Can Child Development Stages Play A Part In Aggressive Behavior In Children?

You finally got a chance to meet up with a friend at the park so you could chat while your children let off some steam at the playground.

You’re constantly distracted by the nagging suspicion that you need to keep an eye on child, because he can get a too rambunctious at times.  You’ve seen your toddler biting, hitting and being aggressive to other children in the past, so you keep a watchful eye on him.

As you are listening to your friend’s story, you see your son push another child because he wanted to go through the tunnel and the other child was in his way.

The other child begins to cry, but your son just barrels over the top of him and goes through the tunnel.  He shows no remorse and is oblivious to the other child being hurt.

Mortified and embarrassed, you rush over, grab your son and take him over to the child who is crying.  You tell him, “You just pushed this little boy and hurt him.  You need to say, I’m sorry right now.”

Your son squirms and tries to get away from you.

What you had hoped would be a relaxing fun day out with your friend has turned into another frustrating, mind-boggling incident with your toddler.

You leave the park. As you are driving home, you wonder, “What is wrong with him? Why can’t he just get along with other children? I’ve told him a million times not to be mean to other children. What am I doing wrong?”

It’s common for young children to have trouble managing strong emotions and impulses. Get those children wound up a bit and you’re likely to see an explosion, but not usually without some forewarning.

What Causes Aggressive Behavior In Children?

When you see aggressive behavior in children, stop and ask yourself, “has that child mastered the skills to behave appropriately in this situation?

There are really only two causes of aggressive behavior in children and knowing how to tell the difference is the key to resolving the problem:

  1. Aggressive behavior in children is common at certain child development stages, because the child hasn’t mastered anger management, controlling their energy levels or conflict-resolution skills.It can also happen with older children if their parents never taught them these skills or model aggressive behavior themselves. When you understand the root cause of unintentional misbehavior, it’s understandable, but it’s not excusable.You always want to eliminate this possible cause first or the behavior will continue. So this article addresses “unintentional” aggressive behavior in children.
  2. Children who have mastered those skills may become aggressive on purpose. Read “Can Anger Management Techniques Help Stop Aggressive Behavior In Children?” to understand why those children are aggressive and what to do about it.

Why Is Aggressive Behavior In Young Children So Common?

According to Your Three Year Old (also Four year old), by Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg, one of the child development stages is called the transitional phase. It occurs around age four or five. Before then, children are still learning to manage their bodily functions and impulses. According to <a href=”The%20Little%20Boy%20Book:%20A%20Guide%20to%20the%20First%20Eight%20YearsThe Little Boy Book, by Sheila Moore, children who have high levels of testosterone (primarily but not exclusively boys and “tomboy” girls) often experience a strong chemical change when they are excited, wound up or angry. This energy is so strong that it’s difficult for them to control it.

How Can I Respond to Aggressive Behavior in Children Who Don’t Know Better?

Aggressive energy, once it’s there, will likely come out somehow, so your job as a parent is to show children how to channel it in constructive ways. Here are some suggestions, from prevention through discipline, using The Parent’s Toolshop®’s unique “Universal Blueprint® PASRR Effective Response Formula”:

The absolute, most important key to preventing and stopping unintentional aggressive behavior in children is to teach them anger energy management skills.

  • Prevent the problem from starting or worsening.
    • Openly model the behavior you want to see. Since anger management happens inside, in our minds and bodies, you need to say out loud what you do to control your energy and emotions. The toddler will soak up what you are saying and imitate what you do later.
    • Describe the behavior you want to see.Choose from the following or mix ‘n’ match:
      • “I expect you to take turns with the toys.”
      • If you get tired of playing with him and want to leave, tell me in words. You can whisper in my ear.”
      • “If you get angry, you can either run to another room and growl out your anger or come to me and I’ll hold you until you feel better.” (Substitute your own preferences for healthy alternatives.)
    •  Offer Choices in limits. “You can use words or walk away. Hitting is not one of your choices.”
    • Use Descriptive Encouragement. Give children credit for every tiny effort they make in this area. It probably takes them great effort, despite how it appears to you. Pointing this out will help your children see they are making progress and they’ll be self-motivated to try harder.

