What is Aggression in Childhood?
Aggression in childhood is physical acts like kicking, hitting, smacking, or biting that can hurt others.
Sometimes children hit. Some kids are far more physical and seek contact with other kids. Toddlers and preschoolers are learning to engage with others in the environment. They may initially hit and push other kids if they want to play with a toy someone else is using or stand in the line where someone else is standing.
Symptoms of Aggression in Children
- Hitting: Hitting siblings and kicking classmates; aggression is the go-to response
- Unintentionally reacting physically: Having aggressive reactions
- Responding impulsively: Exhibiting impulsivity or frequently acting without thinking
- Being hyperactive: Moving constantly
- Destroying and damaging: Throwing things, hitting and kicking parents, or injuring self or others when upset
- Getting in trouble: Getting in trouble with teachers or authority figures at school
- Felling guilty and regretful: Feeling awful after an aggressive outburst. Your child may be responding aggressively as an unintentional automatic reaction
Causes of Aggression in Children
Hitting, or other forms of aggression, may be unintentional. Hitting may be an impulsive response to something that made your child unhappy. Hitting can also be deliberate. Some children hit to get their way, which is referred to clinically as ‘conduct.’ Challenges with mood regulation may lead to excessive anger or irritability, resulting in a physical confrontation. It could also be poor executive functions and conflict resolution skills.
Impulsivity and hyperactivity
Your child may have challenges with impulsivity. That is, they did not plan to hit another child but then hit anyway. Later, they may feel great regret and remorse. After all, impulsive behaviors are accidental.
Children who are impulsive often seem as if they are acting five steps in front of their brains. Impulsivity refers to doing things without thinking first. A child who hits the kid who cuts in front of him in line is having an impulsive reaction. He may know not to hit others, but he may act without thinking.
Some impulsive children may also seem hyperactive, acting as if a motor drives them. These children move constantly and may be a bit like a ‘bull in a china shop.’ You may be knocked over if you are in their way. Hitting in this context may be completely unintentional, but it can cause problems if your child is of elementary age or older.
Your child may have difficulty getting their mood and emotional reactions under control. Some children continue to resolve conflict with hitting. This hitting may be an unplanned or unintentional reaction. This challenge to self-regulate could lead to aggression.
Executive functions & conflict resolution challenges
It takes strong skills in stopping automatic responses and planning out moves and behaviors to handle a conflict well. Your child may struggle with handling conflicts if these skills are a challenge. Clinically, problem-solving abilities may also be a factor in aggression. Organization and planning skills refer to our ability to plan and execute tasks. Hitting may be the default when a child is not sure how to handle a conflict. These skills are often referred to as executive functions. They are the ability of our prefrontal cortex to think steps ahead, plan, organize, and solve problems effectively.
Also, consider challenges related to intentional behaviors, without regard for the feelings of others. This behavior is clinically known as ‘conduct.’ Your child’s intentions may appear to be to hurt and injure others. If so, consider behavioral disorders that are characterized by rule-breaking behavior. If your child keeps deliberately breaking the rules and causing harm, your child acts in a ‘maladaptive’ way. Maladaptive, as the name implies, refers to bad behavior that gets a kid into trouble. Generally, children with maladaptive behaviors take their anger out on others.
Social perspective-taking and social reciprocity
Children may not know how to solve a conflict and may hit because of difficulty relating to others. Sometimes, children who hit other children have a hard time taking the other child’s perspective. They may struggle to understand what the other child is feeling or thinking. In that case, it may be that your child has a disability or delay in development like an Autism Spectrum Disorder. It is wise to seek an evaluation with a psychologist or behavior therapist if the behavior continues despite interventions.
For some adults, seeing a young child be aggressive makes them question the broader mental health context. They may express concern about a child having warning signs for Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Disruptive Behavior Disorders in general, Bipolar or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. These are diagnoses. But, in child psychology, it is important to consider the broader context first.
For a preschool child, it is likely too soon to jump to diagnosis. Instead, consider aggression a learning opportunity and examine environmental factors. Young children do model the behavior they see in others. They are likely still developing their language too.
What to Do About Aggression in Children
- Do not overreact. Block the behavior, and provide minimal attention, waiting to reinforce good behavior like using words to request. Sometimes, young children act aggressively because these behaviors get a big reaction. They get attention. Make sure you only provide attention for good behavior. Rewarding good behavior is a more powerful strategy than punishing bad behavior.
- Find opportunities for physical activity. Provide outlets for physical play, like sports and martial arts, which also teach discipline.
- Set your child up for success. Some children do not do well in unstructured and overstimulating environments. Choose playdates carefully, and don’t go to the harvest festival if your child gets hyper and rowdy in that type of setting.
- Set a good example for how to handle conflict. Teach your child phrases like, ‘agree to disagree,’ ‘these things happen,’ and ‘we can work it out.’ Show empathy when your child is upset. Allow your child to learn ways to vent angry feelings in a safe place without resorting to aggression.
- Never model hitting for your children. If you and other family members don’t hit others, including children, adults, or pets, you reduce the risk of accidentally teaching your child that hitting is okay.
