Aggressive behaviour starts from a feeling of intense emotion (like anger, fear, annoyance or frustration). It may be verbal or physical and as such, can be emotionally and physically harmful to another person. Examples include hitting, pinching, swearing, saying something mean, biting or scratching. Most young children will show aggressive behaviour at times, and it is a normal part of child development. Sometimes the feeling of being angry is justified – a young child may have had their toy stolen or feel left out, or they may feel anxious or in need of attention. The difficulty is they cannot process this feeling, and that is where the adult comes in.
A child needs an adult to help them to find ways to understand and express their difficult feelings. If a child feels anger very strongly, but hasn’t yet learnt what it is, it is likely to feel both unpleasant and overwhelming. Adults can help them understand the feeling and make it manageable without a behaviour (verbal or physical) that will hurt them or others. Our role as adults in the child’s life is to help to moderate and contain these feelings, and this in turn then leads to the aggression decreasing as the feelings become less overwhelming.
Young children may also not yet understand that their behaviour can hurt others, or they may not yet be empathic for the upset or pain they’re causing. Thoughtful, caring adults can support children to learn and feel safe enough to think of others.
- Supporting the parent-child relationship
We learn what we are feeling and how to calm down by having someone be curious about us and giving us words to name the feelings. In time and with help, we can then understand the feelings, talk about them and feel safe with them. As such, the relationship between parent or carers and children is key.
When thinking about a child’s aggressive behaviour, it’s important to consider the parent or carer’s emotional wellbeing too. Is it the child or the parent or carer that is having a difficult time? Is it the child or the parent or carer who has less patience? You could support the parent or carer to think through whether they have handled situations before in a way that means the child expects aggressive behaviour to bring something positive, like getting attention? If you as a practitioner are struggling to cope with a child’s aggressive behaviour, you may like to reflect on these questions too.
Physically aggressive behaviour may make it very hard to keep a child’s feelings in mind if you yourself are in pain or have just witnessed them causing pain to someone else. The first feeling that comes to you may be to retaliate. It is important to notice that urge, but to then respond in a helpful way. It’s important you do still acknowledge the pain you’ve felt, but in a way that prevents the child being overwhelmed by shame. Verbally aggressive behaviour may also make it hard to keep thinking of the child. You may be hurt yourself by the comments they’ve made, or shocked (for example, if a small child has sworn).
It can be especially hard to keep a child in mind if we ourselves didn’t have this support when we were younger or find these aspects of caring for a child testing. It’s also hard when we are in a stressed place ourselves, for example in the shops getting the food together, worrying about money, having difficulties in our relationship with a partner.
- Try to figure out about what might be going on for the child. Have there been any big life changes for them that they’re struggling with? Do they need to have help to feel more contained or more seen?
- Coping with a child’s aggression can be hard when you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’ve been hurt yourself or you’re losing your temper. So, the focus should first be to try to stay calm, because we can’t figure out what’s going on if we’re stressed or hurt ourselves.
- Think through what might be making a child feel like this, and then respond. The responses to this may be to:
- Tell the child to stop the behaviour and to name what you think is happening for them, e.g. “I know it makes you so angry when someone takes your toy, but we don’t hit people”
- Offer them a hug
- Find a way to get rid of the physical feelings (e.g. to run around, dance, stamp, scrunch up their face or fists and release them), or find a distraction (e.g. looking at the clouds and getting them to count them). Avoid bribes, however (e.g. giving a child something like sweets to get them to stop their behaviour) because this can reinforce their behaviour.
- Find ways to identify and prevent the anger – maybe you can ask them how it feels, or where they feel it in their body (e.g. “does it make your head feel funny or heart race?”)
- Sometimes it’s necessary to simply be a calm figure nearby whilst the child is letting ‘off steam’. Let them know you’re there with them and ensure they cannot hurt others or themselves. This might be in the same room or nearby, and other times it may need to be with more space between yourselves (ensuring they’re physically safe and know you are accessible if they want you).
- Let the child know they are not alone and that the behaviour is a problem, but that this does not mean that they are a bad person.
- Sometimes we all need to ask for help. This may be from other team members if you’re a nursery worker, or friends or family if you’re a parent, or it may be asking another professional too.
- Top tips to share with parents and carers
- Being physically or verbally aggressive is a normal part of child development, and children need our help as adults to manage their ‘big’ feelings.
- Be curious about what is happening for your child and why they might be angry – are they worried about something? Do they need a bit more attention from you?
- Try to help your child find ways to understand and name their feelings. You could try putting them into words for them, like “I know it makes you so angry when someone takes your toy, but we don’t hit people”.
- Help your child get rid of angry feelings by encouraging them to, for example, run around, count to 10, take big breathes, scrunch up their face or fists and release them.
- Looking after a toddler who is being aggressive can be stressful and can make you feel angry yourself. Keep an eye on how you are feeling and try to stay calm. Take a big breath and trying to think ‘why’ it may be happening and how you can best respond to help them
- Don’t change your boundaries. Although it’s important to be curious about what they’re feeling, that doesn’t mean you’ll respond to it by giving in. For example, they may be very upset they can’t buy sweets on the shopping trip with you. Acknowledge this upset with them calmly and gently but clarify it’s not what you’re buying on this trip.
- Don’t do the behaviour back. If they hit you, don’t hit back. If they make a mean comment, don’t make one back.
- If you are ever worried about intensity or frequency of the aggression, speak to a professional like your health visitor or GP.
You can read more about tantrums here.
- The impact of health crisis
Changes in routines, places to play and people to play with, as well as parents feeling more stressed and anxious, are all factors that are likely to have a big impact on young children, and they may feel confused and scared. Young children might express these feelings through more aggressive behaviour than usual.