. I can only imagine how tough it

      must be to not feel safe in your own home. It may be helpful to contact your

      local crisis response and speak with someone

      there about developing a safety plan that can be implemented when your son

      escalates to the point of physical aggression against you or another member of

      the family. I would encourage you to continue to walk away when you see your

      son getting upset. This will help to lessen the chance of the situation

      escalating to an unsafe place. It’s not going to be beneficial to try to reason

      or rationalize with him when he is in this state. You can go back after things

      have calmed down to problem solve with him about ways

      he could deal with his anger and frustration more appropriately. Keep in mind,

      it’s OK that your son gets angry or disappointed. Those are normal emotions we

      all have. The real issue is his lack of

      skills for coping with the issue at hand. We have several articles that give

      great tips for how to help your son develop those important skills. Two in

      particular you may find helpful are The 3 Skills Every Child Needs for Good Behavior & The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”.

      I hope this information is useful. Be sure to check back if you have any

      further questions. Take care.

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