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Aggression In Children: Types, Causes And Ways To Deal With Them

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Aggression is defined as any behavior that hurts people physically or mentally, irrespective of the intent of the person displaying aggression (1). Children often become cross over petty matters and may show anger by communicating their annoyance. However, an aggressive child will vent out their frustration and displeasure in ways that could hurt those around them.

There are various reasons why children may display aggression, from innate factors to their socioeconomic situation. Read on to learn about the various types and causes of aggression in children and how parents can tackle it.

Types Of Aggression In Children

The following are the various types of aggression usually seen in children (2).

1. Accidental aggression

It is a sporadic display of aggression without any intention of harming someone. Acts of accidental aggression are accidents and not done on purpose.

Examples

  • Hitting someone’s hand unintentionally while wearing a jacket.
  • Stepping on a friend’s foot while playing tag.
  • Disrupting or knocking a classmate’s stack of blocks while walking through a congested space.

2. Expressive aggression

The child carries out an aggressive act to feel better or because it makes them feel good. However, the intention is not to hurt someone.

Examples

  • The child could enjoy demolishing a sibling’s playing blocks without realizing that it could make the sibling feel bad.
  • Throwing or spilling a vessel full of liquid could seem delightful for the child but not to the parent.
  • Hitting or kicking someone hard while playing tag could seem fun for the child, but they may not realize that it could hurt others.

3. Instrumental aggression

It is aggression shown to gain control of an object, that is, the aggression becomes instrumental in gaining control of an object. A common example is two children fighting for the same object or purpose, such as a toy, crayon box, or a chance to use the slide at the playground, causing them to hurt one another.

Instrumental aggression is commonly seen between the ages of two and six years. Children of this age group may usually display self-centric personality attributes, making them more likely to quarrel than share.

4. Hostile aggression

It is an extreme form of aggression where the aggressive behavior is directed towards someone with the intention of hurting them. The child’s purpose could be to harm someone physically or psychologically.

The child may turn to hostile aggression to gain pleasure or satisfaction — usually seen in bullying. A child may resort to striking, calling names, or ignoring someone to bully them.

Some children may believe that they have been wronged and could resort to hostile aggression to seek revenge. In such cases, the acts of hostile aggression could come across as impulsive or extreme.

Causes Of Aggression In Children

There is no single cause of aggression, and it could be the result of several factors. Below are some of the factors that could influence aggression in children (3) (4).

1. Prenatal factors

These events and factors usually affect the baby at a fetal stage, increasing the risk of aggressive behavior in childhood.

  • Some studies note that maternal prenatal smoking and alcohol use may cause the baby to develop aggressive and hyperactive behavior later in childhood. The child may also have frequent temper tantrums. These may usually occur due to the effects of tobacco and alcohol on the brain of the developing fetus.
  • Violence and aggression towards the pregnant woman may affect her neurotransmitters, increasing the risk of unfavorable changes in the developing fetus’ brain. The changes may eventually lead to temperament issues later in the child’s life, causing them to display more aggression than usual.

Gender difference mostly influences the nature of aggression rather than the intensity and frequency of aggressive acts. Girls may mostly display relational or social aggression, while boys may mostly indulge in physical aggression.

2. Familial factors

The way the child is treated at home, especially by parents, and the behavior the child sees in their family members could significantly influence their temperament. The following are the common familial factors to influence aggression in children.

  • Disturbed family dynamics: Children who witness constant quarrels, aggressions, and acts of violence within the family members may resort to aggression themselves.
  • Parental characteristics: Parents with mental illnesses, aggressive personality, impulsive nature, and antisocial or criminal behavior may not be able to impart self-regulation to children. Those who indulge in substance abuse may be emotionally unavailable and subject their children to negligence. These parental factors may negatively impact the child’s emotional development, causing them to resort to aggressive acts frequently.
  • Behavior towards children: Some children may develop an aggressive streak to protest the way parents and family members treat them. Children who are constantly shamed, belittled, or controlled at home may develop aggression as an act of defiance.

3. Social factors

The social factors emerge from the society or community that a child lives in and their social relationships.

  • Living in a violent neighborhood: Children who live in neighborhoods with flagrant violence and acts of aggression could develop aggression through observational learning.
  • Having aggressive friends: A child could learn aggression if their social circle consists of aggressive children.

4. Exposure to violence

Children who are exposed to violence could be prone to developing aggression. Exposure to violence could happen in the following ways (5) (6).

  • Experiencing violence: Children subjected to emotional trauma, abuse, and violence, are more likely to display aggression, especially of the hostile and violent type.
  • Witnessing violence: Seeing real-world violence, often that results in a fatality or involves a loved one, could leave a psychological scar. It may manifest as mental conflicts, frustration, and acts of aggression.
  • Viewing violence in media: Some children may be easily influenced by acts of aggression seen on television and other visual media. The influence of media may often cause the child to try aggressive acts, often leading to expressive aggression.

5. Pathological conditions

Some children could be aggressive due to a mental disorder or illness. These pathological conditions are usually beyond the control of the parents and the children. Aggression is often one of the many signs of the condition.

The following are some of the common mental disorders that may cause aggressive behavior (7) (8).

  • Psychotic disorders: Children who experience psychosis and related symptoms may display aggression due to their sensations. For instance, children with schizophrenia may display aggression as a result of their paranoia.
  • Mood disorders: Aggression and impulsivity could occur in children with mood disorders. An example is bipolar disorder, where a child may seem lethargic during the depressed phase and display aggression during the manic phase.
  • Autism: An autistic child could have trouble communicating their needs and understanding others. It may cause them to sometimes resort to aggressive acts towards others and themselves.

