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Aggressive behaviour in children

Aggressive child

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Seeing aggressive behaviour towards other children can be very worrying (and embarrassing) for parents. It is important that the aggression is dealt with appropriately to ensure the child doesn’t develop more serious issues. Sometimes the aggression is perfectly normal and understandable – after all, everyone gets frustrated occasionally. It can even be beneficial for a child to show their anger since they become an easy target for others if they don’t express when they’ve had enough. A little angry outburst once in a while will do your child no harm and is nothing to worry about so long as it is dealt with appropriately. Children learn by how you react to their behaviour so it is important to show them that they have acted inappropriately even if you feel they were justified in their actions.

Why is your child displaying aggressive behaviour?

There are several reasons why a child may begin being aggressive. Firstly, their cognitive ability (thinking) progresses faster than their verbal ability so they can think things they can’t say and feel things they don’t know how to communicate.  This can be very frustrating for a child, can lead to tantrums or aggressive behaviour, and is very often the reason for much of the behaviour demonstrated during the ‘terrible twos’ (and again at teenage!).

Just like many other members of the animal kingdom, human beings are territorial. However, one of the key reasons humans have done so well (in evolutionary terms) is that we learned to live and work together. A child has to learn this, whereas the instinct to protect what is theirs is innate. It takes time to show them how to behave in a socially acceptable manner, so give them the opportunity to learn this in a positive way. Show them how to share toys properly, so that they come to understand that sharing can be fun, and to realise that they get a turn too.

Attention seeking is another key cause of aggressive behaviour. A child may try to get attention in many ways, but they can guarantee that they get into the spotlight when they hit or bite another child (negative attention seeking). This type of behaviour is particularly prevalent if the child has a younger sibling who they feel is getting more attention than them.  Taking extra care to praise the good things a child in this position does can go a long way to stopping the aggressive behaviour. Giving them time when they are the centre of your attention will also help them to feel more attended to so that they are more able to accept when their sibling needs your care.

Angry young boy

Some things to remember when a child is behaving aggressively:


  • Consistency is key. It is crucial that you respond in the same way every time a child behaves aggressively. This can be really hard if you are out, or if another parent is not responding to their own child’s behaviour as it can make you feel mean for reprimanding your child. Don’t be tempted to accept bad behaviour in the interests of being ‘fair’. Put your own child first and remember that you are not being mean but helping them to be a better person, regardless of how other parents (or the old lady behind you in the supermarket queue) choose to respond.
  • Children learn from how others react. If you shout or smack a child when you are cross with them, that is how they will behave when they are cross too. Try to keep calm and talk to them rather than losing your temper.
  • Use ‘time out’ if they are very upset or angry. In mid-tantrum no amount of conversation will get through to them. Give them time to calm down, then talk to them about what happened in a calm manner.
  • Prevention is better than cure. Look out for situations that may make a child behave aggressively and try to avoid letting them escalate. For example, if they get particularly protective over a specific toy, try leaving that one at home rather than taking it to where other children may touch it.
  • Give lots of attention to good behaviour. Praise your child whenever you can so that they don’t feel the need to seek your attention through disruptive behaviour.  If the child is having a ‘bad day’ try giving them a task or game to play that you know they can succeed with – this can break the downward spiral of bad behaviour and reprimanding that some children fall into.
  • Give children warning time. Asking a child to leave an activity they are really enjoying can lead them to feel frustrated and confused. Try warning them that it is nearly time to go 5 minutes early so that they have time to get used to the idea of leaving.

If you feel that your child’s behaviour is getting out of control, ask your health visitor, playgroup or school to help you.



About Toni Foot

About Toni Foot

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