WHAT IS AGGRESSION?
While we often think of aggression in overt terms, aggression can include emotional, mental, verbal and physical forms. Aggression includes hostile or violent behaviors or attitudes toward another person or group. Aggression can include behaviors such as arguing, yelling, berating, bullying, intimidation, excluding others, starting rumors, using force to get something or physically fighting. It can occur in the physical, verbal, or virtual realms (i.e., cell phone, social media).
While statistically males are more likely to engage in physical aggression, females are often more likely to engage in non-physical forms of aggression, such as relational aggression, social rejection and verbal aggression.
Aggressive acts can be impulsive or planned. Impulsive acts of aggression are typically in response to strong emotions (often anger) and takes place in the heat of the moment. This type of aggression triggers physiological response in our brains (amygdala, hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray). Instrumental aggression is also known as predatory aggression, and is planned with the goal of causing harm to achieve the aggressor’s goal.
Aggression typically happens after a person perceives a threat. Aggression can be deliberate or a response to poor emotional control (e.g., irritability, easily angered). Although there is typically not one reason, rather a mix of various reasons, and can be sometimes difficult to pinpoint the main cause, aggression can occur for different reasons. First, aggression may occur due to a student’s difficulty with emotional regulation. Generally speaking, emotional regulation involves the ability to successfully manage and control emotions, thoughts and behaviors in order to deal with stress, control impulses, motivate oneself and handle disappointment or frustrations. Aggression may also stem from social concerns, difficulty expressing oneself, mood concerns, assaultive behaviors and manipulation. Third, aggression may occur when a student misinterprets a social interaction. Finally, aggression can be considered a socially learned behavior when a student models aggressive acts they observe in real life or virtually, such as through movies or video games.
WARNING SIGNS, RED FLAGS & INCREASED RISK FACTORS
(Note-Just because a student acts in a violent way, does not mean he/she has all or any of the risk factors. In the same light, if a student has risk factors does not mean they will engage in violent acts.):
- It is important to note that nearly all toddlers display temper tantrums, but a child who has tantrums that are frequent, highly intense and has difficulty calming down is of particular concern and points to the need for potential supports and interventions.
- Environmental Factors- Environments (homes or neighborhoods) that have high stress (e.g., work stress, financial stress), substance abuse, mental health concerns, low parental support, inconsistent discipline, poor or lack of supervision, high crime areas, acts of violence and/or low social connections all increase risk for aggression due to few opportunities to safely and positively connect with others. Generally speaking, the more risk factors that are present, the greater the risk for aggression.
Social Factors- Coercive interactions with adults that include force or threats can lead to aggressive behaviors in children. This can cause difficulties processing social information and trouble getting along with others because children have learned to manage emotions with aggressive solutions in these situations.
Caregiver-Child Relationship Difficulties- At times, children may have difficulties developing attachments with caregivers for a variety of reasons. This can sometimes lead to manipulative or hostile interactions with caregivers, and often carries over to other adult relationships, including interactions with teachers.
For students who lack language skills to express oneself, aggression may stem from a barrier to communicate need, want, or other emotions.
Young students-Emotional outbursts are fairly common in young children, but often decrease as students learn skills to express themselves and manage emotions. If emotional outbursts continue into early elementary, it is very important to address these difficulties so it does not lead to later negative outcomes, which can include academic concerns, delinquency, conduct problems, poor adjustment or social concerns. Early treatment and help before a formal diagnosis, such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, is important as these types of disorders often indicate an increase for the risk of antisocial behaviors later in life.
Relational aggression can start as early as elementary school and can carry over through middle and high school as well as into adulthood if it is not addressed.
WHAT CAN BE DONE AT HOME TO HELP?
- Consequences- Reasonably teach and discuss there are consequences to our actions, whether deliberate or unintentional. It is helpful for students to see the link between their actions and the results of those behaviors.
- Warm Relationships- If relationship difficulties are present, it is important to work to establish a warm, nurturing relationship using positive techniques.
- Communication- Communicate with other adults in your child’s life (spouse, teacher, babysitter, caregiver, grandparents, etc.) so everyone is on the same page. It is important that everyone is working toward the same goal and has the same game plan to get there. Clarity and consistency reduce guess work and frustration, which can lead to aggression.
