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Print Ask any parent whether she wants her child to be an aggressive person and you are likely to get more than one answer. After all, aggression is associated with both approved and disapproved behavior in our minds and in our society—both with the energy and purpose that help us to actively master the challenges of life and with hurtful actions and destructive forces.
Most of us want our children to be able to take a stand for themselves when others treat them roughly. We hope that they will not start fights but if attacked will be able to cope with the attacker and not be overwhelmed.
According to developmental theory, aggressive impulses or drives are born in the human child and are a crucial aspect of the psychological life-force and of survival. In the course of healthy development, these drives are normally expressed in various behaviors at different ages and, with assistance from parents and others, are gradually brought under the control of the individual—moderated, channeled, and regulated, but by no means stamped out.
Aggression Is Part of Healthy Development During the first year, infants are not often thought of as behaving aggressively, and yet encounters in which an infant pushes, pulls, or exerts force against another are signs of the outwardly directed energy and assertiveness that reflect the healthy maturation of aggression.
But the 9-month old who pulls your hair does not know that it might hurt—it is done in the same exuberant, playful spirit that is seen in other activities. Even then, he does not know enough about cause and effect to understand the consequences of his action or how to regulate this behavior toward others.
When your month-old smashes a fragile object, he is caught up in the pleasure of assertiveness, not anticipating its result. They believe this is so because when he is scolded, he looks ashamed. What the toddler understands is not that he has hurt someone or destroyed something but that he has earned the disapproval of his parents.
Conversely, when praised for being gentle with another, he knows and is pleased that he is approved of for that behavior at that moment. It will take time and many reminders before he can understand that not hitting or biting applies to many situations.
If you understand what an infant or toddler or a 4-year-old is capable of, you can adjust your own actions and teaching to realistic expectations and save yourself worry and frustration.
On the other hand, if your 4-year-old has frequent aggressive outbursts and seems not to be concerned about the effect of his aggression, or even seems to enjoy hurting others, you are correct in being worried and in seeking ways to help him toward healthier behavior.
While there is no exact recipe, here are 12 suggestions that may help you to provide your child with the guidance he needs. Limits are part of loving.
Children who feel loved want to please their parents most of the time and will respond to their guidance. Ask yourself what might have happened that set him off—your behavior or that of another person, or something else in the situation; perhaps he is overtired or not feeling well physically.
Being rushed, abruptly handled, being denied something he wants, even being unable to do something he has tried to do with a toy or physical activity often produces feelings of frustration and anger that result in aggressive behavior.
Use what you know. Be clear.
Tell your child what you want him to do or not do in a specific situation but try not to give a long lecture. Your child will be aware of your displeasure from your tone of voice as well as from what you say.
It is important that you try to be clear about your disapproval.
However, long lectures and dire predictions are usually counterproductive. Be a careful observer. When your young child is playing with other children, keep an eye on the situation but try not to hover.
What begins as playful scuffling or run and chase or sharing toys can quickly move into a battle between children, and they may need a referee. However, there are times when you can let young children work things out among themselves. Age makes a difference, of course.
Use redirection. You may either suggest and help start a new activity or perhaps guide him to a place where he can discharge aggressive feelings without doing harm to himself, to anyone else, to toys, or to the family pet.
For example, a corner in which there is something to punch or bang or throw at can be utilized.
Be a coach. When time permits, demonstrate how to handle a situation in which there is conflict between children.
For instance, if your child is old enough, you can teach him a few words to use in order to avoid or settle a conflict. Children need specific suggestions and demonstrations from adults in order to learn that there are effective ways to handle disagreements that are more acceptable than physical attack and retaliation.
Use language. If your child has language skills, help him explain what he is angry about. Be a role model.
Keep in mind that parents are the most important models for behavior and how to use aggression in a healthy way. If social exchanges in your family include much arguing or physical fighting in the presence or hearing of your children, you can count on their picking it up.
Home environments like these can be unsafe and unhealthy for everyone in the family. If you are coping with a violent partner, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at or TTY for support, shelter, or services, or visit Stop Family Violence for more information on getting the support and help you need.
Avoid spanking. Think about the very real disadvantages of physical punishment for your child. Children often arouse anger in adults when they provoke, tease, behave stubbornly, or attack others. If your practice is to hit or physically punish your child in some other way for such behavior, you need to think very carefully about what he learns from that.
Be patient; learning takes time. While living from day to day with the pleasures and frustrations of being a parent, it is also important to keep the long view in mind: there is a positive momentum to development.
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