Has something like this ever happened in your home: your child gets into a squabble with their sibling over using the video game console. In the midst of the argument, they slug their sibling in the arm out of frustration. Before you know it, an all-out physical fight between the siblings is occurring in your living room. You may wonder to yourself, “Is it typical for children to fight like this?” While most children exhibit some type of physical aggression during childhood, it can be challenging to know when it’s just children “being children” and when it is something more worrisome. Understanding the origins of childhood aggression and how to help our children learn healthier coping skills is an important aspect of our parenting role.
Why Aggression Happens
From a very young age, most of our children hear admonitions from us about avoiding aggression. We repeatedly remind them with phrases like, “No hitting” or “Please keep your hands to yourself.” Despite all of this, however, many children still exhibit some type of aggression in childhood. Why is that?
One common reason comes from the fact that while children may understand our admonitions against aggression, they simply do not yet have the skills to control their behavior well. Young children, in particular, are still developing their emotional regulation skills.1 When experiencing a highly-charged emotional situation such as one involving anger or frustration, many children do not have the skills to handle these emotions in appropriate ways. Instead, they may resort to aggression in the midst of these emotions.
Parenting practices may also influence our children’s behavior to a certain extent. In terms of aggression, research2 tells us that children whose parents use physical punishments (e.g., spanking, slapping, hitting) tend to be more aggressive than children whose parents do not use such punishments. When parents act aggressively towards children, the children may go on to emulate this behavior in other situations. A lack of positive parenting3 has also been linked to more aggression in children. Specifically, lack of monitoring or discipline as well as giving in to children’s requests to avoid tantrums can influence the development of aggression in children.
Lastly, there is some evidence that suggests that aggressive behavior in children might have a genetic or biological component. At least one study4 has found that particular brain wave patterns predict aggression in young children. Researchers believe these different brain wave patterns are associated with how children interpret ambiguous social cues. For example, some children might interpret playful teasing as funny, while others might interpret it as hostile. Children who interpret the teasing as hostile are more likely to respond aggressively toward others.
When to Worry About Aggression
Although some episodes of aggression are not uncommon in childhood, continued or severe aggression can be a sign of a more serious problem. If a child’s aggressive behavior does not seem to be improving as they mature, it can be worth looking into further or asking a pediatrician for recommendations.
In some instances, aggression in children can be a sign of a mental health problem or behavioral disorder.5 Sometimes aggression can be an outward sign of a child’s inner frustration due to a learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or anxiety. Furthermore, behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder often include frequent aggression as one of the symptoms. A psychologist can diagnose these types of disorders after a full assessment of the child.
How to Handle Aggression in Children
In the majority of cases, aggression in children is a behavior that can be changed through intentional teaching and modeling more appropriate strategies for our children.
Foster Emotional Learning: Since we know that children who have a better understanding of emotions and stronger emotional regulation skills6 tend to rely less on aggression, this is a great place to begin in helping our children. When children express strong emotions, we can begin to give them the vocabulary to discuss how they feel. Even young children can begin to recognize and label the emotions they are feeling. As children mature, we can start to teach them effective ways of coping with these big emotions such as deep breathing, exercising, or walking away from the situation.
Model Appropriate Behavior: As parents, we all know that our children closely watch everything we do. With this in mind, we can help our children learn the appropriate ways to handle emotionally charged situations. When we become upset, we can intentionally try to model calm, appropriate ways of handling our emotions. Instead of yelling or losing our tempers, we can model the coping strategies we’d like to see in our children.
Consistent Consequences: Psychologists also suggest that the use of consequences1 for children can be helpful in curbing aggression. In general, allowing natural consequences to play out can often help children learn the cause-and-effect of their aggressive behavior. For example, if a child becomes aggressive while upset and throws their toy across the room, it might break and be unusable. Instead of buying a new toy, the natural consequence would be to allow the child to face the experience of no longer having the toy. Allowing children to experience the natural consequences of their behavior (whenever safe and possible), can aid the discipline process.
As parents, seeing aggression in our children can be worrisome. Although many children exhibit aggression as they learn to manage their emotions, it can sometimes be a sign of a more serious concern. Understanding the origins of childhood aggression and how we can support our children in gaining appropriate coping skills can help ease our anxiety in this area of parenting.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Morin, A. (2020). Discipline Strategies to Manage Aggression in Children. Verywell Family. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.verywellfamily.com/discipline-strategies-to-manage-aggression-in-children-1094953
- Heilmann, A., Mehay, A., Watt, R. G., Kelly, Y., Durrant, J. E., van Turnhout, J., & Gershoff, E. T. (2021). Physical Punishment and Child Outcomes: A Narrative Review of Prospective Studies. The Lancet, 398(10297), 355–364. https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(21)00582-1/fulltext
- Schoorl, J., van Rijn, S., de Wied, M. et al. (2017) Neurobiological Stress Responses Predict Aggression in Boys with Oppositional Defiant Disorder/Conduct Disorder: A 1-year Follow-Up Intervention Study. European Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 26, 805–813. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00787-017-0950-x#Sec1
- Lewis, R. (2018). UI Researchers Identify Marker in Brain Associated with Aggression in Children. Iowa Now. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://now.uiowa.edu/2018/09/ui-researchers-identify-marker-brain-associated-aggression-children
- Yale Medicine. (2022). Anger, Irritability and Aggression in Kids. Yale Medicine. Retrieved August 1, 2022, from https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/anger-issues-in-children-and-teens
- Cabello R, Gutiérrez-Cobo, M.J. and Fernández-Berrocal, P. (2017) Parental Education and Aggressive Behavior in Children: A Moderated-Mediation Model for Inhibitory Control and Gender. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:1181. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01181/full