Help! My child is aggressive

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Occasional displays of childhood aggression are quite com mon in children. Here's why it happens and how to prevent it.

shutterstock 26042713 Help! My child is aggressive

Find out why your toddler is so mean to you

My daughter was once at a play date with our neighbour’s son, when he bit her on the cheek. His mother immediately apologised to us, and explained that he bites quite often and only did it “out of affection.”

She continued to justify her son’s biting habit with explanations and apologies as we tried to calm our teary 18-month-old.

Nothing was done except for the initial chiding of the little boy. Needless to say, we did not accept further play dates with said neighbour’s child. And we were also on alert whenever the boy was around our little girl.

Causes of aggression in children

Occasional displays of childhood aggression are quite common in children between ages one to three as they hit and bite for various reasons – imitation of peers, teething woes, frustrations or testing of cause and effect.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, various forms of physical aggression in children are fairly common as they have not learnt how to control their emotions.

“It’s very natural for little kids to bite as they’re not very good at explaining things to others because they are just beginning to understand and grasp language. So when they are very angry and frustrated, it’s easy just to bite,” said Early Childhood Education instructor, Jennifer Hardacre.

Prevention is better than cure


It is always easier to prevent a habit than to stop it. Whenever you see your child beginning to hit or bite you or another child, block the attack before it makes contact. Reinforce your intention with a stern admonition, “That’s not allowed!”

If the child is unable to cope with his emotional outburst, envelop him in a gentle lock position where he is unable to hurt himself or anyone until he is calmer. Alternatively, you may wish to place him in a time-out zone for an age-appropriate amount of time.

Finally, talk to him and explain why hitting or biting is not allowed. Use words such as, “We don’t use our hands for hitting,” or “Biting hurts.”

Be mindful to let the child know that it is the behaviour you are displeased with and not the child.

On top of it all, recognize the child’s frustration or anger and help him or her identify and label the emotions. Teach him/her to verbalize the emotions rather than acting it out. Demonstrate that when he/she feels angry or upset, the child could say, “I’m angry because…” or “I’m upset with…”

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Enforce your leadership position


When they are prevented from hitting or biting, most children will respond with tears or defiance. How the parents react is therefore, crucial to the future behaviour of the child.

The sight of tears rolling down their child’s face is enough to tug at the heartstrings of any parent. Many parents mistake patience and love with non-discipline and children are quick to pick up on this Achilles’ heel. Others have difficulty managing their child’s open defiance, and hide behind statements like: “Boys will be boys” or “It’s just a phase.”

Studies have shown that aggressive childhood behaviour that is not corrected, breeds adults with violent tendencies. Hence, it is prudent that parents are firm in their authority as leaders of the family and clearly define what is considered as acceptable behaviour in their household and when interacting with others outside the home.

Other contributing factors

While some biting is normal, repeated biting or hitting may indicate a more serious behaviourial problem that requires expert intervention. Children who regularly hit, bite or scratch may be manifesting underlying emotions such as jealousy, displacement, unhappiness, or anxiety. Once these needs are met, the aggression will naturally dissipate.

Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, claims that children behave aggressively as a defence mechanism to their feelings of “helplessness.” She recommends playing power games such as ‘Simon Says’ and incorporating child-friendly activities that allow the child to have some control into the family routine.

Exposure to violent television programs could be another trigger for aggression and parents should monitor their kids’ viewing menu very carefully.

Another little known culprit that has been linked to aggressive childhood behaviour is Salicylate. It was discovered by Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a paediatrician and Chief of Allergy at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco. Salicylate is a chemical commonly found in aspirin and many natural foods, and is believed to be one cause of ADHD symptoms (disruptive behaviour, restlessness, impulsivity etc).

While many parents are embarrassed and horrified by their child’s anti-social behaviour, they can eliminate the pattern by coming out of denial, changing the situation, teaching acceptable alternatives to biting and providing closer supervision.

As with all challenging behaviours, parents are reminded to practice positive parenting consistently by praising their kid for appropriate behaviours even as they work on eliminating those unacceptable responses and reactions that may be causing concern for all involved.