Where does it come from?
How can it be managed?
hildren aren’t born aggressive, they learn it. However, children, parents, and caregivers also
can learn how to cope with aggression. This guide answers some questions about aggression
and how to teach social coping skills to children.
ag·gres·sion : e_’gre_shen, noun
1: a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack), especially when intended
to dominate or master.
2: the practice of making attacks or encroachments, especially unprovoked violation by one
country of the territorial integrity of another.
3: hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook, especially when caused by
Where does aggression
The level of family stress and the positive
and negative interactions of the family
Do humans just have a fighting instinct? Is
influence children learning aggression.
aggression the outcome of frustration?
Children model their behavior after adults
Most recent studies view aggressive acts
around them, observing and imitating how
not as the sole fault of the individual, but
others handle their anger and frustration.
also as related to a set of cultural and social
Communities that understand and support
What factors lead to
children’s rights are communities that
support children and all their developmental
stages. Places where there are supportive
adults and healthy alternatives for recreation
can protect children while they are learning
A child’s temperament and his/her learned
to deal with many situations, including those
coping skills are critical to the youngster’s
that give rise to aggression.
being able to manage aggression. State-
ments such as ”boys are supposed to act
out their anger” or “she is wild” are
Some studies have found that housing, schools,
common expressions that parents and
and neighborhoods can contribute to aggres-
Distributed in furtherance
of the Acts of Congress of
others use to refer to a child’s
sion. For example, extreme heat or overcrowd-
May 8 and June 30, 1914.
ing has been shown to increase aggression.
Employment and program
opportunities are offered to
Temperament is that part of the personality
all people regardless of
that seems to be controlled by genetics.
race, color, national origin,
There are basically three types of tempera-
What sorts of models are children exposed
sex, age, or disability. North
Carolina State University,
ment—easy or flexible (60 percent of
to on television and in the community?
North Carolina A&T State
children), fearful and sensitive (25 percent of
When people try to solve problems with
University, U.S. Department
children), and feisty or difficult (15 percent
physical violence, children mistakenly learn
of Agriculture, and local
that this is an appropriate behavior.
Why are children
Biting as aggression
Biting usually occurs in young children who are either teething or showing
Sometimes children do not have the
love. During teething, make sure infants have firm surfaces on which to bite,
social skills or self-control to manage
such as a soft toy, plastic ring, clean washcloth, or clean sock. Often babies
their behavior. These must be taught.
want to show affection and kiss, but they get so involved in what little they
When children can’t find the words to
know about affection that they bite instead of kiss.
deal with aggressive feelings or are not
encouraged to express themselves,
When biting occurs, look at the child and say firmly, “No biting! That hurts!”
they become frustrated. At other
This shows you are not pleased. To prevent the biting, gently steer the child
times, children cannot cope with
away and say, “I will help you stop biting, Jerome.”
growing levels of anger in themselves
NEVER bite children back! Young children have not developed empathy and
or in others. In both cases, children
do not know how YOU feel. If you raise your voice because it hurt, they may
need to learn acceptable ways to assert
cry simply because you were loud or had an angry expression. But they
themselves and to learn coping skills.
didn’t realize how you felt. They also do not know how to feel sorry yet.
What does aggression
• Preschoolers are self-centered and
school or on the playground. Door
have not developed all the brain
slamming and foot stomping may
look like in children of
connections needed to see
occur at home, but most 3rd graders
another’s point of view.
have enough control to contain
themselves at school.
• Young children see all or nothing.
They do not understand that some-
Some children continue to act aggres-
The most common complaint with
one is not all good or not all bad.
sively between 4th and 9th grade.
infants is their crying or biting, both
Boys display aggression in the form of
signs of aggression. Crying is one way
• Children have a hard time thinking
direct confrontations and physical
children talk. They let you know when
about the future or planning for it.
attacks. Girls seldom display physical
they are happy (coo and babble) or
They need concrete guides like
aggression in this same age range, but
when they need something (cry). We
picture lists to remember what to
they act aggressively by shunning,
should find out what they need and
do and how to act.
ostracizing, and defaming others.
provide it, whether it be a dry diaper,
• Young children cannot sort out
food, or warm touches.
