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