When a child is consistently hostile through their words and actions — biting, hitting, or violently screaming — it’s tough for adults to keep everyone safe and stay calm as their fight, flight, or freeze responses start ramping up. No matter whether a child is lashing out at another kid, a parent, or someone or something else, seeing that much rage and violence come out of your little one can be terrifying and make you feel like a bad parent.
If it’s any comfort, some amount of aggression is not at all uncommon in kids. According to the Yale Child Study Center, “It’s not unusual for a child younger than 4 to have as many as nine tantrums per week. These can feature episodes of crying, kicking, stomping, hitting and pushing that last five to 10 minutes.” Even this developmentally expected aggression can be incredibly hard to deal with, but some kids are even more aggressive than that — between 3% and 7% of children and adolescents demonstrate aggression beyond what’s considered typical for their age.
Kids can lash out for many reasons, and each cause has its own considerations for how best to respond. But the basic path forward for most parents of aggressive kids is the same, says clinical psychologist Anjaili Ferguson, Ph.D. “Start with building a strong relationship with kids who struggle with aggressive behavior,” she says. “This may seem counterintuitive, but aggressive behaviors often come from a lack of connection and poor emotional coping strategies.”
Granted, some situations call for professional intervention. “If you feel like your interactions with your child are no longer enjoyable because they always end with aggression, your child appears more aggressive than peers, or your child’s school has reported aggressive behaviors that result in them being sent home early, it’s wise to seek some professional help to address these needs,” Ferguson says.
However there are many cases in which parents can help their kids become less aggressive and find better ways to express their feelings. Avoiding these three common parenting mistakes can help you do so.
Mistake #1: Being Too Hasty When Kids Are Aggressive
Hell hath no fury like a child who feels aggrieved by their sibling. A small argument leads to a smack. Soon, everyone is crying. And suddenly, mom or dad is bursting in from the next room to restore order by taking away screen time and doling out other consequences.
“These interactions ultimately strain the parent-child relationship over time,” Ferguson explains. “The more a child feels unheard, unseen, or unconnected, the more likely they are to resort to using larger behaviors like aggression to garner the connection they want.”
It’s in everyone’s best interest under these circumstances for parents to use self-regulation strategies on themselves so that they can, in turn, help their kids self-regulate. Modeling these techniques provides an even more powerful learning opportunity.
“The best way to respond as a parent is first to pause and take a second/breath before making your appraisal and judgment of the interaction,” Ferguson says. “Give yourself some brief time to determine the intentionality behind the behavior. When you address it, ensure your tone is neutral and calm, and draw attention to the behavior as being the problem and not the child.”
In a situation like a sibling squabble, a better course of action would be to have everyone sit and breathe together in silence for a moment before responding. Then, reaffirm a family value. For example, “It sounds like we were having a hard time respecting each other’s feelings,” or, “In our family, we treat each other with kindness and respect, so is there anything we could do differently to solve this disagreement?”
Let the kids take turns expressing themselves calmly, and be sure to echo back what they say as a sign that they’ve been heard. Not only are you more likely to have a more accurate picture of what transpired by doing this, but you’ll also buy yourself time to think through what parental response makes the most sense. It’s even possible to avoid negative consequences altogether if the kids reconcile things on their own.
“Kids often learn from what adults model. If they see adults in their lives respond to their environment/stressors in an aggressive or dysregulated way, that is how they will learn to manage their stress,” Ferguson says. That’s why it’s so crucial to join your kids in taking that deep breath and having a calm, solutions-oriented conversation about the fight.
Mistake #2: Giving Overly Harsh Punishments
Although it’s ineffective and unhealthy, many parents still use authoritarian tactics, harsh language, and anxiety-producing discipline like spanking to bend kids’ behavior to their will. But in the long run, these strategies backfire and can make some kids more aggressive.
“Often, parents who engage in harsh discipline strategies become stuck in a negative feedback loop, where child aggression and parent aggression become mutually influential,” Ferguson says. “Many studies have documented that harsh discipline by parents increases acting out and aggressive behaviors by children, and thus increases harsh discipline by parents.”
Although they may not constitute abuse, there are several common overly harsh discipline measures that are unhealthy for kids. Giving excessively long timeouts, yelling, and cutting kids off from school activities undermine a child’s sense of safety and security. And when people don’t feel safe, they tend to lash out in desperation.
Sure, you’re unlikely to find a discipline strategy that kids enjoy. But it’s essential to work on an authoritative parenting style that provides the right balance of structure and empathy to help your child develop a sense of security and positive self-concept.
Although no parent is perfect, consistency is vital, Ferguson says. “If a caregiver is consistent, kind, and respectful in their discipline approaches, that affords a child an opportunity to better learn from difficult moments, knowing that their parent is a constant who will support them through these challenging emotions,” she says. “This will enhance the attachment relationship, reduce anxiety and fear in the face of the parent, and ultimately reduce problem behaviors.”
Mistake #3: Discounting the Role of Impulsivity
Although people tend to think of ADHD as an issue of restlessness and hyperactivity, its relationship to impulse control shouldn’t be discounted when considering why a child might struggle with aggressive behavior. Kids with ADHD and other children who struggle with impulsivity may cross physical boundaries, especially if they have issues self-regulating their own use of force.
According to Ferguson, when parents address this kind of aggression as a behavioral issue as opposed to an impulse control issue, kids are likely to respond poorly to correction or discipline. Aggressive behavior due to impulse control issues tends to be reactive, like when a child responds harshly after getting bumped into at school or immediately overreacts in the case of sibling conflict. In these instances, the first step is to address impulsivity itself so that the child has a chance to think through appropriate versus inappropriate responses.
“If a child feels misunderstood, embarrassed, guilty, sad or frustrated by their parent’s response, they may respond with aggression due to a developing and less regulated emotion regulation system,” she says.
Ferguson also notes that some children with ADHD have comorbid conditions that lead to aggressive behaviors (and kids without ADHD can have these too). If you think your child might have a condition such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, talk to your child’s pediatrician about getting a referral to a specialist who is equipped to evaluate and treat more complex behavioral challenges.
Further Approaches To Help Aggressive Kids
Relationship-building is the first step in preventing aggressive behavior. This can sound overwhelming to parents who are already fatigued by the challenges of aggressive behavior. Luckily, the time required to connect with a child can be relatively minimal as long as parents are focused and consistent. For example, Ferguson suggests dedicating a special time of 10 minutes each day where kids lead the playing and parents are active participants.
“During this time, praise them, tell them how much you enjoy spending time with them, and limit all distractions,” she says. “Avoid questioning their play, criticizing how they’re playing, and commanding or directing them.”
She also suggests practicing co-regulation strategies and helping kids learn how to label their emotions when upset. Instead of sending them away or leaving the room when they’re experiencing intense emotions, stay with them and empathize with what they’re feeling, even if you can’t condone their behavior.
Try saying something like, “I know you’re upset, and it’s okay that you’re upset,” Ferguson advises. Follow that with, “I get upset sometimes, too. I’m going to be right here to help you calm down.”
Once the child has calmed down and can engage on a more rational level, it’s possible to explain why their aggressive behavior was inappropriate while expressing that it’s okay for them to experience big feelings as long as they describe them without hurting others.
“End with reminding them your love is not conditional to their behavior,” Ferguson says. “And then encourage them to make a different choice the next time they start to feel frustrated or angry.”