Kids can be aggressive. Especially early on when they are learning to self-regulate and control their strong emotions, such as frustration. When kids get frustrated, they can kick, bite or hit. Sometimes kids don’t think before they do…they just do. It is especially important as caregivers to step in, defuse the situation and help the child regain control. However, aggression can also be a signal of other things, such as depression, trauma, poor impulse control or conduct disorders.
Aggression in young children is often a concern in the early preschool years and will peak around 4 years of age. Yet by the time children enter formal schooling, most children will have developed the ability to self-regulate and can express their negative emotions in socially acceptable ways.
When young children get aggressive, it can be really stressful for families. I have families come to see me because they fear that their child will be asked to leave daycare. Other families have questions about how to respond or ask for strategies to share with daycare providers.
Here are some quick tips:
Stay calm when stepping in. Parents can be shocked or upset when a child acts out. However, being harsh, raising our own voice in response or even spanking a child can be confusing, especially if you are telling your child not to hit others. As always, parents can role model acceptable ways to handle negative emotions through their own interactions with the child.
Give your child alternate ways to handle negative emotions. Being little is hard. Not having the ability to tell others what you want, when you want it is particularly upsetting and often leads to tantrums or “fits”. Children don’t automatically know what to do. Parents can help by labeling emotions, both positive and negative, while the behavior is happening so they can begin to associate the feeling word with what their body is telling them. For example, “You feel frustrated right now because you can’t do it yourself!” or “You’re really proud that you can tie that shoe! Good for you!”
Set firm limits on acceptable and non-acceptable behavior and stay consistent. If children become aggressive, there is no counting to 3, there is no giving a second chance. The key is to intervene and get the child out of the situation so they cannot hurt themselves or others. The important part is to remember in the moment, the child is already “out of control” and anything you say to the child will not be heard. Time out works well for this. Time out is an opportunity to take a break for your child and the parent who may feel equally frustrated. Caution: I do not like to recommend time out before the age of 3 years of age. It is very difficult for a child to stop and think about what they did because of short attention spans and full understanding of cause and effect. For children less than 3, I usually say distraction is more effective.
Forgive and try again. No one is perfect. We all feel strong emotions from time to time, it is part of life. Remember Disney’s Inside Out film? We learned that Joy could not exist without Sadness. Give your child a chance to try again after time out by not giving your child a run down about what they did wrong and why they should not have hit his brother. Time out is over when a child is calm. The point of time out is to give your child the space and chance to calm him/herself and not simply waiting out the minute per age rule. Instead focus on the fact that your child was able to calm down, “You were really frustrated but you were able to calm yourself down. That was not easy but you did it.” This shows your child that you noticed that he/she is working on controlling emotions and that even though we all feel frustrated, we can learn how to handle it. This will go a long way.
If you’re feeling stressed about your child’s behavior–whether it be hitting, kicking or biting, I created a handout with helpful tips. Share it with family, daycare providers and other adults who help take care of your child. That way everyone is on the same page. When everyone responds the same way, the behavior will stop.
Some helpful phrases to use with children in the moment include:
To acknowledge the feeling: “You didn’t like it when [other child] took the toy. It made you mad.”
To offer help: “It looks like you’re frustrated, how can I help?”
For more information, please visit additional websites:
Aggressive Behavior: Healthychildren.org