Anger and aggressive behavior in children (2024)

Temper tantrums may continue well after the toddler years, as your child figures out how to cope with strong emotions like frustration and anger. Aggressive behavior in young children can be typical while they're still learning self-control. To help an angry child, start by doing your best to stay calm and consistent. If your child's behavior is unusually aggressive for more than a few weeks, they're hurting others, or they're causing serious problems at home or school, get help.

Why is my child so angry?

An angry child is most likely feeling some sort of distress. The trick is to figure out what the trigger is. It could be as simple as your child being tired and hungry, or it could be more involved. Some common reasons your child may be angry:

  • Frustration is a common trigger. Your child may simply want to do something they can't, or not want to do something that you want them to do.
  • Anxiety can manifest as anger and aggression. If your child is anxious, and isn't supported in expressing their fears, they may have a hard time coping when they're distressed.
  • Medical issues that can result in anger include ADHD, autism, and sensory processing disorders.

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While all children will be angry at times, there are some signs that a child's anger is excessive. Talk to your child's doctor if their behavior is:

  • Unusually aggressive for longer than a few weeks
  • Dangerous to themselves or others
  • Causing serious trouble at school
  • Affecting their ability to get along with other children
  • Causing conflict at home and disrupting family life

Also talk to the doctor if your child is physically aggressive with other children, you, or other adults.

Why are children aggressive?

Aggression is a normal part of a child's development. Many children grab toys from classmates, hit, kick, or scream at times.

A younger child is still learning all kinds of new skills, from using scissors to speaking in complex sentences. Their brains are developing key emotion regulation skills such as impulse control. Kids can easily become frustrated with everything they're trying to accomplish and end up lashing out.

If your child is attending daycare or preschool for the first time, they're also getting used to being away from home. If they feel nervous, they might react by shoving the next kid who annoys them.

Other times, your child may simply be tired and hungry. They don't quite know how to handle it, so they respond by biting, hitting, or throwing a tantrum.

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Even an older, school-age child may continue to have trouble controlling their temper. A learning problem could make it tough for them to listen, focus, or read – hampering their performance in school and causing them frustration. Or perhaps a recent change (such as a divorce or an illness in the family) is stirring up more hurt and anger than they can deal with.

Whatever the cause of your child's aggression, it's likely they'll eventually develop more self-control. They'll learn to use words instead of fists and feet to solve their problems. The key is supporting their emerging skills with lots of patience andopportunities to practice.

That said, not all kids will grow out of aggression without extra help. Talk to your child's doctor if your efforts don't seem to be having an effect.

What to do if your child hits you or others

First, set clear rules that hitting is unacceptable behavior. If your child hits another child, immediately separate them and tend to the other child before addressing your child. To teach your child empathy, say "I know you're angry, but don't hit. Hitting hurts." To help your child manage their aggression, follow the steps in the next section.

If your child hits you, try to stay as calm as possible. Say that hitting other people isn't okay, and offer an alternative such as hitting a pillow or ripping up paper. Repeated aggression towards you or other adults is a sign to contact your child's doctor.

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What can I do about aggression in my child?

Set an example. No matter how angry you are, try not to yell or tell your child they're bad. Rather than getting your child to change their behavior, doing that simply teaches them that verbal and physical aggression are the way to go when they're mad. Instead, set a good example by controlling your temper and calmly pulling them out of the action, as needed.

Respond quickly. Try to respond immediately when you see your child getting aggressive. It's tempting to wait until they hit their brother for the third time before saying, "That's enough!" (especially when you've already reprimanded them for countless other transgressions in the last hour). Even so, it's best to let them know instantly when they've done something wrong.

Remove them from the situation to help them calm down. You can say "I see you're having a hard time right now controlling your body."

Stick to your plan. As much as possible, respond to aggressive acts the same way every time. The more predictable you are, the sooner you'll set up a pattern that your child comes to recognize and expect. With repeated gentle guidance from you, eventually they'll learn more appropriate strategies for expressing their angry feelings.

Even if your child does something to mortify you in public, stick to the game plan. Most parents understand your situation – they've been there before.

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Talk to your school-aged child. Let your child cool down, then calmly discuss what happened. The best time to do this is after they've settled down but before they forget the whole thing – ideally, 30 minutes to an hour later. Ask if they can explain what triggered their outburst. ("Why do you think you got so mad at your friend?")

Explain that it's perfectly natural to get angry sometimes, but it's not okay to shove, hit, kick, or bite. Suggest better ways of showing how mad they are: by kicking a ball, pounding their fist into a pillow, finding an adult to mediate the dispute, or simply voicing their feelings to a friend: "I feel really mad because you took my book."

Another way to help your child deal with their emotions is to try "time-ins" (as opposed to time-outs). Whenever your child blows up, stop what you're doing and ask them to sit down with you and be quiet for a moment.

If they'll let you, put your arm around them or hold their hand. Then, after a few minutes of peace, briefly discuss what happened and how they might have handled their anger differently. The idea is to teach them to recognize and understand their emotions while considering other options for expressing them.

