Helping a Child with Hitting, Biting or other Aggressive Behavior

As seen on A Child Grows in

Aggressive behavior usually happens because a child is over stimulated or overwhelmed in some way either before or during a difficult incident. For example, aggression can increase with the birth of a new sibling, lack of sleep or food, excitement when seeing friends, or awkwardness in social situations. Although understanding the effect of underlying issues sometimes helps, parents often don’t know what to do in these challenging moments. Here are a few ideas that can help.

1.If your child “acts up” in certain environments don’t be surprised by his or her behavior. In other words don’t assume that things “will go well this time” when there is no reason to believe this will be the case. Helping children before they “lose it” is often more productive than sorting things through after the fact when they can easily become defensive and reluctant to talk and you might be too upset to react calmly.

2.If possible “slow things down” before and/or at the beginning of a potentially challenging situation. If is often useful for parents to talk to and more importantly listen to a child before and when starting an activity or social interaction that could become volatile. Beforehand it is often useful for mom or dad to review what is about to happen and to “make space” for their child to express any thoughts or concerns. Giving a child the opportunity to “get the kinks out of their system” ahead of time can help things ultimately go more smoothly. Keeping a child company particularly at the start of potentially trying times can also help a little one feel less alone with difficulties. You are then available to answer questions, provide guidance or calmly intervene if needed. Of course many children are not interested in “slowing anything down” but any attempts parents can make to keep their child relaxed and confident can help reduce potential friction.

3.If aggressive behavior happens in spite of your efforts then talking to your child separate from others can help. As it is often hard for a parent and child to “get it together” with other adults and children watching it can help to gently remove a child from the point of confrontation. If you are able to have some relative quiet it is easier to listen empathetically to your child’s explanation of what happened (even when his or her version makes no sense). This simple if difficult act can help ease your little one’s pent up emotions more than jumping in with an immediate adult correction or retribution. After listening you both can try to “put your heads together” and come up with a more successful strategy to deal with whatever is going on. This might take some time but any attempts to include your child in producing one or two successful solutions can boost confidence and morale for both of you. Children are much more likely to have productive interactions with others when they are feeling good about themselves.

4.If (and sometimes when) your child still has difficulty don’t give up. Keep trying to slow things down and think through successful solutions together. A patient and supportive tone can be frustrating as both parent and child understandably would prefer a quick solution to the complicated problem of aggression but I believe that over time (less time than it can feel in the moment) this kind of approach can make a long term difference. Aggressive behavior is far less rewarding than successful interactions and once a child is “over the hump” changes can be permanent.