Aggressive behaviour is when a child or young person reacts in hostile way towards peers, siblings or adults. It can include verbal and physical aggression. There are lots of reasons why your child or young person might be aggressive. They might be feeling anxious and unsafe. They could be experiencing peer relationship difficulties. They might be having difficulty expressing how they feel or what their wishes are. Or they could just be trying to get their own way. Children and young people with conditions such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and sensory processing difficulties might also display aggressive behaviour when they feel out of control, over stimulated or anxious, or when they’re finding the sensory environment difficult.
What you might see
Many children exhibit aggressive behaviour, particularly toddlers who struggle to express themselves, and young people going through puberty who are affected by their hormones.
You and your child or young person might find their behaviour upsetting, and you might struggle to support them at home or in school.
While some anger and aggression is normal, it?s important to seek help if you?re concerned.
How you can help
Try to understand why your child or young person is behaving aggressively.
- Is it at a certain time of the day or week or when there is an increase in demands on them?
- What is happening at school and in their peer group?
- Are they worried about pressures at home, exams or puberty?
Making sure you have a positive relationship with your child or young person is essential.
It?s easy for families to fall into a negative way of reacting when a child is regularly aggressive or argumentative. This can reinforce their behaviour rather than reduce it, leaving everyone feeling exhausted and negative about themselves. Changing the way you respond and focussing on the positive will help build your relationship and help your child or young person maintain their self-esteem.
Praising your child or young person as soon as you see them engaging in positive behaviours (for example sharing or playing quietly) reinforces the behaviours you want to see. Over time, this leads to more positive behaviour and reduced negative behaviour.
Introducing reward charts can be helpful as it reinforces the behaviours and helps celebrate success. Reward charts are usually more successful when they don?t include daily boxes but instead are pictures on which your child can place stickers or ticks. This removes the chance of your child becoming disheartened when they don?t gain stickers one day. Make sure your child is clear on what they need to do to earn the stickers. Agree together how many stickers they need to collect before earning an agreed reward such as a video night, having a friend round for tea or choosing what your family has for dinner.
Having clear boundaries is important so make sure they?re consistently reinforced by everyone. Young people feel safe when they?re sure of the boundaries. They will still try to push against these, but knowing that your response is always consistent will help with this.
It?s also helpful to ?choose your battles?. Decide which minor behaviours you?re able to ignore. Children and young people will often misbehave to gain parental attention. If you ignore these behaviours, they should reduce as your child or young person learns that they only get attention for positive behaviour.
Looking after your own emotional health is also crucial. The more relaxed you feel, the more able you?ll be to respond in a calm way that can reduce your child or young person?s aggressive behaviour.
When to ask for help
If your child or young person?s behaviour is putting them or others at risk, you might want to seek support and advice.
Speaking with their teacher will be helpful as you can work together to ensure consistency and share what works for your child or young person. Teachers should also be able to access behaviour support workers who can help your child or young person manage their behaviour.
Self-help and other support
Books you may find useful include:
- How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
- The Incredible Years by Carolyn Webster-Stratton
- The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W. Greene