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Mark Hutten, M.A.
Re: Aggressive Behavior

My child is sometimes very aggressive. What is the best way to prevent this type of behavior?

The best way to prevent aggressive behavior is to give your youngster a stable, secure home life with firm, loving
discipline and full-time supervision during the toddler and preschool years. Everyone who cares for your youngster
should be a good role model and agree on the rules he’s expected to observe as well as the response to use if he
disobeys. Whenever he breaks an important rule, he should be reprimanded immediately so that he understands
exactly what he’s done wrong.

Kids don’t know the rules of the house until they’re taught them, so that is one of your important parenting
responsibilities. Toddlers are normally interested in touching and exploring, so if there are valuables you don’t want
them to handle, hide or remove them. Consider setting up a separate portion of your home where he can play with
books and toys.
For discipline to be most effective, it should take place on
an ongoing basis, not just when your youngster
misbehaves. In fact, it begins with moms and dads smiling
at their smiling baby, and it continues with praise and
genuine affection for all positive and appropriate
behaviors. Over time, if your youngster feels encouraged
and respected, rather than demeaned and embarrassed,
he is more likely to listen, learn, and change when
necessary. It is always more effective to positively reinforce
desired behaviors and to teach kids alternative behaviors
rather than just say, “Stop it or else.”

While teaching him other ways to respond, there’s also
nothing wrong with distracting him at times, or trying
another approach. As long as you’re not “bribing” him to
behave differently by offering him sweet snacks, for
example, there’s nothing wrong with intentionally changing
his focus.
To avoid or minimize “high-risk” situations, teach your youngster ways to deal with his anger without resorting to
aggressive behavior. Teach him to say “no” in a firm tone of voice, to turn his back, or to find compromises instead of
fighting with his body. Through example, teach him that settling differences with words is more effective—and more
civilized—than with physical violence. Praise him on his appropriate behavior and help explain to him how “grown-up”
he is acting whenever he uses these tactics instead of hitting, kicking, or biting. And always reinforce and praise his
behavior when he is demonstrating kindness and gentleness.

There’s also nothing wrong with using a time-out when his behavior is inappropriate, and it can be used in kids as
young as one year old. These time-outs should be a last resort, however. Have him sit in a chair or go to a “boring”
place where there are no distractions; in essence, you’re separating him from his misbehavior, and giving him time to
cool off. Briefly explain to your youngster what you’re doing and why—but no long lectures. Initially, when kids are
young, time-out is over as soon as they have calmed down and are “quiet and still.” Ending time-out once they are
quiet and still reinforces this behavior, so your youngster learns that time out means “quiet and still.” Once they have
learned to calm themselves (to be quiet and still), a good rule of thumb is one minute of a timeout for each year in your
youngster’s age—thus, a three-year-old should have a three-minute time-out. When the time-out is over, there needs
to be a time-in, while giving him plenty of positive attention when doing the right thing.

Always watch your own behavior around your youngster. One of the best ways to teach him appropriate behavior is to
control your own temper. If you express your anger in quiet, peaceful ways, he probably will follow your example. If you
must discipline him, do not feel guilty about it and certainly don’t apologize. If he senses your mixed feelings, he may
convince himself that he was in the right all along and you are the “bad” one. Although disciplining your youngster is
never pleasant, it is a necessary part of parenthood, and there is no reason to feel guilty about it. Your youngster
needs to understand when he is in the wrong so that he will take responsibility for his actions and be willing to accept
the consequences.

If your youngster seems to be unusually aggressive for longer than a few weeks, and you cannot cope with his
behavior on your own, consult a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist. Other warning signs include:

•        Attacks on you or other adults
•        Being sent home or barred from play by neighbors or school
•        Physical injury to himself or others (teeth marks, bruises, head injuries)
•        Your own fear for the safety of those around him

The most important warning sign is the frequency of outbursts. Sometimes kids with conduct disorders will go for
several days or a week or two without incident, and may even act quite charming during this time, but few can go an
entire month without getting into trouble at least once.

Your doctor can suggest ways to discipline your youngster and will help you determine if he has a true conduct
disorder. If this is the problem, you probably will not be able to resolve it on your own, and your doctor will advise
appropriate mental health intervention.

The doctor or other mental health specialist will interview both you and your youngster and may observe your
youngster in different situations (home, preschool, with adults and other kids). A behavior-management program will
be outlined. Not all methods work on all kids, so there will be a certain amount of trial and reassessment.

Once several effective ways are found to reward good behavior and discourage bad, they can be used in establishing
an approach that works both at home and away. The progress may be slow, but such programs usually are successful
if started when the disorder is just beginning to develop.
Remember, your youngster has little natural self-control. He
needs you to teach him not to kick, hit, or bite when he is angry,
but instead to express his feelings through words. It’s important
for him to learn the difference between real and imagined
insults and between appropriately standing up for his rights and
attacking out of anger. The best way to teach these lessons is
to supervise your youngster carefully when he’s involved in
disputes with his playmates. As long as a disagreement is
minor, you can keep your distance and let the kids solve it on
their own. However, you must intervene when kids get into a
physical fight that continues even after they’re told to stop, or
when one youngster seems to be in an uncontrollable rage and
is assaulting or biting the other. Pull the kids apart and keep
them separate until they have calmed down. If the fight is
extremely violent, you may have to end the play session. Make
it clear that it doesn’t matter who “started it.” There is no excuse
for trying to hurt each other.