Aggression is hard to watch as a parent. It is upsetting to see our children hurting someone else. Few things trigger parents as quickly as when our children are yelling at us, slapping us, or sinking their teeth into a playmate’s arm. Our children’s angry and aggressive behavior may be extremely concerning to us and bring on feelings of shame and embarrassment. If the behavior has been continuing for a while you are likely tired and left feeling helpless and seriously doubting your parenting abilities.
Toddlers and preschooler’s brains are developing and becoming capable of more complex feelings. In times of outburst behavior children have intense emotions going on- confusion, frustration, anxiety, overwhelm, or disappointment. Something is going on or something happened to trigger these feelings inside and your child doesn’t yet have the ability to understand and cope with their big feelings appropriately. They react by yelling, throwing things, slamming doors, and hitting you, siblings or friends. This is the best they can do. They don’t have the words or skills to do better in this moment.
As a parent, you know you need to respond to your child and their behavior and you’ll do whatever it takes to stop the aggressive behavior. You might already have a battle plan. Maybe you start off calm and with patience hoping to diffuse the situation. When this doesn’t work, you may yell or threaten timeout, punishment, or consequences to try stop the behavior. In the end, you match their intensity with your own in a desperate attempt to calm the situation and stop the barrage of negative behavior.
The reality is that when children act out aggressively they need our help. This is not a time for punishment or consequences. In this moment your child needs you to look past their behavior and understand the needs driving the behavior, and they need help managing their big feelings. We need to shift the focus from wanting to stop the aggression to wanting to understand the aggression. Behavior is communication and when a child behaves aggressively communication is happening. Feelings are being communicated with hands and feet instead of useful words. We need to step back and see the bigger picture – we need to figure out the why behind the behavior.
There are a few common sources that may be triggering your child’s aggressive responses. Many of these may be going on beneath the surface and are not observable to you.
- Environmental Factors – Are there environmental factors that may be contributing to the behavior? Do they feel unsafe? Is the environment too overstimulating for your child- too crowded, too noisy, too busy? Is the environment not stimulating enough? Is your child bored?
- Physical Needs – Is your child hungry, thirsty, or do they need sleep?
- Verbal Ability- Many children have difficulty expressing their thoughts and feelings. With younger children, there is the added piece that their ability to communicate and be understood through language is limited. This inability to express themselves can lead to frustration which comes out as aggression.
- Need for Power- Young children want to be independent and may act out when they feel trapped or powerless. Maybe they were not given choices, maybe something was taken away, or maybe they were not able to accomplish something independently.
- Need for Attention – Many children act out in an effort to connect with you and get your attention or to get other children to notice them.
- Limited Skills –Young children have limited coping and problem solving skills and a limited ability to deal with big emotions. Are there specific skills that need to be taught and developed for your child?
- Emotional Influences – Challenging and aggressive behaviors may be the result of your child feeling rushed, insecure, unwelcome, or frightened.
When trying to figure out the why or source behind a child’s aggressive behavior, we need to begin by being curious instead of critical of children’s behavior. It is important to stop, take a deep calming breath and consider these questions:
- What is my child likely thinking in this moment?
- What is my child likely feeling in this moment?
- What might be difficult for him/her right now?
- What skills does my child need to learn?
Aggression is a sign that your child needs your help. Children have a lot to learn so they can manage big feelings and do better in the future. When they are behaving aggressively your child needs your understanding. They need you to be strong and they need you to be the calm, confident center in the middle of their big, overwhelming emotional storm.
Your parenting counts!