How to Handle Aggression in Your Child

spiteful little girlIn a culture saturated with violent images, parents naturally worry about their children and the influence of these images on their behavior. The question of whether being exposed to violent images or interacting with violent computer or video games increases the level of violent or aggressive behavior in children is a subject of much research and debate.

Regardless of how children are affected by depictions of violence in media, it is important to remember that even children who are not exposed to violence on television and do not play violent computer or video games are often still aggressive. In fact, all children have the potential to act aggressively; it is part of our human endowment. As parents, it is our job to monitor and intervene in our children’s aggressive activity so that they (and those around them) remain safe. This can be a confusing and difficult task. However, it is made much easier if we ask ourselves a few basic questions and follow some basic guidelines:

What Is the Difference Between Aggressive Play and Aggressive Behavior?

With aggressive play:

  • No one intentionally hurts another physically or emotionally.
  • The play between peers in mutual.
  • The children playing understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

With aggressive behavior, one or more of the above guidelines is not followed by one or more of the children involved.

Why Do Children Engage in Aggressive Play?

  • Children often feel powerless and frustrated by how little agency or control they have in their lives. Aggressive play gives children a sense of control and mastery over their environment.
  • It gives children a way to express certain feelings and desires that they may not have access to or can’t yet put into words.
  • It helps children work through their developing sense of right and wrong.

How Do I Handle Aggressive Play?

  • Try to take a nonjudgmental attitude. Aggression is a normal part of the human condition and of your child’s emotional life.
  • Make sure the situation is safe and mutual and that no one is hurt or scared.
  • Keep an eye on the level of stimulation; if it gets too high and you worry it will get out of control, step in and stop/redirect the play.
  • Take your own comfort into account; we each have a different tolerance level for aggression.

How Do I Handle Aggressive Behavior?

  • Like with play, take a nonjudgmental attitude. We don’t want to shame our children with regard to their aggressive feelings (though we do have to intervene with their behavior).
  • Point out to your child when play has become behavior. For example: “It looks like Tommy doesn’t want to play anymore,” or, “I am worried what you are doing is not safe.”
  • Try to identify the stressor (if there is one) that is causing the behavior—too much stimulation, difficulty putting feelings into words, etc. If the child is old enough, point out the stressor to the child. Try to resolve stressors when possible (quiet time, giving words to feelings, etc.).
  • Set limits! Your child may not be in control of their impulses and may need you to step in.

Some children who behave aggressively need more help feeling safe and in control. When you sense that your child’s aggressive behavior is interfering with the ability to function (at school, with peers or siblings, etc.) or is dangerous or out of control, it may be time to seek professional help from a child therapist or parenting expert. Your child might be struggling with a particularly difficult stressor or developmental challenge and need a bit more help getting back on track.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Wyatt, MA, LCSW

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • daphne

    February 20th, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    It must be mortifying in some ways for your child to be “that child” that no one wants their kids to play with because they are mean. And I don’t think that most kids really mean to be this way- I kind of think that most of them learn from an early age that to get what they want etc that they have to be aggressive to get it. Either that or they see that this is their path to make it happen, that no one is going to stand up against them for so long and they will just give in if the child acts out enough toward other people.

  • Ruth Wyatt

    February 20th, 2015 at 11:55 AM

    You raise another really important aspect of aggression, that sometimes children try to get what they want through intimidation. Sometimes children learn this by imitating their parents or other adults in their lives (which is why corporal punishment is so problematic). Other times they learn to use aggression in this way when their caregivers do not set limits and/or do not help them develop other tools for getting what they want, such as negotiation or using their words.

  • ej

    February 21st, 2015 at 5:28 AM

    Do we buy into the fact that it is the images like video games and stuff that is causing this kind of aggressive behavior in our kids… or is this just part of kids being kids and we are scrambling for the easy answer?

  • liam

    February 21st, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    My son is not one of those aggressive little boys so it kills me to watch him play with others who do exhibit that behavior. I always feel like they are literally running all over him and he will not stand up for himself. I kind of wish that he was a little more like the other kids in that he would take a stand but instead he is always the one who gets his feelings hurt. Is this normal and should I worry? I don’t want him to do something that makes him uncomfortable but at the same time I don’t want the other kids to think that he is an easy target either.

  • Ruth Wyatt

    February 21st, 2015 at 12:52 PM

    Some kids are simply less aggressive than other kids. This need not be cause for concern (though there is nothing more upsetting than seeing your child be picked on). Fortunately, there are a few ways that parents, like yourself, can help their kids develop strategies for coping with aggressive peers. For example, you might suggest to (or role play with) your son that he: assert himself with words, walk away when being mistreated, tell an adult if it a bullying situation, etc. depending on your comfort and the age of your son, you might try to engage him in rough housing so that he has some practice being assertive and aggressive. In the end, though, all we can really do is let our kids know that we are there for them and empathize with what they are going through. Eventually, and it can take a long time, most kids learn to handle aggression and learn how to assert themselves.

  • Jayden

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:37 AM

    I have seen it go both ways
    and just because your kid is aggressive does not mean that they are going to wind up with future problems

  • carly

    February 23rd, 2015 at 10:18 AM

    If your children then see aggression towards them in your response to their own aggressive behavior then of course they are going to feel that this is the kind of response that is okay to have. We have to be model citizens when it comes to our children, and we have to be willing to exhibit the kind of behavior toward them that we would in turn like to see them display to others. You don’t have to be a pushover when it comes to parenting but you don’t have to be a bully either./

  • daisy T

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:41 PM

    Is there anyone who thinks that to try to get them to stop being aggressive is to deny that child what they are feeling?
    maybe the better thing if you see this instead of trying to stop it is to find a professional that he can work with to find out what is causing all of this aggression to begin with.

  • STAN

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:43 AM

    What happened to just letting kids be kids? They can work it out among themselves

  • Tina D.

    February 24th, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    I am the typical helicopter mom, I will admit to that, and if I see that another kid is taking out their aggression on mine, then watch out cuz I won’t stand by and let that continue.

  • channing

    February 25th, 2015 at 11:30 AM

    I am sort of on the fence about all of this but I do think that there are way too many parents today who try to step in and do things for their kids that I think we were allowed to resolve for ourselves when we were younger, and I think that this is weakening kids today in many ways! My parents, unless a kid was physically just killing me, they would sort of let us work things out on our own. I am sure that there were many times when this was not easy for them to do but they thought that if it was between the kids then we should be the ones to step in and solve the problem. I think that there are many cases where we need that kind of parenting to be in vogue again!

  • anonymous

    February 26th, 2015 at 7:46 AM


  • Jeb

    February 28th, 2015 at 9:32 AM

    We must be willing to take our own child into account too. It may bother us bit it may not bother him or her at all. As a matter of fact it might just teach them how to stand up for themselves if we actually take a little step back and let them have some control over the situaiton

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