“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.
How to Manage Aggressive Child Behavior
Aggressive Child Behavior Part I: Fighting in School and at Home
Empowering Parents Podcast: Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher
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.
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Thank you for reaching out. The strategies discussed in the article would still apply even if the behavior is only being directed at one person. For more tips on effectively addressing aggressive behaviors, you can check out these articles: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/aggression/
We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.