Child Psychiatry Consult

Psychopharmacology for aggression? Our field’s ‘nonconsensus’ and the risks


A 13-year-old boy with ADHD, combined type, presents to his family physician with his parents. His parents called for an appointment outside of his routine follow-up care to discuss what they should do to address their son’s new “aggressive behaviors.” He will throw objects when angry, yell, and slam doors at home when he is told to turn off video games. He used to play soccer but doesn’t anymore. He has maintained very good grades and friends. There is not a concern for substance abuse at this time.He speaks in curt sentences during the appointment, and he has his arms crossed or is looking out of the window the entire time.

His parents share in front on him that he has always been a “difficult child” (their words), but they now are struggling to adjust to his aggressive tendencies as he ages. He is growing bigger and angrier. He will not attend therapy and will not see a consultation psychiatrist in the office. A variety of stimulant trials including Ritalin and amphetamine preparations to manage impulsivity in ADHD were ineffective to curb his aggression, and he doesn’t want to take any medication.

They ask, what do we do? They are not worried for their safety but living like this is eroding their quality of life as a family, and the dynamic seems destined to get worse before it gets better.

They wonder, is there a next medication step to manage his aggression?

A family physician presented the above situation to me in my role as a child and adolescent psychiatrist in the medical home. It led us to a fruitful discussion of aggression and what can be done to help families who are all too often in situations like the above, then in your office looking for immediate solutions. The questions are, what can be done with an aggressive child, even and especially without the child’s buy-in to work on that as a problem?

Girls fighting Markus Wegmann/Thinkstock

Psychoeducation can go a long way in helping families rethink aggression as a symptom of something deeper, either in the environment or a diagnosis, although we all can empathize with the desire to reconcile the above behavior immediately.

Characterize the aggression

First, it can be helpful to identify a child’s aggression type. There are two types of aggression, reactive and proactive. We most often see reactive aggression in our clinics, which is aggression as a defensive and impulsive response to something in the environment (often limit-setting, as above). Proactive aggression is premeditated and may appear as aggression for aggression’s sake without the emotional drive behind it.

Secondly, it also can be helpful to know that externalizing and internalizing symptoms can represent different sides of the same coin, with the proverbial “coin” as “emotion” and the associated behaviors (throwing objects, in the above example) as the “signs” that there is a complex difficulty in managing painful emotions. Some children (and adults too!) tend to “externalize” strong emotions as aggression or irritability with others, while others “internalize” them by retreating with internal suffering such as “anxiety and depression.” These styles also can be similar among children and their parents.

With those two points in mind, it’s important to consider the diagnosis, which would guide treatment. It’s generally agreed upon that “reactive aggression” is more likely to be related to underlying untreated ADHD, or a depressive or anxiety disorder. This is much more amenable to treatment than aggression related to oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, which are more defined by proactive forms of aggression.

You can pick up on family dynamics that may inadvertently reinforce the same behaviors they so wish to change. In the above example, the parents have clearly identified their son as “the problem.” You can imagine the difficulty of going to school and being a “problem,” and then coming home and feeling the same way. This negative perception can erode a child’s self-esteem over time, which may appear as disengagement or simply not caring in an appointment. It may become harder and harder to engage the child in psychotherapy or even in taking a medication as their only means of resistance to that painful notion about oneself as the “problem.”

It can be useful to begin appointments with “what is going well?” (in the example above, he “has friends and is maintaining grades”) and “what do you like most about your child?” As we all know, positive reinforcement is more powerful than its counterpart. Also problems in a family often are complex, and may involve many family members needing to change to meet their goals, not just the child.

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