Discipline Strategies to Manage Aggression in Children

Deal With Hitting, Biting, and Sibling Rivalry

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Whether children hit because they are angry or bite for reasons you just don't understand, aggressive behavior can be a normal part of child development. Usually, if a child receives consistent negative consequences for aggression—and learns new skills to improve his behavior—aggression begins to subside during the preschool years.

However, aggression can occasionally be a symptom of a much bigger problem. And in some circumstances, parents may need to seek professional help to address the problem.

Why Kids Behave Aggressively

Sometimes toddlers are aggressive because they lack the verbal skills to get their needs met. A child who can't say, "Don't do that," when their brother takes the toy out of their hands may hit or bite to express their displeasure.

School-age children sometimes behave aggressively because they can't regulate their emotions. A child who doesn't have the language ability to say, “I’m really angry right now” might show their anger by kicking their mother.

Sometimes, kids become aggressive because hitting or biting works. If a child discovers that their sister leaves them alone if they hit her, they may decide hitting is a good way to get what they want.

Sometimes, children hit their parents as a way to try to get their way. And if it's effective, aggression is likely to get worse. For example, if a child hits because their mother won't buy them a toy, and their mother eventually gives in and gets the toy, the child will learn that hitting is a good way to manipulate their mother.

How to Respond to Aggressive Behavior

It's important to act when your child behaves in an aggressive way. With prompt consequences and new skills, your child can learn to respond to frustration and other big feelings in a more appropriate way.

Provide Immediate Consequences

Any act of aggression should result in an immediate consequence. Don't give warnings or reminders to stop. Consequences might include:

  • Time-out: When used appropriately, time-out teaches children how to calm down. The ultimate goal of time-out should be for children to put themselves in time-out before they lash out aggressively.
  • Restitution: If your child hurts someone, restitution should be part of the consequence. Restitution may involve loaning a favorite toy to the victim or doing extra chores to pay for damage. Restitution can help repair relationships and give your child an opportunity to make amends.
  • Loss of privileges: Take away your child’s favorite possession or activity for 24 hours. Losing electronics or a chance to go to a friend's house can be an effective reminder not to hurt anyone else.
  • Natural consequences: If your child destroys their own property, a natural consequence may be the most effective. If your teenager throws their phone and breaks it, don't buy a new one. Going without a phone and then buying their own replacement can serve as a valuable life lesson.
  • Reward systems: If your child exhibits aggression often, establish a reward system. Provide positive reinforcement for good behavior, like gentle touches. A token economy system can also eliminate aggression fast.

No matter what type of consequence you choose to use, make sure that it constitutes discipline and not punishment. Shaming or embarrassing your child can backfire and may lead to increased aggression.

Teach New Skills

Aggressive behavior indicates your child lacks the skills they need to manage their behavior appropriately. Teaching children new skills should be part of the discipline process.

Social skills, problem-solving skills, and conflict resolution skills will reduce aggressive behavior.

Ensure that your discipline teaches your child what to do instead. Rather than saying, "Don't hit," say, "Use your words." Help your child see alternative choices that don't involve aggression.

Seek Professional Help

Occasionally, aggressive behavior can stem from more serious behavior disorders or mental health problems. If your child's aggression is serious, or it isn't responding to discipline, talk to your pediatrician.

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