“You know the kid that no one wants to play with? The kid who stands alone at recess or lunch? Who never gets invited to birthday parties? That’s my kid. And it breaks my heart.”
When a child is aggressive toward others – hitting, screaming, pushing, throwing things – the natural response of the people around him is to withdraw. It’s frightening to see someone whose anger has reached a point where it seems out of control. If your elementary or middle school-age child is behaving aggressively toward others, it’s important to address the issue now, before it escalates to serious consequences such as suspension, legal problems or serious harm to others.
“It’s easy to feel vulnerable as a parent – embarrassed or ashamed that your child is the one on the playground that no one wants to get near for fear of his behavior.”
There are a variety of reasons a child may behave aggressively. Jake may hit someone for an entirely different reason than his classmate Sophie does.
Here are some tips when it comes to identifying why your child is aggressive:
- Don’t assume you know why your child is behaving aggressively. The behavior is actually the symptom of the actual problem. We often guess at what’s going on inside someone, based on what we can see. If a woman is crying, we guess she’s sad. In fact, she may be angry, scared or just have something in her eye. Just because your child hits or bites someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s angry. He could be hurt, scared, sad or feeling threatened.
- Rule out medical or sensory issues before deciding the aggression is due solely to any other trigger. Some children are extremely sensitive to noises, lights and sensations. We all have minor sensitivities. Maybe you don’t like scratchy sweaters or the way certain fabric feels. Maybe you doodle when you’re in a meeting as a way of “self-stimulating.” For some kids, multiply the way that feels by a hundred. This leaves a child literally feeling like they could come out of their skin sometimes. In a situation where they are over-stimulated, they may respond with behavior that is aggressive because they don’t know how to express what they’re feeling. There are occupational therapists who can evaluate your child to see if there are sensory issues triggering or contributing to her behavior problems. Most schools offer occupational therapy assessments as part of special education testing. Contact your local intermediate school district office or your child’s school social worker if you think your child may need an evaluation.
- Rule out allergies to foods or environmental factors as a primary cause of aggression. One parent we know had her son tested for allergies and found that whenever he ate something with red dye in it (such as red licorice) he became very agitated. If your child has episodes of violence or aggression, you may want to schedule a physical exam or occupational therapy assessment.
- Do some investigating. Track your child’s behavior for a week and notice what situations or feelings seem to trigger the aggression. Again, don’t assume you know what your child was feeling when he hit or kicked someone. When the situation has calmed down and everyone is safe, help him identify what happened. Was he feeling threatened by someone who called him a name? Was he frustrated because he was told he couldn’t do something he wanted to do? Are there particular situations or people that seem to trigger the behavior? That will help you when it comes to identifying a solution.
Is Your Child an Exploder or an Imploder?
When a child is experiencing emotions or sensations that are extreme, it’s going to come out in some way. Some children will “explode” – in other words, the emotion will be turned outward onto others, much like a soda can that’s been shaken and spews over everything when it’s opened. Emotions build, and so at some point Jake releases his anger, frustration, fear or hurt by lashing out. Other children will “implode.” The intense emotions will be turned inward. Emotions build and at some point Sophie shuts down or behaves in a way that is destructive or aggressive toward herself. She may even self-harm as a way of releasing those intense feelings that she just can’t tolerate. This article focuses on the Exploder, but if your child has started to harm herself as a way of coping with stressors or emotions, this is just as serious of a concern. Exploders tend to get more attention because their behavior becomes a problem for others (parents, peers, teachers). But Imploders need just as much – perhaps more – support in finding positive ways to cope with life. If you suspect your child is engaging in self-harming behaviors, bring your concerns to his or her pediatrician immediately.
5 Ways to Manage Aggressive Kids
1. Be involved. As a parent, it’s your job to guide and teach your child how to handle emotions and stressful situations. That doesn’t mean it’s your “fault” that your child is behaving aggressively. It means your child is experiencing something (emotions, a stressful situation) that he isn’t equipped to handle. He needs you to show him how to deal with intense emotions.