- Discipline- It is important to provide clear and consistent rules and discipline that are logical, fair, reasonable and age appropriate (this is true for all children). It is important to note that discipline techniques that worked with one child may not work with the next child, so problem-solving and flexible discipline strategies are vital. Discipline practices that are too harsh will often make matters worse. Therefore, when talking with your child, it is important to be aware of your tone of voice and non-verbal communication. Deliver consequences in a calm tone (avoid yelling).
- Provide consequences quickly when a rule is broken so your child links the behavior with the consequence easily.
- If your child is too upset at that very moment, it may be appropriate to tell him/her you can talk with them when they are calm (note-this is not an appropriate technique if they are in danger of hurting themselves or others). Providing time allows your child to calm down so they are in a state of mind to listen to your guidance and avoid potential power struggles. For younger children, you can set a timer, tell them you will check back in XX minutes and then walk away (do not continue to engage) remembering to check back when the timer goes off to calmly have a discussion.
- When discussing things, be calm, brief and to the point. Explain what rule was broken, why it is important to follow the rule and what the consequence will be to help them learn to correct their behavior in the future. Too much verbiage can escalate a situation.
- Time- Set aside time each day to provide special time with your child. It can be as little as 10-15 minutes of time dedicated to connect in a positive manner. During this positive time, avoid any topics that can cause tension or lead to an argument. It is also important to refrain from criticism.
- Verbal Praise- This is a simple technique that is often overlooked. We all like to hear we are doing a good job and it means more than you know if you tell your child how great he or she is doing. Managing emotions is hard work and positive reinforcement can go a long way. Therefore, offer positive reinforcement or praise when you notice your child exhibiting positive problem solving techniques. Look for ways to praise. You may have to start small to praise for incremental gains toward fully exhibiting emotional control. For instance, you may start by praising your child for identifying or labeling an emotion before he/she is able to implement other strategies and manage his response to that emotion.
- Emotional Regulation Strategies- If your child has difficulties controlling his/her emotions (e.g., difficulties with emotional regulation, mood concerns), it will be important to help your child gain control of their emotions and their responses to those emotions. This can be done by teaching strategies such as “What if…”, “If/then,” as well as increasing your child’s ability to recognize emotions, identify triggers and know when to implement coping skills.
- Identify Emotions and Triggers-Our bodies respond to emotions, so it is important for us to help our children identify emotions and pay attention to our body for signals. For instance, a child might feel their heartbeat increase, sweaty palms, gritting teeth or notice a clenched jaw when they start to experience anger. They may start to have physical responses, such as yelling, slamming doors, or making comments, such as “This is not fair!” Once they have recognized signals in themselves, they can work toward labeling and identifying their emotions. Next, once they recognize signals and name emotions, they will be more equipped to take a step back and allow time to calm down and implement coping strategies (e.g., deep breaths)
- Stress management- There are several techniques to implement to manage stress, but the important part of stress management is to remember that it needs to be intentional. Help your child generate a list of techniques when they are in a calm state, such as deep breathing, exercising, journaling, prayer, meditation, drawing, taking a walk, and having appropriate outlets as these are vital for everyone. It might be helpful to have a visual list or menu of coping strategies they identified to serve as a reminder of coping strategies to implement to help manage stress.
- Express Needs- Aggression can be a way to communicate or get what a child wants, and may be common for children who are developing language skills. In these instances, teach your child there are appropriate and respectful ways to gain attention and have your needs met. This can be done by reinforcing manners and learning how to make appropriate requests. If your child makes an appropriate request, it is important to reinforce that you like the way they asked for something, especially if your child does not get their way after appropriately asking for something. Remember, your children do not like to hear the word “no” anymore than you do.
- Learning to handle disappointments- When your child does not get his or her way or is disappointed, it is important to help them through this. Disappointments are a normal part of life. Even though things did not go the way we wanted it to go or we did not get our way, it is important to teach how to take other’s perspectives, empathize, as well as how to handle setbacks and move forward. This is also a wonderful time to reframe the situation and our response so we can move forward quickly.