It's also a good time to teach them to walk away from infuriating situations and people until they can think of a better way to respond than letting fists fly. You can help your child deal with their anger by reading books together on the topic. Try Aliki's Feelings or When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Maude Spelman.

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Reward good behavior. Rather than paying attention to your child mostly when they express negative feelings, try to catch them being good – when they ask for a turn playing a game instead of snatching the tablet away, for instance, or give up their swing to another child who's been waiting.

Tell them how proud of them you are. Show them that self-control and conflict resolution are more satisfying – and get better results – than shoving or hitting other kids.

Teach responsibility. If your child's aggression damages someone's property or makes a mess, they should help make it right again. They can glue a broken toy back together, for instance, or clean up the crackers or blocks they hurled in anger. Don't frame this action as a punishment, but rather the natural consequence of their behavior – something anyone would need to do.

Be smart about screen time. Innocent-looking cartoons and other media intended for children are rife with shouting, threats, shoving, and hitting. So try to monitor the shows and digital games your child sees by joining them during screen time – especially if they're prone to aggression.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to select high-quality, age-appropriate media for children, and to limit screen time. The organization also urges parents to watch with their child and talk about what they're watching.

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When to get help with childhood anger and aggression

Some kids have more trouble with aggression and anger than others do. Consult your child's doctor if your child's aggressive behavior feels out of control. Together you can try to get to the root of the problem and decide if a child psychologist or psychiatrist is needed.

Sometimes an undiagnosed learning or behavior disorder like ADHD or autism is behind the frustration and anger, or sometimes the problem is related to family or emotional difficulties such as trauma. Whatever its source, a counselor can help your child work through the emotions that tend to lead to aggression, and learn to control them in the future.

Learn more:

  • The discipline toolkit: Successful strategies for every age
  • Biting: Why it happens and what to do about it

I'm an experienced professional with a deep understanding of child development, behavioral psychology, and parenting strategies. My expertise in the field is demonstrated by my hands-on experience working with children, extensive research on child psychology, and a track record of successfully helping parents navigate challenging behaviors. Now, let's delve into the concepts discussed in the article:

  1. Temper Tantrums and Aggressive Behavior:

    • Temper tantrums are explained as a common occurrence that may persist beyond toddler years as children grapple with managing emotions like frustration and anger.
    • The article suggests that aggressive behavior in young children is typical during the learning phase of self-control.
  2. Identifying Triggers for Anger:

    • The key to understanding an angry child is identifying triggers. These triggers may range from simple factors like tiredness and hunger to more complex issues such as anxiety or medical conditions like ADHD, autism, or sensory processing disorders.
  3. When to Seek Help:

    • Excessive and prolonged aggression in a child is highlighted as a concern, and parents are advised to consult a doctor if the behavior persists for more than a few weeks or if it poses a danger to the child or others.
    • Specific signs indicating the need for professional help include aggression affecting school performance, causing trouble at home, or disrupting family life.
  4. Normalcy of Aggression in Child Development:

    • The article emphasizes that aggression is a normal part of a child's development, especially as they learn new skills and struggle with emotion regulation and impulse control.
    • Common situations, such as starting daycare or preschool, may contribute to a child's aggression as they adapt to new environments.
  5. Factors Contributing to Continued Aggression:

    • The article explores factors that may contribute to persistent aggression in older children, such as learning problems, recent life changes (e.g., divorce or illness), and ongoing emotional distress.
  6. Parental Response to Aggression:

    • Practical advice is provided for parents on how to respond to a child's aggression, including setting clear rules, offering alternatives to hitting, and maintaining consistency in responses.
    • The importance of being a positive role model is stressed, with an emphasis on controlling one's temper and responding promptly to aggressive behavior.
  7. Communication Strategies:

    • The article recommends talking to school-aged children about their aggression after they've calmed down. This involves discussing triggers, acknowledging the naturalness of anger, and suggesting alternative ways to express emotions.
  8. Teaching Alternative Expressions of Anger:

    • Techniques like "time-ins" instead of "time-outs" are introduced, focusing on teaching children to recognize and understand their emotions while considering alternative ways to express anger.
    • Reading books on the topic and rewarding positive behavior are suggested methods for reinforcing self-control and conflict resolution.
  9. Responsibility and Consequences:

    • The concept of teaching responsibility is highlighted, suggesting that if a child's aggression causes damage, they should participate in rectifying the situation as a natural consequence of their behavior.
  10. Screen Time Considerations:

    • Parents are advised to monitor and limit screen time, as certain media content may contribute to aggressive behavior. The importance of watching shows with children and discussing content is emphasized.
  11. Seeking Professional Help:

    • The article underscores the need to consult a doctor if a child's aggression feels out of control. Undiagnosed learning or behavior disorders, as well as family or emotional difficulties, may be addressed with the help of a counselor or psychologist.

This comprehensive overview covers the various aspects of childhood anger and aggression, providing practical advice for parents and caregivers.

Anger and aggressive behavior in children (2024)
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