2. Create a Comfortable Relationship. If your child is experiencing intense emotions that she doesn’t know how to handle, is she comfortable enough in the parent-child relationship to come to you? Or is she afraid you’ll get mad and yell or discount her by saying, “That’s no excuse! You don’t hit!” Tell your child there’s nothing you can’t work through together and that you’re there to support her. Then show her, through your own behavior, that when you are upset (such as when you find out she bit someone), you handle your emotions in a way that is constructive, without exploding.
3. Give your child words. Many children don’t have the ability to name an emotion they’re feeling. Jake may think he’s mad, but underneath he may be feeling hurt that he’s been left out of a game or social interaction. He may be feeling embarrassed that he didn’t know an answer in class. Help your child identify that "under anger" is usually another feeling, then validate that feeling as normal. Even though the behavior (screaming, hitting, throwing things) isn’t okay, the feeling that triggered the behavior is valid. “Of course you felt sad when your friend left to hang out with someone else. But throwing rocks at him isn’t the way to handle it.”
4. Brainstorm on coping tools. No matter what the cause is of the aggressive behavior, your child must learn to cope with intense emotions or he’s going to have some negative consequences in life. Talk together about what helps him calm down. He may need a way to release energy that doesn’t spew all over others. Can he go to the gym and shoot some baskets when he’s having a rough day at school? Can he go and sit in a room by himself if space is something that calms him down? Does he need to avoid certain people or situations? Some kids are triggered during “unsupervised” times at school: lunch, recess and passing in the hallways. These are times teachers have more difficulty seeing what goes on due to the amount of kids present. Does your child need to pass between classes a few minutes before others do? Enlist the help of teachers or relatives – if you trust their intentions and they truly want to support your child in coping positively.
Present your ideas in a positive manner of helping your child behave appropriately with others – not shaming him or her in any way. If it doesn’t work, go “back to the drawing board.” Keep brainstorming until you find what works for your child and be creative.
5. Behavior and Mood Disorders. Aggression can be part of a bigger picture. If your child continues to exhibit aggression despite your efforts to help her manage emotions, you may want to schedule an appointment with a counselor or therapist. Chemical imbalances, ADHD and behavior patterns such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder can all contribute to aggressive behavior. In those cases – or if there’s a tendency to implode – your child might benefit from more intensive support from a mental health professional.
Responding to Aggression
If your child does resort to aggression (pushing, hitting, throwing things), remain calm. Remember, it will very likely take some practice to replace aggression with new, positive behaviors. So try your best to stay calm and assess the situation. If he’s behaving aggressively toward you, give him some space. Understand that trying to restrain an already agitated child can quickly escalate the situation further. If you can safely allow him to calm down by giving him space, that’s the best option. Also, when you’re in the middle of the tornado, it’s not the time to talk about triggers or consequences. You may reassure your child: “I know you’re upset. Take a few minutes to calm down.”
After the emotional storm has passed, you can discuss things such as triggers, why your child wasn’t able to use some of the positive coping skills you’ve been identifying with him, and ways to hold him accountable for anything he may have broken. Does the situation call for a consequence? That’s up to you, as his parent, to decide. Did he break something? If so, he’ll need to pay for it out of his allowance, his birthday money, or work it off in chores. Did he harm you or someone else physically? You can encourage him to apologize and take responsibility for his behavior. Keep in mind, kids who exhibit a pattern of Oppositional Defiant Disorder may dig their heels in and refuse to apologize. How will you respond to that? You may give your child a choice: “Jake, you hurt your sister when threw that toy and it hit her. You have a choice: you can apologize or you will lose your video game for one week.” Or go straight to the consequence if you believe it’s warranted.
A child’s aggression can be scary – not just for parents, teachers and peers, but for the child himself. It can be frightening to feel such intense emotions or sensations and not know how to handle it. It’s easy to feel vulnerable as a parent – embarrassed or ashamed that your child is the one on the playground that no one wants to get near for fear of his behavior. But imagine how your child is feeling. Try to stay patient, even in the face of a volcanic eruption of emotion. It’s ultimately your child’s responsibility to manage behavior appropriately, but there are ways you can support him in that journey.
Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.