How to Manage Aggression in Children

Children under 4 years old can have up to nine tantrums weekly, which is probably no surprise if you're in the thick of parenting a preschooler. While it can be shocking to see your young child getting aggressive towards you or others, it's a natural expression of the frustration that comes from their rapid growth during this phase. 

Children between the ages of 18 months and 4 years are starting to want to do things themselves. But their abilities don't always match up with their wants, and the result is frustration. Their aggression often comes mainly from that frustration.

The good news is that aggressive behavior usually starts to taper off as children develop language skills and learn to express themselves better. In the meantime, there are steps you can take to help manage and reduce aggressive behavior in children. 

Focus on Your Relationship

When dealing with an aggressive kid, it can be hard to stay calm. This can get children with behavior problems stuck in a loop. Their behavior frustrates their caregivers, who then get angry with them, which causes more behavior problems. It can seem like you're always punishing your child.

Instead, try to focus most of your disciplinary tactics on aggressive and antisocial behavior, like causing injury or property damage. Studies show that ignoring such behavior can cause it to escalate. Even if you choose to overlook other types of misbehavior to keep your relationship positive, you shouldn't overlook aggressive behavior or give in to tantrums.

Help Your Child Deal With Aggression

Until your child is old enough to do more self-regulating, they will need your helping preventing and deescalating their aggressive tendencies. Here are some steps you can take to help your child:

  • Focus on good behavior. Whenever your child is behaving appropriately, encourage it, or at least let them know you've noticed. You don't have to give them a treat for being good, but encouragement can go a long way towards reinforcing the behavior you want to see. 
  • Stay calm. Though it can be difficult, staying calm in the face of your child's overwhelming emotions will help diffuse them. It will also keep you from getting into the cycle mentioned before.
  • Name emotions. You can help your child learn to express their emotions appropriately by naming them. This validates what your child is feeling and encourages them to express themselves by talking instead of misbehaving.
  • Identify triggers. Notice when your child is most likely to lash out and try to prevent it. Give your child plenty of warning before transitions that may upset them. 
  • Set goals. Work with your child to set goals and rewards for appropriate behavior. Don't focus on financial or material rewards, though. Instead, offer a reward like getting to choose the movie for movie night or going on a special outing with a parent.

Continued

Causes of Aggression in Children

Beyond normal child development, there are underlying issues that may cause aggression in children, particularly once children are old enough to express themselves verbally. Some of these include: 

  • Mood disorders such as bipolar disorder
  • Psychosis such as schizophrenia
  • Frustration, particularly in children with cognitive or communication disorders such as autism
  • Impulsivity, which can occur in kids with ADHD
  • Conduct disorder, which is marked by aggressiveness
  • Trauma, which can be caused by outside circumstances
  • Injuries, such as damage to the brain's frontal lobe or certain types of epilepsy 

If you know that your child has any of these issues, you will need to be more patient with them. These issues are out of their control, and it can hurt your relationship if they feel like they are being disciplined or punished unfairly.

When to Seek Help

If your child's aggressiveness doesn't seem to be related to a developmental stage and lasts for longer than a few weeks, you should call your pediatrician. You should also seek help if you can't cope with the behavior on your own. Some other warning signs that your child may need help include: 

  • Causing physical injury to themselves or others, including bite marks and bruises
  • Attacking you or other adults
  • You fear for the safety of those around your child
  • Being sent home or banned from school or playing with friends

The most important warning sign is the frequency of the incidents. Some children who have issues like conduct disorder may go for a week or more with no outbursts but can rarely go as long as a month. There are effective methods that can help discourage bad behavior and reward good behavior in children with underlying disorders. They can be effective at home and in other settings. While they may take a while to work, such programs are more effective if you start them when the disorder is still developing. 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 02, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:

Child Mind Institute: "What Are Some of the Causes of Aggression in Children?"

Cleveland Clinic: "6 Ways to Deal With Your Child's Aggressive Behavior," "7 Tips to Help You Survive Your Toddler’s ‘Terrible Twos’"

Healthychildren.org: "10 Tips to Prevent Aggressive Toddler Behavior."

Parenting Science: "Disruptive behavior problems: 12 evidence-based tips for handling aggression, defiance, and acting out."

Yale Medicine: "Anger, Irritability and Aggression in Kids."

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