Top 5 Behaviors That Cause Parents to Lose Their Cool: #1 Aggression

(and What to Do About Them)

by Rebecca Eanes

At last we have made it to the number one most frustrating behavior that causes parents to lose their cool. Aggressive behavior.

Yes, nothing brings out our own aggression more than seeing our children be aggressive. I once witnessed a child hit her mother, and her mother immediately smacked the child's leg while yelling, “I told you it's not okay to hit!” I've also seen a child push over another child and the parent responded with a swat on the bottom, and I've heard a shouting match between mother and son in which neither wanted to lose dignity by backing down. In each of these 3 situations, who was exhibiting self-control?  Nobody, unfortunately. When we meet aggression with aggression, we only reinforce that aggression is an acceptable response. Therefore, the first rule to handling aggressive behavior in children is to discipline yourself first, and frankly this is the hardest part for many parents who were raised being smacked, yanked around, yelled out, and otherwise handled aggressively because those response patterns got wired into our brains, and we must work hard to overcome them if we want to parent consciously.

It is important to understand that children who are aggressive are children who are scared, hurt, or feeling disconnected. Young children lack the language skills and self-awareness to tell us what is wrong, and they may not even know or understand it themselves. Aggression in older children can be a cover-up of more vulnerable feelings – fear, guilt, anxiety, or shame.  

For very young children, under age 4, keep it simple and to the point. Remove the aggressive child from the situation. Take the child to time-in (sitting next to you or on your lap) and state your limit. “I won't let you hit. That hurts. I'll keep you and everyone safe until you're feeling calm.”  The primary focus of the time-in is to get the child's brain regulated, because remember, when he's resorted to aggressive behavior, his brain is in that fight or flight mode, and he's not going to take in your lesson until he can reach his higher brain functions when he's calm. Try a box with a calm-down jar (glitter glue and water in a sealed jar), books, a small rice sensory bin, and balloons to pop. What? Is this a reward? Letting him play after he's just hit someone?! Well, when you need to go calm down so you don't yell at your child, is taking that moment alone a reward for your anger? No, it's emotional management, and it's important to learn. During this time in, you can be empathizing with his feelings and helping him verbalize what he's feeling and what made him angry.  Some children will be soothed by this, and some will be further upset by it. You will know what works best. Once the child is no longer angry, restate kindly and firmly the “no hitting” rule and discuss alternatives and what will happen if he hits again (leaving the play date, for example). Remember, this child is under 5. It's going to take time for him to master emotional control. The last thing we want to do is to pin the label of “naughty” or “aggressive” on him. Remember, children see themselves through the eyes of their parents, and they rarely live up to low expectations.

For children around 5-8, their executive brain functions are getting stronger and it's time to start problem-solving. This teaches them accountability, emotional intelligence, and positive conflict resolution skills. It may look like this:

Emma is 7, and she just pushed her younger sister down. After checking on little sister, you take Emma to time-in. “Our rule is no pushing. Tell me what happened.” Emma explains that little sister was annoying her. “Emma, what are the 3 things we went over that you can do when you're feeling upset? You can take deep breaths. You can walk away. You can ask me for help, but you may not push your sister. Tell me the 3 things you can do again.” Listen while she repeats them back to you. “Okay, good. So the next time you get frustrated with your sister, what are you going to do?” She'll probably say one of the 3 calm down techniques. “Good. Now I think your sister is feeling upset that you pushed her. How are you going to fix this?” If she doesn't offer any ideas, give her some. “You can write her a note, or make her a drawing, or apologize and give her a hug. Which do you think will make her feel better?” Teach her to repair rifts in relationships. The quick fix is to punish children with a spanking or a time out, but children need to learn how to fix their mistakes, not just pay for them.

If children over the age of about 8 are showing aggressive behaviors, find out what's going on inside that child. What is that aggression covering up? The problem-solving process may involve a consequence, for example, if an angered child broke something, he needs to work to pay for it, but the focus is still on teaching, not retribution. If you feel your child is showing aggressive behaviors that are extreme or sudden and out of character, seek professional advice.

Aggressive behavior is very common in young children. While this is a common phase for children to go through, it is the parent's responsibility to set appropriate limits and teach alternatives. For more on handling aggression, visit my website at, or get my book Positive Parenting in Action, which has an entire chapter devoted to dealing with aggressive behavior.

Rebecca Eanes is the author of The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting and co-author of Positive Parenting in Action: The How-To Guide for Putting Positive Parenting Principles into Action in Early Childhood. She is the founder of and creator of the Facebook community Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond. ??Through her Facebook community and website, Rebecca reaches thousands of parents daily with the message that connection trumps coercion and love is most powerful motivator. She does not claim to be a parenting "expert" but writes parent-to-parent with the hope of inspiring others to create peaceful homes through positive parenting.

She is the grateful mother of two boys.

Posted on Sep 15, 2014

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