- Be careful about media exposure. Of course, television and games model hitting, and some children are more vulnerable to these ‘models’ than others. You may consider limiting your child’s exposure to shows and games that show violence. Some children may confuse make-believe and reality. So, if your child is exposed to violence or aggression in the media, work to be sure they know the difference between that and real life. Monitoring screen time, in general, is helpful. Then, your child will have more opportunities for social engagement and learning how to interact versus watching a screen much of the day.
- Reinforce good behavior choices. Point out and praise positive and gentle behavior with others. With a very young child, it can be helpful to model caring behaviors toward a stuffed animal. Teach your child to soothe the teddy bear, comfort him when upset, and put him down for a nap when he is tired.
- Respond quickly. When preschool children use aggression to meet their needs, use the moments as important learning opportunities. Parents should respond quickly. Then the child learns hitting is not okay. There are other ways, like asking, pointing, etc., to get what they want. This young age is when children need good models of sharing behavior and socializing skills.
- Taken together, turn away from the behavior you do not want to see. Turn toward the behaviors you want to see.
When to Seek Help for Aggression in Children
Aggression in toddlers & preschoolers
Sometimes, toddlers and preschoolers may display some aggressive behaviors. Kids under four are often inclined to express their needs physically before they get the words down to express their needs verbally. This behavior is only a significant issue if the child is aggressive frequently, tantrums almost daily, or seems to be making slow progress in expressing wants and needs. In this case, early intervention services can be beneficial to support your child and family.
Aggression in kindergarten kids
By kindergarten, we want to see aggression dropping off dramatically. An occasional ‘aggressive’ act might happen, but regularly using punching or kicking to communicate will not be tolerated at school. Learning appropriate conflict resolution skills at this time will help prevent future problems. If your child is showing lots of aggressive behaviors, or school problems, talk to the school psychologist or counselor, or reach out to a psychologist in the community.
Aggression in school-aged kids
By mid-elementary, the frequent or sudden onset of aggression is a concern. If your child is very angry or physically aggressive, something could be going on emotionally. Think about whether or not your child has experienced a recently upsetting experience, such as a move, death of a loved one, or divorce. If so, the child is at increased risk for behavior problems and may need therapy or support to get through that. If not, your child may have another emotional or behavioral issue. Either way, it is important to seek out the help of a school psychologist or a psychologist in the community.
In elementary school, symptoms of impulsivity and hyperactivity may suggest that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder should be considered. Bipolar Disorder is rare in childhood but does have a genetic link, so that is important to consider. Other Behavior Disorders tend to imply more of a concerted effort of a child to use misbehavior to get what they want. A child’s environment may be unintentionally reinforcing this misbehavior. Consequently, a behavioral expert may be most helpful if this is the case.
Aggression in teenagers and adolescents
By middle school or high school, any aggression or violence is cause for concern at this age. You will want to dig in to understand what is going on with your child. If there are significant communication challenges, aggression can pop up as a way of dealing with frustration. Often depression or another mental health condition may appear as irritability or aggression. If a child or teen experienced trauma, there is an increased risk for aggression and significant behavior problems. Seek help from a mental health provider right away.
Further Resources on Aggression in Children
- ABA therapist: to assess and treat behavior; may conduct a functional analysis and develop a behavior plan that can guide treatment; often comes to your home to help in the environmental context
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment and to consider symptoms in mental health and behavioral contexts; psychologists may also do parent training which studies show is evidence-based for tackling aggression
- Psychotherapist or play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms that arise and help with social skills training, planning and organization, parent training, cognitive behavioral therapy, neurofeedback (for ADHD)
- School psychologist: to provide a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) or IEP and support at school; you want to document any diagnosis so that the school understands why behavior problems are occurring and how to support your child
- Psychiatrist: to recommend medications as needed. Visiting an expert or your child’s doctor can help because they can prescribe and manage medication for inattention and impulsivity. Stimulant medication for ADHD is effective in a high percentage of children with significant focus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity challenges
Similar Conditions to Aggression
- Attention or executive functioning problems: aggressive behavior can be related to difficulty with attention and challenges with impulsivity; challenges following directions, or challenges staying organized
- Emotional problem: aggressive behavior can be related to underlying mood swings, feelings of sadness and depression; especially if there is a family history of mood disorders, alcoholism or abuse
- Emotional regulation: aggression can be related to problems managing strong feelings and poor coping skills
- Social skills problems: aggressive behavior can be related to poor social skills and social emotional reciprocity; trouble reading social cues and knowing when to stop
- Conduct problems: aggressive behavior that involves rule-breaking or law-breaking behavior and is intentional can be a sign of a conduct problem
Resources and References for Aggression in Children
Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking Charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents.
Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.
Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Cook, Julia (2011). Soda Pop Head.
Cook, Julia (2011). Soda Pop Head Activity and Idea Book.
Meiners, Cheri J. (2010). Cool Down and Work Through Anger (Learning to Get Along).
Mulcahy, William (2012). Zach Gets Frustrated (Zach rules series).