Little Fighters; Managing Physical Aggression in Children
One of the most common questions I am asked by parents is why their children are behaving in any particular way. They want to know if it is normal and developmentally appropriate, and at what stage intervention is required. One of the behaviours that causes the most concern for parents is when their child is being physically aggressive. Whether this aggression is occurring at home or within the childcare environment, it is distressing and needs to be managed calmly and with empathy.
Aggression in young children often comes from anger, fear or frustration. These emotions are normal ones and we all feel them, the question is how we express them. As adults, most of us have learnt what our coping mechanisms are and what makes these feelings dissipate. Young children however, do not have sophisticated levels of impulse control or emotional regulation and that means that when they feel overwhelmed with emotions, it becomes difficult for them to make the right choices.
Acting out aggressively may simply be a child trying to communicate their feelings when they are lacking the vocabulary or knowledge of the appropriate way to do so.
For a parent dealing with a child who struggles to handle their emotions, try to remember that the negative behaviour you see is a manifestation of big feelings that your child needs coping strategies to deal with. These feelings may range from anger to sadness to jealousy, to excitement and even sheer elation (they got the footy card they’ve been wishing for!!). However, these big feelings can easily become overwhelming for small bodies.
For a child who is less emotionally articulate, being physically aggressive may become a communication tool to tell parents or carers that the situation they are in is too much for them. Removing your child from the situation at that time (either physically or by removing the object of their rage) is often the first step to calming them down.
If you are finding that aggression is happening on a regular basis, it can be useful to keep a diary to try and identify things that are triggering your child. It may be specific people, tiredness or even certain foods that escalate their behaviours and once you identify the culprit – it can be possible to avoid some of the aggression occurring in the first place.
Another useful idea is to help your child learn to identify and regulate their emotions. There are many practical ways to do this within your usual routine.
The first idea is to help your child to label their emotions. One way of doing this is to show them pictures of faces with different emotion (like emojis) and ask them to point to what they are feeling. By doing this when they are calm as well as angry, they start to learn about ranges of emotions and that is ok to feel different things at different times. By empowering your child to identify what they are feeling, you give them a sense of control as they understand that what they are feeling is a real thing and has a name which can be very powerful.
Another idea is to start to try and notice how your child looks or behaves immediately before they become aggressive. This early intervention can be key in avoiding a full-blown meltdown and prevent them or other children getting hurt. Once you see these signs, you can gently steer your child to a safe place where they can sit quietly and relax. This can be their bean bag with some favourite books, or quiet time with gentle music and calm toys like puzzles or blocks. Colouring works for some children and physical activity works for others. Just like with adults, different calming techniques will work for different children. By taking this action to divert your child as soon as you sense that they are becoming irritated, your child also learns to identify within themselves, when the feeling is beginning to ‘grow’ and learns that taking time out at this point helps the feeling regulate and eventually pass.
For many toddlers a trigger point is when they are playing with others. They don’t like sharing, aren’t great at taking turns and aren’t gracious if they lose! It is easy to assume that as they grow, they will develop these skills but spending time playing with them yourself and teaching them how to lose, how to wait patiently and how to share space and experiences with others can be a very valuable use of 1 to 1 time. By you gently and calmly showing them how to do these things, they can model your behaviour and start to understand what the expectations are of them.
It is easy to label aggression as always being a destructive emotion which leads to bad things. But for children who have higher levels of aggression is can be helpful to channel that into something positive. Depending on their age, there are activities you can provide for your child at home, to give them the outlet that they are seeking. Some examples include popping bubble wrap or jumping on cardboard boxes to flatten them for recycling. Both of these activities work well for younger children. Older kids may benefit from having a kid’s punch bag set up in your child’s safe place eg: the garage. Another option is to enrol them in karate or other martial arts which will show them how to be aggressive but also disciplined at the same time.
For the vast majority of children, aggression is either a phase of childhood development which they grow out of, or is just an immature way of processing their emotions (even when they should know better)! However, some children really do struggle to control the impulse to be aggressive and if it goes on for a long period of time or is happening more frequently, it can be upsetting and concerning for parents. In those instances it can be helpful to try and find your child some help to cope with their emotions or with their social skills and professionals including psychologists, speech therapists and occupational therapists can be a great place to start.