Behavioral Consult

Taming or teaching the tiger? Myths and management of childhood aggression


 

How to deal with aggression delivered by a child’s peers is a common concern and social dilemma for both parents and children. How does a child ward off aggressive peers without getting hurt or in trouble while also not looking weak or whiny? What can parents do to stop their child from being hurt or frightened but also not humiliate them or interfere with their learning important life skills by being over protective?

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Children do not want to fight, but they do want to be treated fairly. Frustration, with its associated feelings of anger, is the most common reason for aggression. Being a child is certainly full of its frustrations because, while autonomy and desires are increasing, opportunities expand at a slower rate, particularly for children with developmental weaknesses or economic disadvantage. Fear and a lack of coping skills are other major reasons for resorting to aggressive responses.

Physical bullying affects 21% of students in grades 3-12 and is a risk factor for aggression at all ages. A full one-third of 9th-12th graders report having been in a physical fight in the last year. In grade school age and adolescence, factors known to be associated with peer aggression include the humiliation of school failure, substance use, and anger from experiencing parental or sibling aggression.

One would think a universal goal of parents would be to raise their children to get along with others without fighting. Unfortunately, some parents actually espouse childrearing methods that directly or indirectly make fighting more likely.

Essentially all toddlers and preschoolers can be aggressive at times to get things they want (instrumental) or when angry in the beginning of their second year of life; this peaks in the third year and typically declines after age 3 years. But for some 10% of children, aggression remains high. What parent and child factors set children up for such persistent aggression?

Parents have many reasons for how they raise their children, but some myths about parenting that persist promote aggression.

“My child will love me more if I am more permissive.”

Infants and toddlers develop self-regulation skills better when it is gradually expected of them with encouragement and support from their parents. Parents may feel that they are showing love to their toddler by having a “relaxed” home with few limits and no specific bedtime or rules. These parents also may “rescue” their child from frustrating situations by giving in to their demands or removing them from even mildly stressful situations.

These strategies can interfere with the progressive development of frustration tolerance, a key life skill. A lack of routines, inadequate sleep or food, overstimulation by noise, frightening experiences (including fighting in the home or neighborhood), or violent media exposure sets toddlers up to be out of control and thereby increases dysregulation. In addition, the dysregulated child may then act up, which can invoke punishment from that same parent.

Frustrating toddlers with inconsistent expectations and arbitrary punishment, a common result of low structure, makes the child feel insecure and leads to aggression. Instead, children need small doses of frustration appropriate to their age and encouragement from a supportive adult to problem solve. You can praise (or model), cheering on a child with words such as “Are you stuck? You can do it! Try again,” instead of instantly solving problems for them.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Parents may feel that they are promoting obedience when they use corporal punishment, thinking this will keep the child out of trouble in society. Instead, corporal punishment is associated with increased aggression toward peers, as well as defiance toward parents. These effects are especially strong when mothers are distant emotionally. As pediatricians, we can educate people on the importance of warm parenting, redirection instead of punishment for younger children, and using small, logical consequences or time out when needed for aggression.

“Just ignore bullies.”

It is a rare child who can follow the command to “ignore” a bully without turning red or getting tears in his or her eyes – making them appealing targets. We can coach parents and kids how to disarm bullies by standing tall, putting hands on hips, making eye contact, and asking the peer a question such as “I do not understand what you’re trying to accomplish.” Learning martial arts also teaches children that they are powerful (but not to fight outside the class) so they can present themselves in this way. Programs that encourage children to get together to confront bullies supported by a school administration that uses comprehensive assessment and habilitation strategies for aggressive students are most effective in reducing aggression in schools. Anonymous reporting (for example, by using a cell phone app, such as STOPit) empowers students to report bullying or fights to school staff without risking later retribution from the peer.

“Tough teachers help kids fall in line.”

While peer fights generally increase from 2nd to 4th grade before declining, student fighting progressively increases when teachers use reprimands, rather than praise, to manage their classes. Children look to teachers to learn more than what is in books – how to be respectful and in control without putting others down. The most effective classroom management includes clear, fair rules; any correction should be done privately to avoid shaming students. Students dealt with this way are less likely to be angry and take it out on others. Of course, appropriate services helping every child experience success in learning is the foundation of positive behavior in school.

“Children with ADHD won’t learn self-regulation if they are treated with medicine.”

Children who show “low effortful control” or higher “dysregulation” are both more aggressive and also less likely to decline in aggression in early childhood. ADHD is a neurological condition characterized by such dysregulation and low effortful control. Children with ADHD often have higher and more persistent aggression. These tendencies also result in impulsive behaviors that can irritate peers and adults and can result in correction and criticism, further increasing aggression. Children with ADHD who are better controlled, often with the help of medication, have more positive interactions at school and at home, receive more praise and less correction, and develop more reasoned interaction patterns.

“I am the parent, and my child should do what I say.”

When adults step in to stop a fight, they are rarely in a position to know what actually happened between the kids. Children may quickly learn how to entrap a sibling or peer to look like the perpetrator in order to get them in trouble and/or avoid consequences for themselves, especially if large or harsh punishments are being used.

While it can seem tricky to treat children who are very different in age or development equally, having parents elicit or at least verbalize each child’s point of view is part of how children learn respect and mediation skills. Parents who refrain from taking sides or dictating how disputes should be resolved leave the chance for the children to acquire these component skills of negotiation. This does not mean there are no consequences, just that a brief discussion comes first.

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