- Pick Your Battles- When you begin to handle aggression, determine what you are able ignore and what needs to be addressed at first. For instance, you can let minor things roll for a time. Do not ever ignore unsafe behaviors or warning signs for unsafe behaviors.
- Extinction Burst- When you are working to change behaviors, it is important to note things might get worse before they get better. This is an actual phenomenon known as an extinction burst. Remember to stay calm, consistent and patient. Although this can be a struggle, try to reframe it and think you are on the road to success!
- Share Your Experiences- Be open with your child. Appropriately share that at times you feel anger or stress as well. This helps normalize feelings. The emotions are not bad in and of themselves, but how we respond to these emotions can cause problems. Appropriately talk with your child about times you feel angry and what helps you calm down.
- Coaching- Coach your child through difficult situations. If you see emotions start to rise, take a moment to calmly and respectfully coach your child through the situation being careful not to patronize. For example, you might say, “I notice your voice is getting loud and shaky. Let’s see if we can figure this out. We can do it together.” Discuss both negative and positive solutions and help guide your child to the positive choice.
- Problem-Solving- Calmly help your child problem-solve. Help them understand there are multiple ways to handle problems and only some choices actually solve the problem while other choices create more problems. To start, identify the problem or cause of the issue as well as determine what is in their control (some things we cannot control). If we cannot control the situation, teach your child we can control our responses (refer to how to handle disappointments). If we do have some control, help your child see solutions. Brainstorm potential strategies, both positive and negative. Taking time to work/talk through outcomes of different options helps your child analyze the situation to make a responsible choice. Help guide your child to the positive choice. Talking your child through this process will help him/her learn problem-solving strategies so they can eventually learn to implement this on their own.
- Social Concerns- Discuss ways to take other people’s perspectives as there are multiple ways to look at a situation. Sometimes walking in another person’s shoes is helpful; there is a lot going on beyond the surface. It is also important to teach problem-solving techniques so your child can work collaboratively with others. For instance, use of “I statements” may be appropriate to help solve differences. If harm has been done, asking for or giving forgiveness is vital and can go a long way. Instances where harm has been done, it will be appropriate to talk about potential ways to repair the harm.
- Limit Exposure to Aggression- Limit exposure to aggression, teasing and fighting, including video games, tv or relationships that reinforce aggression. Children take a lot in and learn from cues and social models in their environment.
- Perspective Taking- Misinterpretation of a social interaction may lead to aggression. If this is the case, teach your child to look at things from other people’s perspectives. Try to understand how the other person may have been thinking. Help your child see not everything is a personal attack. This will be especially true to if your child tends to be sensitive.
- Role Model- Be a role model to help students express self and manage emotions if vital. Children learn from people, especially adults in their lives. Be a positive force.
- Third Party Mentor- Parents have a great impact and influence on their child’s life; however, it is also important for your child to have another trusted adult with whom they can look up to and whom also exhibits strong emotional control and patience. We can all learn from each other.
- Help For You- Life can be difficult and tensions can be high at times. If you find yourself losing your patience and having difficulty controlling your emotions, especially in front of your children, it is important to seek help. Do not be afraid to explore options for professional help. Instead, consider it a positive step and a gift you are giving to those around you. Be sure you are allowing time for yourself to manage stress appropriately by allowing time to relax and spend time with loved ones.
REFERENCES & ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
- Barkley, R. A., & Benton, C. M. (2013). Your defiant child: Eight steps to better behavior (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Advice for parenting a child with oppositional, defiant, and aggressive behavior (research-based).
- Boxmeyer, C., Powell, N. Lochman, J., & Barry, T. (2018). Helping Handouts: Supporting Students at School and Home. National Association for School Psychologists.
Greene, R. W. (2014). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Learn why a child may display challenging behaviors and how to respond in a manner that is effective, humane and non-adversarial.
Website with collaborative and proactive strategies to handle challenging behaviors
Website dedicated to resources and information on mental and behavioral issues to offer hope and solutions.
Kazdin, A. E. (2008). The Kazdin method for parenting the defiant child. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Parenting program for children with oppositional defiant and aggressive behavior (research-based). The website yaleparentingcenter.yale.edu has resources related to the Kazdin Method as well as other parenting resources.