Handling Aggressive Behavior in Children


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


When your child intentionally hurts or harms others and does not respond to intervention from the parent it can become extremely frustrating to a parent. But if the parent, in their frustration, handles the aggressive child when they are frustrated of upset the childís problem intensifies. When this is the case, it is time to slow down, do some detective work, and develop some plans to help your child. If you will take the time to observe your child, you will face this frustration with a clearer head and determine how best to help him/her.

Aggression can be defined as any act (physical or verbal) that hurts a person or animal, damages property, or threatens a personís emotional well being. The motivation doesn't matter. The outcome is what matters.

Accidental Aggression is when a child didn't mean to cause harm, physically or emotionally to another person. Some examples of this kind of aggression include a toddler getting a toy and pulling another child's hair by mistake. It is when a child steps on another child's hand in climbing a gym set. Giving a birthday whack hit that is too hard.

The important thing parents can do when handling accidental aggression is to emphasize the fact that even though the harm caused was accidental the child is still responsible. Not holding the child responsible for accidental aggression teaches the child that there are circumstances in which aggression is justified and "not his/her fault." If small children learn that accidental aggression is ok it's the beginning of more serious aggression problems when the child is older.

Expressive Aggression is when a child, who is responsible for the aggression, is having a wonderful time. The aggressive child is basically happy and feels good. Under these circumstances it is aggression because many times the receiver of the aggression is unhappy. Examples of this kind of aggression include bumper cars, playing football, wrestling with another person, boxing, and other activities in which the child or person who is aggression is not deliberately trying to hurt anyone.

Under these circumstances it is important for the child to learn to be a "good sport." If another child is hurt or harmed during these aggressive activities the child should be taught that even though he/she was having fun they are responsible for the injury. This will help the child learn to check the aggression so that the chances of harm to another are reduced.

Instrumental Aggression is the most common form of aggression in children below eight years of age. It gradually builds and peaks at six years old. It is not deliberate. This kind of aggression occurs when children are in conflict over objects, rights, and territory. Examples of instrumental aggression include two children fighting over the same toy. Two children trying to sit by so and so. No girls allowed. Children at this age gain their identity by the things they posses so these kind of conflicts become major events in their lives.

Parents can help a child, when this kind of conflict or aggression occurs, by securing the disputed territory or possession. The next step is to help the children learn conflict resolution skills by giving them time to determine how the problem regarding the property, rights, or territory will be solved. Do not impose your solution on them. (If you do they will not learn to resolve the conflict.) If they have a problem deciding how to address the conflict, make suggestions. When they have decided on a solution, (which may take them awhile) help them implement it.


Targeted Aggression is aggression that is intended to deliberately cause harm to another. This type of aggression occurs when a child feels helpless or wronged and, as a result, feels it is ok to hurt someone or damage their property because, "they deserve it." Examples of this type of aggression include hitting another child because they are bad, stealing from someone, calling another person a derogatory name, etc. This kind of aggression is rooted an illogical assumption. They assume that it is not ok for another person to harm them, but it is ok for them to harm someone else.

The parentís intervention in this kind of aggression is critical. The child must be stopped from harming another person by using the least amount of force necessary. This can be as minimal as a verbal directive like, "NO!" It can be as intensive as soliciting assistance from the police. The main thing is to stop the child and let them know, in no uncertain terms, that harming another person deliberately is not acceptable. With the smaller child you may say, "People aren't for hitting." For the older child statements like, "Your freedom ends where the other person's nose begins."

Once the parent has imposed the rule and the external control needed to protect the child and the targeted person/property, the child should be held accountable for their behavior and be required to fix what they have damaged. It should be emphasized that there is no excuse for handling a problem by harming someone. Alternative solutions to the problem perceived by the child can be discussed with the child, when they have calmed down and are willing to listen. When a child harms another person it is an event that is difficult to address. We want our children to be spirited but we do not want them harming others. We would like them to be assertive not aggressive. Assertiveness is displayed when a child commits any act (physical or verbal) that is forceful and firm but does not harm another person. Assertiveness is an act of protection and communication that is intended to assure the rights, privileges, and comfort of the individual, without violating the rights of another. Helping a child learn to be assertive, rather than overly aggression, is the primary task of the parent. This is done by modeling and by consistently holding the child accountable and responsible for their behavior. Consistency is the key.