Although aggressive behavior such as hitting, screaming, and even biting is not seen as all that unusual from a child of one or two years of age, the same conduct in children merely a year or two older is often seen as cruel and problematic. Controlling feelings and emotions is, however, a learned skill and can be very difficult to master (even for some adults!).
Staying calm and collected not only requires a fair amount of self-control and discipline, but also a basic understanding of appropriate social behavior and morality. Most children under the age of five or six have a minimal comprehension of what exactly is socially acceptable, at least beyond pleasing Mom or Dad. Even then, some children may find it difficult to control their temper and yet there is often a difference between a child who is deceptively ‘acting out' (which is rare, and often due to an unstable or unsafe home environment) and one who is simply trying to be assertive.
The majority of children do not recognize their own strength or even the full consequences of their actions; and in a world where they are often being told what to do, where to go and how to behave, it does not seem all that unreasonable that they may sometimes need to speak out and be heard. Those school-aged children who continue to act obnoxiously or aggressively may have never experienced the opportunity of being truly listened to in a loving environment. Listening, on the part of parents involves not only hearing your children's jokes and laughter, but perhaps more importantly hearing about those hurt, angered and unhappy emotions as well. So often, children are not allowed to speak negatively, complain, or offer a difference of opinion and thus their feelings continue to build up until one day they may unintentionally vent or lash out. It is important to remember, however, that hearing your children out does not mean submitting to their every whim or desire.
Aside from releasing pent up emotions, children who behave aggressively may also do so because they have been rewarded for the conduct. Parents may have hoped to raise a child who is strong and able to stand up for him- or herself in rough situations. More commonly, parents may have inadvertently reinforced the aggressive behavior through attention. Indeed, even nagging or punishing children for acting aggressively can make it more likely that they will act that way in the future. Imagine, if you will, a child quietly piecing a puzzle together or even playing a video game. He/She has almost completed the puzzle/game but cannot get the final pieces/play to come together. Throughout this quiet half an hour the parent has been around but has said absolutely nothing. Nothing, that is until the child becomes obviously frustrated and throws the puzzle/game across the room and begins screaming or swearing loudly. At this point the parent intervenes by reprimanding the child and sending him/her to their room. It would appear that the parent has done everything appropriate in this situation, except for the fact that the only attention this child received during the time period was negative. If this is commonly the case, the child may begin to feel that any attention is better than no attention and as a result may continue to act out disruptively in daily activities. When dealing with aggressive children, it is worth the effort to praise even the smallest attempt at proper behavior, while paying very little if any attention to negative conduct. Praise can be a very strong motivator.
It is also important to remember that behavior can be very difficult to change and that it takes a lot of patience. Turning an aggressive child into a nonaggressive child will not happen overnight, and the odd outburst may even occur once the behavior has seemed to restore itself.
In dealing with aggressive children, regardless of their age, here are a few suggestions to consider:
KNOW THE TRIGGERS
Whether it be rush hour traffic or spilled juice, everyone has those things that really aggravate or irritate them, and children are no different. While they may not be as great at expressing what upsets them, things like a late meal, a missed soccer game, or even a forgotten bedtime story can really agitate children and make them angry. Knowing that your child becomes easily upset under certain circumstances allows parents or care-givers to avoid or work around these situations -- or at the very least, be prepared for them. It might be helpful to keep a journal to figure out what times of day or what occurs prior to each time your child becomes upset. If mornings are difficult for your child, perhaps allow them some extra time to wake up or do not ask a whole lot form them at this point in time. If not being allowed to purchase a toy from the store usually sends them into a tantrum, warn them ahead of time or if possible just leave them at home.
AVOID PHYSICAL PUNISHMENT
It can be very easy to become angered and even outraged at a misbehaving child, especially an older one who probably should know better. Just be cautious of how you express your feelings, because the children are always watching and learning from you. Yelling or hitting an already angered and destructive child seems only to up the anti. If you expect your children to act responsibly and calmly, be sure to do so yourself. And remember, even a ten or twelve year-old girl or boy is still a child. Children do not form intent the same way adults do and often have little desire to hurt or upset you. They merely need to express themselves and have not yet learned to do so in a socially acceptable manner.
KNOW YOUR CHILD'S TEMPERAMENT
Everyone is born with a unique temperament or personality. Some people tend to be more reserved or timid, while others are always outgoing and spontaneous. Similarly, some children tend to be more outwardly assertive and aggressive and others less so. Knowing your child's personality allows you the advantage of foresight. If your child does not do well with unexpected occurrences, try to keep his or her day routine. Use the insight.
BE A ROLE MODEL
This is perhaps the hardest part of being a parent or caregiver. Role-modeling your own behavior can be difficult even in the easiest of times, but particularly if arguing or fighting is a common occurrence in your household. Nevertheless, you should not expect from others that which you cannot put forth yourself. Even the odd volatile joke or sarcastic remark can be misinterpreted by children, so watch not only your actions but also your words. Being a role model not only involves controlling your own emotions, but also teaching your children how to express theirs — both good and bad— appropriately. Modeling support and compassion for others is an important beginning place, so you may want to volunteer some of your time. Simply bring your neighbor some fresh cut flowers or a fruit basket to say "hello". Visit sick children in the hospital. Work at the food bank with your children over the Christmas holidays. Be the kind of person that you would like your child to grow up to be.
Along the same lines as being a role model, be sure to give your children the chance to see all of your own personal emotions. Modeling appropriate behavior should not be equated with hiding your feelings or fears from them. It is important for your children to see that you are also human, and that it is possible to have the esteem and self-control to act rationally even when feelings may not be.
REWARD GOOD BEHAVIOR
Although some parents may see rewards as a form of bardering or bribery, it does not have to be that extreme. It also can work really well for older children who in no other way seem to want to stop their aggressive tendencies. Offering your children well-deserved praise, a play at the park, or an opportunity to play at a friends house for proper conduct can work wonders. The key is to inform them of what is first expected, to reward them soon if not immediately after they obey, and to always withhold any and all rewards if they do not obey. So for example, if your child has made it through a shopping trip without any yelling, crying, or hitting, you may want to stop at the park with them on the way home as a thank you. Offering them the park the next day is already too late as it gives them the chance to act inappropriately in the mean time. For rewards to work effectively they also cannot be given to your children if they have not done what was expected of them. Toys can be used as well, but they are not advised and it is always best to start off small otherwise your child may be asking for things each and every time he or she behaves. The best kind of reward is praise. Children need to know their parents are proud of them.
No matter how agitated, upset, or aggressive your child becomes, it is much easier for them to relax if you are also calm. Despite your own concern, do not try to rationalize with them until they have calmed down. Try sending them into their room, or if you have to take yourself out of the situation and stay in your own bedroom or bathroom. If they become overly violent or aggressive you may need to take drastic measures. Call the police if necessary, but stay calm. The more aggravated your child sees you become the more power he or she has gained over you and the more likely he will be to repeat the behavior.
As a final note, if your child tends to be destructive often and does not seem to benefit from appropriate parental intervention, or actually seems to enjoy harming others, please seek professional advice.
Posted by Lim Sin Loong, T3