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Dealing with aggressive behavior in children

What parents should do if a child's behavior turns aggressive.

Even the best-behaved child throws a tantrum now and then. This type of behavior is normal as children learn to express themselves and assert their independence.

But behavior that turns aggressive is a potential cause for concern. When kids start to bite, hit, fight, argue, talk back or use bad words, take heed. This is not the time to shrink from your role as a parent. You'll need to step in and find ways to change some behaviors while cheering on others.

Discouraging bad behavior

If aggressive behavior starts, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests trying these approaches:

  • Ignoring. As long as your child is safe and isn't hurting anyone else, try walking away from a tantrum until the behavior stops.
  • Redirecting. Change the situation, activity or focus. Distracting a child sometimes breaks the misbehavior.
  • Verbal corrections. Name the behavior and insist that it stop: "No biting. That hurts." Keep your message simple, clear, calm and firm.
  • Time-outs. After a warning, have your child go to a quiet place, like the corner of a room. Set the timer—one minute for each year of age.

Encouraging good behavior

It isn't enough just to punish kids for bad behavior. You have to show them the proper way to behave too.

The AAP offers the following advice:

  • Set a good example. Express your own anger in quiet, peaceful ways, and don't laugh or smile at behaviors you don't like.
  • Give immediate praise for behaviors you want to reinforce and encourage: "I love to see you playing so nicely." "You're such a good helper."
  • Make concrete suggestions for solving problems: "You kids can take turns with that toy."
  • Help children express feelings with words: "I hear you're angry. Let's ask your cousin to return your doll so you can finish feeding her."
  • Build responsibility by offering choices: "Do you want to wear your sweater or your jacket?"
  • Set boundaries and be consistent: "No biting. No hitting."

Is it time to ask for help?

For many children, acting up is a way to explore and test limits. They're just trying out behaviors to gauge reactions.

But aggressive behavior that lasts more than a few weeks can be a sign of a more serious problem.

According to the AAP and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), you may need professional advice if:

  • Negative behavior is severe, excessive or frequent.
  • Behavior is dangerous, mean or hateful.
  • Your child seeks revenge or constantly blames others.
  • Your child hurts others, such as leaving teeth marks or bruises.
  • Your child is sent home or barred from playing with others.

Ask your child's healthcare provider for help. Treatment might include training to help everyone in the family manage anger, solve problems, communicate better and improve social skills, according to the AACAP.

Last words of advice

Remember that toddlers are still learning, and slip-ups will happen. Stay calm and consistent. Never hit, bite or fight back; that's not the lesson you want to teach.

With help, your child will develop judgment and self-discipline and learn how to express feelings in appropriate ways—important life skills for anyone.

Reviewed 2/22/2023

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