Risks Of Aggression In Children

Children with aggressive nature could be at risk of experiencing the following negative outcomes.

  • Self-injury
  • Grievous injuries to others
  • Damage to property
  • Poor familial relationships
  • Social isolation and trouble making friends
  • Academic and other school-related problems
  • Increased risk of substance abuse
  • Legal troubles

How To Deal With An Aggressive Child?

The first step towards curtailing aggressive behavior is identifying the possible cause and type of aggression the child displays. Check for the possible triggers for your child’s aggression. Once you seem to have identified the cause and the type of aggression, you may consider trying any of the following interventions (9).

1. Motivate the use of words

A cranky child should be reminded to verbally communicate their emotions to the parent or a peer rather than being physical. If you sense your child is frustrated and may turn violent at any moment, intervene by saying words, such as, “I know you are annoyed.”

Children should be taught to apologize and say words, such as, “Sorry,” during incidents of accidental aggression. Expressive and instrumental aggression could be controlled by teaching the child to take permission from others and learn to share.

2. Model non-aggressive behavior

Children learn a lot from their parents. You must set the right examples at home so that the child does not learn aggression. Be mindful of how you speak to your spouse, parents, and others in front of your child. Use polite words and tone even when upset with your child. When a child sees your calm demeanor even during situations that warrant frustration, they will learn to replicate it in their own behavior.

If your child is aggressive due to their social circle, you may speak to their friends’ parents. You may also involve your child’s school teachers.

3. Praise your child

Appreciate your child when they do things right. Praise them when they resolve a matter without shouting or becoming aggressive. Appreciation makes them feel rewarded and reinforces positive behavior.

4. Never cave-in to tantrums

Tantrums are often the first step towards aggression. If you always submit to your child’s tantrums, they learn that it is the best way of getting what they need. As a result, the child may display more aggressive tantrums or become aggressive even when you ignore their tantrum slightly.

Say your child “No” when the situation demands it but do not ignore your child. Instead, sit with your child and politely state your intent or reason behind doing or saying something. Reassure the child that as parents, you will take decisions that are in their best interest, and they can always discuss their opinions with you.

5. Set a schedule and rules

It can significantly reduce tantrums and instrumental aggression. Set a daily schedule for playtime, naps, and other activities. Your child will then be aware of when to expect an activity without resorting to frustration. Exposure to violence in media can be reduced by setting rules for the duration spent watching television and the type of content the child is permitted to watch. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour of screen time a day for children (10).

If the child often quarrels with a sibling for a toy, set rules for who plays with a toy and for how long. Buy separate toys whenever possible. Avoid gifting toys that require aggressive play, such as toy guns. The child may use them for expressive aggression without your knowledge.

You may also take the help of online resources or local support groups to learn new ways of dealing with aggressive children. If your child does not respond positively to your interventions or the causes are beyond your control, consult a child psychiatrist.

Is Treatment Necessary For Aggressive Children?

Treatment for aggression may be needed when self-regulation of behavior and domestic interventions do not yield results. Aggression due to pathological and psychological factors may require medication.

The following are some salient points about the treatment of aggression in children (11) (12).

  • Most children with psychological and pathological problems show a positive response to cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The therapy aims to improve the way children think, understand one’s behavior better, learn problem-solving skills, and learn ways to cope with triggers (13). The therapy would be customized for the child’s requirements, and there could be several strategies used.
  • Medications could be needed in cases where the child has certain mental disorders that tend to stay for a lifetime, such as bipolar disorder. The psychoactive drug provided would depend on the type of the condition and the intensity of symptoms. The medicine could be reviewed periodically based on the child’s response. Some children may display better self-management of the symptoms, including aggression, and may not require medicines eventually.

The child may require a combination of therapy and medication, depending on their condition. Some children may show improvement when therapy and medication are further combined with other interventions, such as a positive home environment and reinforcement of good behavior.

Aggression in children could often come across as a nuisance, but most cases are manageable at home. Speak to your child to determine the possible trigger for aggression. Teach your child to manage triggers so that they can do so even when you are not around. If you suspect your child’s aggression to be a result of a disorder, do not hesitate to speak to a child psychiatrist.

References:

1. Aggression in Youth; University of Michigan
2. Marjorie Kostelnik et al., Helping Children Resolve Conflict: Aggressive Behavior of Children; University of Nebraska
3. Aamir Jeewa, On Violence and Aggression; American Academy of Pediatrics
4. Pratibha Reebye, Aggression During Early Years — Infancy and Preschool; U.S. National Library of Medicine
5. Wendy Auslander et al., Childhood Abuse and Aggression in Adolescent Girls Involved in Child Welfare; U.S. National Library of Medicine
6. Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents; American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
7. Raul Silva, What Are Some of the Causes of Aggression in Children?; Child Mind Institute
8. Aggressive behaviour: autistic children and teenagers; Raising Children Network
9. Richard E. Tremblay et al., Physical Aggression During Early Childhood; U.S. National Library of Medicine
10. Where We Stand: Screen Time; American Academy of Pediatrics
11. Anger, Irritability and Aggression in Kids; Yale Medicine
12. Elizabeth Pappadopulos et al., Pharmacotherapy of Aggression in Children and Adolescents; U.S. National Library of Medicine
13. What is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?; American Psychological Association

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