Aggression, be it physical or verbal, is a normal part of a child’s development. We’ve all experienced the “terrible two’s” - or in my experience the “terrible three’s” - that lovely period in a child’s development where he tries on different ways of responding to frustration. This can manifest as spitting, lashing out, running away…the list is long and known to parents everywhere. Some kids are temperamentally more reactive or aggressive than others - they are just wound more tightly from birth.
A child’s aggression becomes an issue when it is more intense than is typical for his age and if it goes on longer than would be expected for his stage of development. The reasons this happens are numerous and more often than not interwoven. Some of these reasons are internal; a child has an underlying anxiety disorder, or is struggling with a language disorder and as a consequence has trouble verbalizing his feelings. These are just two of the many internal factors that could be at play, all of which share the condition of making the child feel out of control and anxious, so as a consequence the child attempts to take control through aggression. The next critical piece is the environment. How do the people most important to the child respond to his aggression? A child learns how to behave in reaction to his environment. We, as the role models, can unintentionally reinforce negative reactions to frustration by reacting in an angry manner.
So what can be done to help a child whose aggression is out of control? First we have to understand the function the aggression serves. As mentioned before, is it a way of controlling the environment, or is it a way of communicating frustration or feelings that the child is unable to express? It may be all of these things, but it is important to acknowledge that there is something driving the behavior. With that in mind the best course of action is to empathize with the child’s feelings and then limit the input the child receives when behaving aggressively. For example if a child is hitting because they didn’t get a treat you could say, “I understand that you’re frustrated, but I can’t be around you if you are going to be unsafe. Go to your room until you are ready to talk or I can help you there if you continue to be unsafe.” In this example you are acknowledging the child’s feelings, but drawing a clear boundary as to how you will tolerate their expression. Every child wants to be seen and heard by the most important people in his life. By removing the attention that he is craving you are taking away the power of his aggression.
This description is an overly simplified example of a problem that is multifaceted. What is the main thing to take from away from all of this? The power of the relationship the child has with his caretakers. It’s important to note that when laying down boundaries the adult has to be impassive. A therapist I’ve worked with in the past referred to it as being a “loving wall”. The calmer you are in response to aggression, the calmer the child will be, over time. It takes practice and it’s definitely frustrating. But in the end, we’re the grown-ups, right?