Many kids go through phases when they exhibit aggressive behaviors. Hitting, pushing and even biting can be developmentally normal, especially for toddlers. But it can be a challenge to deal with this type of situation, because of course you want it to stop. It’s especially difficult if another child has been hurt; you want to teach empathy, and of course, it’s horrible to see your kid inflict pain on someone else.
Having an aggressive child may leave you feeling anxious, embarrassed or stressed when your child is in social situations. We spoke to behaviorist and family therapist Megan Costello about how to handle those anxiety-provoking moments when you find your child acting out. She assured us that aggression is common and can be dealt with successfully. “Lots of kids go through a phase where they are trying out lots of different forms of aggression."
First, try to figure out the underlying purpose of the child's aggression. What are they accomplishing or hoping to accomplish by acting this way? “Analyze the behavior by looking at what happens before the behavior and what happens after the aggression,” says Costello. For example, “If your child hits or bites to avoid brushing their teeth," Costello suggests, "teach your child to say ‘No! I'm not ready yet’ instead.” Once the child knows they have another tool in their arsenal, they can learn that biting doesn't get them what they want — talking does. Of course, then you still have the problem of them not brushing, but there's no harm in delaying the chore a few minutes to show kiddo that you're taking their words into account.
What are some other reasons for aggression? “In my practice, I've seen kids use aggression for attention, access to preferred items and activities and to escape tasks or demands,” explains Costello. “I've even met kids who bite or who injure themselves to self-soothe.” She stresses that it’s important to look at each situation and intervene according to the function or purpose of the behavior — not just the behavior itself.
After you’ve figured out the function of your child’s aggressive behavior, it’s time to ensure the acting-out is futile. “If your child bites to get access to something, don't give it to him,” says Costello. Seems simple enough, but of course it's difficult to follow through on. Still, “if your child bites to avoid a task or demand, follow through despite the biting," Costello urges. "If your child bites to get your attention, immediately stop giving your child attention,” she adds. Simply remove any positive association with the aggressive behavior.
For instance, when a 7-year-old bites, it's very different than when a nonverbal 2-year old — who may not feel she has other options to communicate what she wants — bites.
Costello says that generally, the younger the child is, the more your reaction should be focused on skill-building and proactive interventions. “With young children, aggression is often a strategy used due to their level of brain development and functional skill deficits (e.g., they are learning to talk),” explains Costello. Your young child doesn't know and isn't able to independently use alternative strategies yet. Be with your child when he/she is in a situation where aggression is likely to occur so you can intervene and provide support. Costello's suggestions: “Coach your child to use alternative strategies, praise them when they try to use those strategies and provide lots of opportunities for practice.”
As children enter ages 5 to 7, the developmental expectations have shifted, Costello explains. For this age group, focus on setting limits and boundaries and following through on consequences. Some ideas: Use incentives or token systems to help motivate your child to change his/her behavior. “It's important that the expectations and consequences for aggression are clear and consistent across the child's environment,” says Costello. And don’t forget to include all the adults in the child’s life when it comes to managing aggression at home and at school. If your child is still regularly aggressive by age 5, they should be evaluated by a pediatrician and/or child psychologist, Costello advises.
Sometimes children act out with only their families, sometimes with peers at day care or school and sometimes both. What does it mean if a child is aggressive toward other children vs. their parents or siblings? Costello says social skill deficits are likely the culprit when the aggression is isolated to peers. “My suggestion is to set up an observation from a behaviorist or other trained mental health professional,” she says. “You will also need to gather information on the exact situations surrounding aggression with peers so you can determine the exact function and the corresponding skill deficits.”
Speaking of other kids, what about sibling-on-sibling aggression? Costello says this actually can be curbed, though it’s complicated. Start by being present to determine the function of the behavior. “Provide opportunities to practice, coach and teach skills both with and without the sibling," she advises.
A common misstep Costello sees in dealing with aggression is using too many “solutions.” “Parents get freaked out and try so many different strategies,” she says. “This muddies the waters, and often they end up reinforcing the behavior in their haste to intervene.” Be consistent in how you deal with the aggression.
Overall, aggression in young kids is pretty common, so try not to worry. “Hang in there,” Costello says. “Be strategic in your approach. Be consistent and give your intervention time to work.”
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