Discipline Strategies to Manage Aggression in Children

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Whether children hit or bite because they are angry or 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 their behavior—aggression begins to subside during the preschool years.

However, aggression can occasionally be a symptom of a bigger problem. In some circumstances, parents may need to seek professional help.

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 sibling takes a 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 a parent.

Sometimes, kids are aggressive because they find that hitting or biting works. If a child discovers that a sibling leaves them alone if they hit them, they learn that hitting is a good way to get what they want.

Some children hit their parents as a way to try to get their way. If it's effective, aggressive behavior is likely to get worse. For example, if a child hits because their parent won't buy them a toy, and the parent eventually gives in and gets the toy, the child will learn that hitting is a good way to get what they want.

How to Respond to Aggressive Behavior

It's important to take action when your child behaves aggressively. 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. In this case, the time-out is not meant to punish the child for the behavior, but rather, to give them the chance to practice calm-down strategies in the moment. Initially, the parent will most likely need to be present with the child to teach them these skills and ensure that they can effectively use them in the future.
  • Restitution. If your child hurts someone, restitution should be part of the consequence. Restitution may involve loaning a favorite toy to the person that they hurt or doing extra chores to pay for damage the child caused. 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 the chance to go to a friend's house can be an effective reminder not to hurt others.
  • Natural consequences. If your child destroys their own property, a natural consequence might 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 having to buy 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 desired behavior, like gentle touches. A token economy system can also eliminate aggression in some children.

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

Teach New Skills

Aggressive behavior indicates that 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.

Discipline should teach your child what to do instead of acting out or becoming aggressive. Help your child see the alternative choices that don't involve aggression. For example, instead of telling a child, "Don't hit," try saying, "Use your words."

Seek Professional Help

Occasionally, aggressive behavior stems from more serious behavior disorders or mental health conditions. If your child's behavior gets worse or does not respond to any disciplinary tactic you've tried, it's time to talk to your pediatrician.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Sukhodolsky DG, Smith SD, McCauley SA, Ibrahim K, Piasecka JB. Behavioral interventions for anger, irritability, and aggression in children and adolescents. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2016;26(1):58-64. doi:10.1089/cap.2015.0120

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Additional Reading

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.