Researchers have found that children
fantasy from reality and get mixed
who are the most aggressive in 4th
up about what is real on TV.
grade tend to continue to be aggres-
• Children with difficult tempera-
In toddlers, the most aggressive acts
sive thereafter. However, even older
ments have difficulty reading the
occur over toys. To adults it looks like
children can learn coping strategies
small cues that other children send
fighting, but to children it’s learning
out in social situations. A 5-year-old
how to get along. They have not
may want to join another who is
learned how to say, “Let’s play.”
building with blocks. The aggressive
Even a child who seems to have
The overuse of a “time-out” or a “thinking
child (the one with the blocks) may
grown out of his aggressive ways can
chair” can cause children to act more
misread the other’s attempt to join
be provoked when placed in an
aggressively the next time. However,
his play and view it as a hostile
oppressive environment, for instance,
turning the incident into a punishment
intrusion. He may protect his
poverty, social disorganization, crowd-
or control by force will only cause the
territory by striking the uninvited
ing, neighborhood tensions, or a
child to think of ways to strike back. It
child. Even when a teacher points
may help to ask the child to rest from
out to the aggressive child that the
the activity that creates aggression.
Children who have been handled
intentions of the other were not
harshly, inconsistently, and with little
hostile, the aggressive child may
consideration may have built up anger
have difficulty understanding the
With loving guidance, parents will see
from lack of love and nurturing. This
situation for what it really is.
children from 2 to 5 years of age decrease
can lead to mean, hateful, hurtful, and
their physical aggression as they begin
violent behavior in an attempt to strike
to use words to communicate needs.
Between 1st and 3rd grade, most
Knowing what to expect from normally
children lose the impulse and need to
As children age, they tend to take their
developing children is critical. Here are
attack others aggressively. An aggres-
lead from peers. Peers, however, can
some tips that can help parents
sive child may strike a sibling, but
reinforce an aggressor’s actions. If
understand what is typical in children:
seldom would he or she hit a friend at
peers also show aggression or do not
Table 1. Ways to help children control aggression.
Use reasoning to explain things.
Accept your child and understand his or her unique temperament. While his/ her behavior
will be challenging at times, remain patient and supportive.
Tell your child how you expect him or her to behave. You will need to keep telling the child.
Be specific and positive. Rather than saying to your toddler, “Don’t hit,” say, “Hitting hurts.
Please use your words.”
Be consistent so children know what to expect.
Organize the home environment; set limits on what the child may use.
Limit access to aggressive toys (swords, guns).
Monitor television for aggressive shows.
Watch television with your child, and comment on the content.
Provide the child with playthings or activities that give him or her some choices, like puppets
Sing songs and tell stories about feelings and frustrations. Talk about what anger may feel like.
Allow some independence by providing a help-yourself shelf with blocks, art
supplies, puzzles, or other things. Define where children may use these materials.
Provide enough materials so children don’t have to wait to use them and become frustrated.
Allow transition time between activities; give a five-minute warning that the activity will
change or it is “time to come in from play.”
Be a model for controlled behavior, and avoid angry outbursts and violence.
Monitor out-of-home activity for older children. Know where they are and whom they are with.
Avoid extreme permissiveness, laxness, and tolerance OR too much structure and too many
Figure out what the child needs—attention, security, control, or to feel valued. Try to fill the
need so he or she won’t continue to act undesirably.
Use closeness for control. When you sense your child is about to lose control, quietly and
gently move close. Often your calm presence is enough to settle your child.
Help children talk to each other to solve problems. Ask open-ended questions to help them
think about options to solve their own problems.
Give children choices so they feel empowered. Offer two acceptable choices.
Redirect your child. If your child is pushing, hitting, or grabbing, move him or her in another
direction and into another activity. Stay by his or her side until he or she is positively engaged.
Remove the object. If your child is misusing a toy or destroying it in an aggressive manner,
remove it. Get out Play-Doh, arrange an interlude of water play, or put your child in his or her
sandbox. These tactile experiences often magically quiet aggression.
Remove your out-of-control child from the scene. Hold the child, go for a walk, go to another
room. Stay with him or her until all is calm.
Be your child’s control. If your child is hitting another, your words may not be enough to stop
the aggression. You must move in and gently but firmly stop the behavior. You provide the
control your child lacks. In time, your control transfers to your child. Say, “I’ll keep you from
hitting your sister.”
Note improved behaviors: ”I like the way you used words to solve that problem.”