When you need to intervene:

  • For short-term solutions, try these positive responses:
    • Free child from roles or labels. When children lose their tempers, avoid labeling them as bullies, brats, or mean. Instead, express your faith in their ability to grow and mature by saying, “I know you can learn to be angry without hitting.”
    • Don’t Say Don’t. Instead of “Don’t hit,” say, “Use words” or “People aren’t for hitting.” Create a picture in your child’s mind of what you want him/her to do.
    • No “No’s”. If a “no” happens to slip out in a crisis, it probably qualifies as an emergency. Just be sure to back it up with limits and information such as, “Hitting hurts people”
  • When you are in the heat of the moment, you may need to dive into the situation, since safety is a concern. While you do that, verbally follow this formula:
  1. Acknowledge feelings: As you hurry toward him to stop the aggression, say one sentence that takes the first two steps: “I see a boy who’s getting very angry!…” You can fill in the appropriate feeling word, such as “energetic,” “wound up,” etc.
  2. Set the limit or rule: “. . . I expect you to remember to use words to get what you want.”
  3. Redirect the misbehavior by resolving the core issue: In your second sentence, teach skills, by being very specific, “If you want (what the child wants), say (specific words).”
    1. Use distraction. One option is to quickly remove the aggressive child and involve him/her in an acceptable activity. Do not remove an angry child to a quiet isolated setting that provides no opportunity to move or the lack of physical outlets could only increase the anger energy. Suggest acceptable options that will help the child channel the energy appropriately.
  4. Reveal discipline: For this step, you have several options:
    1. Logical consequences: “You can play nicely or we will leave. If there is any hitting, I’ll know you don’t know how to play well with others and end our visit.
    2. If a temper tantrum starts by trying to get him to leave the situation:
      (1)   Offer a choice once, like, “You can walk by yourself or I can carry you out.” Always present removal as a choice before you follow through.
      (2)   If you still get physical resistance, pick child up using ONLY as much firmness or strength as is necessary to protect you and others, but not enough to harm the child. You need to remain in control or he’ll get even more scared.
      (3)   Carry him with his flailing arms and feet facing out (I learned this one the hard way!).
      (4)   Say softly, calmly but firmly in his ear, “I will not let you hurt yourself or others. When you calm down we can go back.” If you have already left once or it is getting to be time to go, change the last part to, “Next time we get together with your friends, you’ll have another chance to practice using words when you are angry.”
      (5)   If it comes to this point, your child will likely be crying, sad, angry, maybe even revengeful. Acknowledge feelings once or twice, then ignore the tantrum or the attention will give a payoff to the tantrum.
      (6)   If you think it is disrespectful for you to have to leave your friends because of your child’s behavior, think about your long-term goal. Remember, this too shall pass. When it does, you will be able to spend all your time visiting, instead of keeping an eye out for aggressive behavior in children and refereeing fights.
    3. Use Self-Control Time-outs to teach anger/energy management. Most people think time-outs are discipline tools; they aren’t. To be most effective, they are used as follows: (See “Is Time Out An Effective Child Discipline Tool For Handling Misbehavior?”article for more details on how to structure effective time outs.)
      1. Reveal the plan ahead of time. “You can either calm down or we will leave, you decide.” If the time comes, say “Quick! Go cool off. Come back when you feel ready to play again.”
      2. Present the time-out as a choice so he learns that controlling his anger is his responsibility. Using choices will also prevent the time-out from turning into a power struggle.
      3. Suggest where the child goes, based on whether the child would calm down sooner if he’s alone or where he can see people.
      4. Offer suggestions for what the child can do to channel that energy. This is how children learn healthy anger management techniques.

Any behavior that is a result of a lack of skills may take time to see improvement — that’s what learning curves are. So just accept that this type of aggressive behavior in children may not improve overnight. It can take weeks, months or years, especially between the ages of two- to five-years-old. Once children go through those transitional child development stages, they can internalize and apply what they have learned.

Just be patient and follow through consistently. You will have times when you feel discouraged and think you aren’t getting through. You will have embarrassing situations that test your patience. But soon you will see little glimpses of your child using the skills you’ve taught him.

Follow this plan and when your child matures, you will find your child’s anger management techniques and conflict management skills are sometimes even higher than the children who never seemed to lose their temper when they were younger. That’s because teaching skills is a long-lasting solution, while punishment is just a quick fix that usually doesn’t last, because it models aggressive behavior.

If you want more insights, information and practical tools and tips about misbehavior, listen to a one-hour recording of a live workshop called, “The Kitchen Stinks! Cut off ‘PU’ Misbehavior Before You Get ‘PO’d.’” Click here for a description or to order.


Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website,

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