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Aggressive Behavior: Preventing or Reducing in Children

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KEY POINTS

  • Aggressive behavior includes breaking things on purpose or name calling, swearing, threatening, pushing, kicking, biting, or hitting other children.
  • Teach your child healthy ways to deal with his or her feelings. Be a good role model and set firm limits.
  • If your child is aggressive for longer than a few weeks, or if you cannot cope with his or her behavior on your own, see a healthcare provider or a mental health professional.

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A child who often hits, slaps, and bites other children or destroys toys is not going through a stage. He or she is behaving in an aggressive way that is upsetting to parents and other children. Aggressive behavior includes:

  • Breaking things on purpose
  • Pushing, kicking, biting, or hitting other children
  • Name calling, swearing, or threatening playmates

Why is my child being aggressive?

Some reasons children behave aggressively include:

  • Wanting attention
  • Seeing physical or verbal abuse within the family
  • Being very stressed, frustrated, or angry
  • Being overstimulated
  • Being tired
  • Lacking adult supervision or discipline
  • Watching violent TV shows and movies or being exposed to violence
  • Having friends who are aggressive

How can I help my child?

Helping your child learn good ways to deal with emotions can be challenging. It requires both your time and patience. The following suggestions may help you to help your child.

  • Set firm limits. Make it clear to your child that being mean is not OK. Give clear, consistent messages such as “we don’t hit people.” Always supervise your child when he or she is playing with other children so that you can quickly step in if needed. Never allow aggressive behavior, even in play. If your child is not able to calm down, remove him or her from the situation. Do not yell, roughhouse with, or spank an aggressive child. To do so will encourage aggressive behavior.
  • Be a good role model. Always show self-control. You can’t teach your child self-control when he or she sees you lose your temper, threaten, or hit people. It helps if you do not use physical punishment, such as spanking. Spanking may be very confusing to an aggressive child if you have just told him or her not to hit people. Make sure that everyone who cares for your child agrees to use the same type of discipline.
  • Teach healthy ways to express feelings. Every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. The way your child expresses his or her feelings will also change as he or she grows older. Here are some ideas for other activities your child can do when he or she starts to get upset.
    • Talk about feelings. Help your child put his or her feelings into words. Nonjudgmental remarks like, "You look upset" or "You sound unhappy," let your child know that you are willing to listen.
    • Take several deep, slow breaths. For young children, blowing pretend bubbles is a good technique. It is easy and teaches your child to take long, slow breaths.
    • Count to 10 or repeat a phrase such as “relax, calm down” when he or she feels angry or stressed.
    • Pound play dough, run, play sports, do martial arts, or do some jumping jacks.
    • Write, paint, or play music.
  • Give consequences. Immediately remove your child from the situation when he or she starts to act aggressively. Use time out, usually 1 minute for each year of age. End the time out when your child has calmed down and is quiet. Do not spank, hit, or verbally abuse your child. These kinds of punishment can teach your child to hit or verbally abuse others. Be consistent.
  • Reward non-aggressive behaviors. If your child misbehaves to get attention, try praising your child when he or she behaves well. Tell your child how proud you are. Also say something like, “You should be proud of yourself.”
  • Keep your child away from violence. The less violence your child sees, the less likely he or she is to be aggressive with others. Keep your child away from people who act aggressively. Make sure there is no violence in the home and that your child is not a victim of abuse. Do not let your child watch violent TV shows or movies or play violent games. Check the age rating for any game that your child plays, including games that are played on friends’ devices.

If your child is aggressive for longer than a few weeks, or if you cannot cope with his or her behavior on your own, see a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Get emergency care if your child has serious thoughts of suicide or self-harm, violence, or harming others.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2019-07-30
Last reviewed: 2019-06-24
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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