Avoid difficult situations. If you know going to the park where there are lots of kids sends
your child into an aggressive tirade, avoid going. Find a less-stimulating setting where your
youngster can achieve more social success.
Seek support yourself when you need a break.
Be right there. If you have a toddler and preschooler in your home, watch and guide their
play to assure interaction stays nonaggressive.
Banish punching bags. If you have a child who is aggressive, realize that the effect of “hit
the punching bag, not Jo,” has not proven effective for reducing aggressive attacks.
Prepare the child. Before your child meets new friends, tell him or her what behavior you
expect. With young children, remind them that people don’t like to be hit or pushed.
correct aggressive acts, the aggressive
behavior is encouraged. Many aggressive
children have a network of aggressive
Faull, J. 2000. Childhood aggression.
behaviors in groups
friends. Although these clusters may
Electronic transmission. May, 2000.
encourage and strengthen antisocial
In child care, plan a group time
Harris, T., and J. D. Fuqua. 2000. What
behavior, they also appear to provide
to allow each child to share
goes around comes around: Building a
friendships and social support.
and build a sense of commu-
community of learners through circle
Even if parents hold off their child’s
time. Young Children, 55 (1) pp. 44-48.
nity with his or her peers.
aggressive behavior with firm but not
Miller, K. 1996. The Crisis Manual.
Plan group rules that include
harsh control, other things influence
Beltsville, Md.: Gryphon House.
sticking together, no hurts, and
aggression. Neighborhoods, schools, and
Parke, R. D., and R. G. Slaby. 1983. The
the media may provide aggressive
development of aggression. In Paul H.
environments where children witness
Say something positive about
Mussen, Handbook of Child Psychol-
aggression and violence in a variety of
each child every day.
ogy, Vol. IV.
Rubin, P. B., and J. Tregay. 1989. Play
Midday circle time can help
with Them: Therapy in Groups in the
children to regroup and will
What can you do?
Classroom. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C.
allow children to tell what they
have been doing during the
For young children to outgrow their
Web site: The Preventive Ounce
aggressive ways, they need positive,
consistent, nurturing discipline. They
Children who help plan their
need to learn positive problem-solving
learning and choose their own
techniques. Parents and teachers need
activities will feel more in
to place children in environments that
Related North Carolina
control, and they will feel more
offer a setting and support for learning
positive social behavior rather than
aggressive, hostile, antisocial acts.
Plan transitions. Music,
fingerplay, and poems are all
signals to change activities
In extreme cases, try
Childhood Years: Ages Six Through
some of these options
Really listen when children
• Observe to get the facts. Keep a log
speak. Seek to understand the
to find the theme of what triggers the
message behind their words.
Focus on Kids: The Effects of Divorce on
acts of aggression; then help the child
steer clear of these activities.
• Teach the child deep breathing and
• Share your notes or journal with the
visualization relaxation exercises.
parent or caregiver. Compare to see if
Growing Together: Infant Development,
similar behaviors are triggered at
• During a calm time, talk with the child
home and at school.
so he or she understands the conse-
quences of actions. Bedtimes are
• Take a look at the environment. Is
often quiet times for talking.
some activity or room arrangement
Growing Together: Preschooler Develop-
causing anxiety or frustration? Does
• If all of your strategies have been
the child feel crowded, or is he or she
used to no avail, seek counseling or
made to sit too long? Does the child
assistance in developing a child/family
have enough personal space?
plan to learn aggression management.
Helping Children Cope with Stress, FCS-457
• For school-age children, write a plan
of action for what the child will do
when the negative behavior occurs.
Behaviors are learned, and aggression is
Parenting Teens, FCS-422 (PDF)
• Make a list of activities to do “in-
a learned behavior. When children are
stead” (play with Play-Doh, run around
young, the foundation is set for the ways
the house, vacuum, draw, take a bath,
they will shape their personality and
Setting Limits for Young Children, FCS-
etc.). Use a picture graph if the child
behaviors. Parents and caregivers who
455 and FCS-456
use patient, consistent, firm, and loving
• Recognize success. “Even though I
guidance can learn to shape a child’s
could tell you were mad, that was a
ability to cope with his or her anger and
great way you controlled your anger!”
Karen DeBord, Child Development Specialist, Department of Family and Consumer Sciences
5,000 copies of this public document were printed at a cost of $1,176.00, or $.23 per copy.
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service