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How to Stop Your Child’s Aggressive Behavior

How to Stop Your Child’s Aggressive Behavior

Discipline strategies to prevent and curb lashing out when your child is angry

Question: How do I stop my child’s aggressive behavior?

I’m having some trouble with my 4-year-olddaughter, who will frequently hitbite, or otherwise behave aggressively toward other children when she doesn’t get her way. This happens with kids she knows and doesn’t know, both in and outside of her preschool classroom. How can I put a stop to this, and quickly?

Answer: First, a silver lining: While aggressive behavior in a child towards another child is something that is completely and utterly mortifying (and causes many parents to flee the playground in shame, dragging their little one behind them) it is pretty common in preschool-aged children.

This is thanks to a volatile mix that includes:

  • Limited language skills and vocabulary that prevent the child from being able to properly express themselves
  • An impulsiveness that comes from immaturity
  • A me-centric view of the world, that also stems from the child’s young age
  • A means to express independence

Obviously there is a range, and some children may be more aggressive than others, but this is something that time will help fix. In the meantime however, there are definitely things you can do to encourage peaceful behavior, both before, during, and after an incident when your child behaves aggressively.

Pay attention and act quickly: If your child is predisposed to act aggressively toward other children in certain situations, you need to be on full alert so you can respond immediately. You may be tempted to yell at your child or even respond with aggressive behavior of your own, but truly, the best way to respond is to simply remove your child from the situation, just for a minute or two.

Once she has calmed down, talk about what just happened and explain why she cannot behave in that manner. Eventually your child will learn that if she hits or bites, or engages in aggressive behavior, she will not be permitted to participate in things that she enjoys, or play with her friends.

If you child returns to the situation and immediately re-engages in the aggressive behavior, again, remove her, this time for a longer period of time. Explain that she will not be able to return until she starts to behave kindly towards others. Repeat as needed.

Praise good behavior: If your child serially engages in aggressive behavior, be sure to praise her and point out when she does things that you like. For example, “Isabella, it made me so happy just now when you let Sally play with the blocks.” While pointing out good behaviors after the fact is helpful, if you can “catch her in the act” so to speak — respond to good behaviors as quickly as you would respond to aggressive ones — it will make a stronger impact.

Also, consider implementing a reward system for when your child doesn’t engage in aggressive behaviors. For example, if you are going to the playground, set the expectation that you want your daughter to behave nicely towards the other children. If she does and you don’t need to remove her from a situation as detailed above, explain that she will get a sticker for her chart or a bean in her jar — whatever your reward system is. (For details on how to get started with reward system, read “How to Set Up a Reward System for Children.”)

Find the root of the problem: While aggressive behavior is common in young children, it isn’t a bad idea to take a close look at your preschooler’s life, to see what could be causing your child to act this way. This is especially true if the aggressive behavior is relatively new and seems to come out of nowhere. Has there been a major change in your child’s life, such as the birth of a sibling, or a move? Is it possible she is being picked on by another child and that is causing her to lash out? It could also be caused by something she is watching on television. On the shows that she watches regularly, are the characters kind to each other? Television and other outside influences carry a lot weight with young children, so it is important to review what your child watches regularly.

If after trying some of these tips, your child is still behaving aggressively, you might want to consider consulting with your child’s pediatrician to find out if there is something larger at play here.

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