It’s normal for young children to hit and bite. As their brain develops and their motor ability increases, children will naturally express anger and aggression through such behaviours.

Do most kids act out like this?

It’s all about knowing what’s developmentally appropriate. “We generally expect toddlers to experience some aggressive behaviors,” says pediatric psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD.

“At this stage, kids tend to resort to physical expressions of their frustration, simply because they don’t yet have the language skills to express themselves. For example, pushing a peer on the playground could be considered typical. We wouldn’t necessarily call that aggression unless it was part of a pattern.”

How do you recognize true aggression?

By the time a child is old enough to have the verbal skills to communicate his or her feelings — around age 7 — physical expressions of aggression should taper off, she says.

If that’s not happening, it’s time to be concerned, especially if your child is putting himself or others in danger, or is regularly damaging property.

How to Respond to Aggressive Behavior 

It’s important to take action when your child behaves aggressively. With prompt consequences and new skills, your child can learn to respond to frustration and other big feelings in a more appropriate way.

Provide Immediate Consequences 

Any act of aggression should result in an immediate consequence. Don’t give warnings or reminders to stop. Consequences might include:

  • Time-out. When used appropriately, time-out teaches children how to calm down. The ultimate goal of time-out should be for children to put themselves in time-out before they lash out aggressively. In this case, the time-out is not meant to punish the child for the behavior, but rather, to give them the chance to practice calm-down strategies in the moment. Initially, the parent will most likely need to be present with the child to teach them these skills and ensure that they can effectively use them in the future.
  • Restitution. If your child hurts someone, restitution should be part of the consequence. Restitution may involve loaning a favorite toy to the person that they hurt or doing extra chores to pay for the damage. Restitution can help repair relationships and give your child an opportunity to make amends.
  • Loss of privileges. Take away your child’s favorite possession or activity for 24 hours. Losing electronics or the chance to go to a friend’s house can be an effective reminder not to hurt others.
  • Natural consequences. If your child destroys their own property, a natural consequence might be the most effective. If your teenager throws their phone and breaks it, don’t buy a new one. Going without a phone and then having to buy their own replacement can serve as a valuable life lesson.
  • Reward systems. If your child exhibits aggression often, establish a reward system. Provide positive reinforcement for desired behavior, like gentle touches. A token economy system can also eliminate aggression in some children.

No matter which type of consequence you choose to use, you need to make sure that it constitutes discipline and not punishment. Embarrassing or shaming your child can backfire and may lead to increased aggression.

When should I seek help?

Make an appointment with your child’s doctor if the techniques above don’t make a difference, or if your child’s aggressive behavior is making it difficult for him to participate in school, family, or other activities. 

Your pediatrician may refer you to a child psychologist or psychiatrist, who can assess your child for a learning disability as well as emotional or behavioral problems that sometimes set off aggressive behavior.

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