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Understanding Aggression

Understanding Aggression

Aggression is really hard to watch as a parent. It’s very 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 (this might be the worst right?). 

Not only is our children’s angry and aggressive behavior extremely concerning to us it also likely brings on feelings of shame and embarrassment. If the behavior has been happening for a while, you’re likely tired of it already.  Maybe you’re starting to feel helpless and possibly seriously doubting your parenting abilities -why is this behavior still happening?

The Why Behind Aggression

Toddlers and preschooler’s brains are continuously developing and becoming capable of more complex feelings. In times of outburst behavior children typically have intense emotions going on- confusion, frustration, anxiety, overwhelm, or disappointment. Something is going on or something happened that triggered these feelings inside, and your child doesn’t yet have the ability to understand and cope with their big feelings appropriately. Often they’ll react by yelling, throwing things, slamming doors, and hitting you, siblings or friends.  Your children don’t have the words or skills to do better in this moment, and although it may not feel this way, this is the best they can do. 

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. Sometimes we jump to other punishment or consequences to try to stop the behavior. In the end, you may end up matching their emotional intensity in a desperate attempt to calm the situation and stop the barrage of negative behavior.

The reality - When your children act out aggressively they need your help. This is not a time for punishment or consequences.

In this moment, your child needs you to look past their behavior and instead understand the needs driving their behavior. They’ll also need your help managing their big feelings. You can best support your kids by shifting the focus from wanting to stop the behavior, to wanting to understand the aggression. 

At its core, behavior is a form of communication, and when a child behaves aggressively communication is happening. Now it may not be the way we’d like to see it, but real feelings are being communicated with hands and feet instead of useful words. So, in moments like these it’s best 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 are going on beneath the surface and are not observable to you.

  1. Environmental Factors – Are there environmental factors that may be contributing to the behavior? Do they feel unsafe? Is the environment overstimulating for your child- too crowded, too noisy, too busy? Is the environment not stimulating enough? Is your child bored? Is your child feeling rushed?
  2. Physical Needs – Is your child hungry, thirsty or tired?
  3. 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 in turn comes out as aggression.
  4. Need for Power - Young children want to be independent and many little ones act out when they feel trapped or powerless. Maybe they weren’t given choices, maybe something was taken away, or maybe they weren’t able to accomplish something independently.
  5. Need for Attention – It’s common for children act out in an effort to connect with you and get your attention or to get other children to notice them.
  6. Limited Skills –Young children have limited coping and problem solving skills and a very limited ability to deal with big emotions. Consider if there are there specific skills that need to be taught and developed for your child?

When trying to figure out the why or source behind your child’s aggressive behavior begin by being curious instead of critical of their behavior. Here’s where you can truly make a big parenting shift! 

If aggression is a sign that your child needs your help and you’ve decided to be curious about their behavior, this is a great time to stop, take a deep calming breath and consider these questions:

  1. What is my child likely thinking in this moment?
  2. What is my child likely feeling in this moment?
  3. What might be difficult for him/her right now?
  4. What skills does my child need to learn?

Children really do have lots to learn when it comes to understanding their feelings and doing better with their emotional regulation. And there is no doubt one of the more difficult aspects of parenting is remember in the moment, when your kids are behaving aggressively, they need your understanding and guidance. It’s remembering they need to know they can depend on you and trust you to be strong, calm, confident, and empathetic while they’re in the middle of their big, overwhelming emotional storm.  And it’s remembering any teaching, consequences, or problem solving around the situation can always be addressed later when calm and clarity has been restored.

Heart of Connecting

My work is dedicated to supporting parents and early childhood educators in understanding and reducing challenging behavior in young children at home and in the preschool classroom.

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