There are times when even the most docile children appear to have the aggressive tendencies of a professional wrestler. While a certain amount of pushing and shoving is to be expected from all children, especially when they are very young, there are a few for whom aggression becomes a way of coping with almost any situation.
These overly aggressive children are not bullies; they often get into fights with people who are stronger than they are. They face problems not because they are aggressive, but because they become aggressive at times that are inappropriate and in ways that are self-defeating. They routinely argue with teachers and wind up in far more than their share of schoolyard scraps.
Dr. Lawrence Kutner is a nationally known clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, where he’s co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media. He’s the author of five books, including: Parent & Child: Getting Through to Each Other; Pregnancy and Your Baby’s First Year; Toddlers and Preschoolers; Your School-Age Child; and Making Sense of Your Teenager.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
In some cases, this pattern of easily triggered aggression appears to be rooted in the children’s developing nervous systems. They appear to be physiologically unable to control their impulses as much as other children their age. For others, it is often a matter of needing to learn and practice social skills.
Aggression is one of the first responses to frustration that a baby learns. Grabbing, biting, hitting, and pushing are especially common before children develop the verbal skills that allow them to talk in a sophisticated way about what they want and how they feel.
Children are often rewarded for their aggressive behavior. The child who acts out in class generally gets the most attention from the teacher. The child who breaks into the line to go down the slide at the playground sometimes gets to use the slide the most. One of the toughest problems parents and teachers face in stopping aggressive behavior is that in the short term it gets the child exactly what he wants. It’s only after a few years that inappropriately aggressive children must cope with a lack of friends, bad reputations, and the other consequences of their behavior.
For some children, this tendency toward physical aggression and other difficult behaviors appears to be inborn. There’s some evidence that a proportion of these children may be identified as restless fetuses that kick significantly more than other fetuses. Many very aggressive children are noted to be restless infants even before they begin to crawl and walk.
These overly aggressive children appear to have less mature nervous systems than other children their age. This shows up in a variety of problems with self-control. They cannot sit still for more than a few minutes. They are easily distracted. Once they begin to get excited or angry, they have difficulty stopping themselves. They are impulsive and have trouble concentrating on a task for more than a few minutes or even seconds.
Coping with a Very Aggressive Child
It’s difficult for adults not to attribute malicious motives to children who consistently appear to be trying to drive their parents and teachers to distraction. Often it’s equally difficult for parents not to assume that children are behaving this way because of something the parents have done wrong or have forgotten to do right. Such casting of blame, however, is not only inaccurate but usually useless as well.
The first step in helping an overly aggressive child is to look for patterns in what triggers the assaults, especially if the child is a toddler or preschooler. The aggression may happen only at home or only in public places. It may occur mostly in the afternoon or when the child is frustrated. Also, most of these children go through a predictable sequence of behaviors before they lose control. It’s a bit like watching a car going through a normal acceleration and then suddenly kicking into overdrive.
Once you can determine the most common triggers and can spot the escalating behavior, the simplest thing is to remove the child from that environment before he loses control. Take him away from the sandbox or the playgroup for a minute or two until he regains his composure. As the child develops, he will become less frustrated and, therefore, less aggressive because he has a wider variety of ways to respond to a challenging situation.
It’s also very useful to provide these aggressive and distractible children with a lot of structure and routine in their daily lives since predictability helps children remain calm and in control. Tempting as it may be at the time, spanking these children for being aggressive often does more harm than good. It is simply modeling the very thing you don’t want children to do. It teaches them that big people hit when they’re angry or upset, and that is precisely the aggressive child’s problem.
For older children and adolescents, teaching new and more appropriate ways of getting what they want can be very helpful. These children often have not learned the skills that their classmates picked up years earlier. As with bullies, formal assertiveness training can be particularly helpful to overly aggressive children since they have difficulty distinguishing between assertiveness and aggression.
It’s also useful to help these children look at life from a slightly different perspective. Psychologists have found that both aggressive children and their parents tend to focus on what’s wrong with a situation rather than what’s right with it. That makes their respective problems all the more frustrating for each of them, since neither pays any attention to the children’s improvement when it occurs.