What should I do when my child is being aggressive?

Read on to find out what you can do when your child is being aggressive — and how to prevent him from becoming a bully.

Have you ever wondered why your usually sweet little child suddenly does hurtful things, or says hurtful words? Most parents may be at a loss when their child is being aggressive, so we've identified a few things you should think about whenever your little one acts up.

Child is being aggressive because of exposure to violence

Young children who are exposed to violent and/or abusive behavior on television, their playmates, siblings, caregivers or even parents, will mimic that behaviour. If a toddler witnesses Daddy yelling and screaming at Mummy — even hitting her — they will think it is completely acceptable to do the same.

Similarly, children who are exposed to and who bear the brunt of the school (or daycare, for younger kids) bully’s outbursts will eventually act out in a similar fashion.

If you think that your child is being mean because of what was stated above, take whatever steps necessary to correct the situation. This is your child’s life we’re talking about here.

Do whatever you can to ensure that your child is raised in a safe, loving, calm and peace-loving environment. Seek family counselling and/or take the necessary steps to provide a safe home for your child.

If the school or daycare bully is at the root of your child’s violent or aggressive outbursts, consult the relevant authorities as to what is being done to correct the bully's actions. If the situation persists, you may need to consider moving your child to a different environment.

Other forms of violence that can cause problems include movies and video games. Be mindful of what comes into your home and who is in the room if older family members insist on watching violent movies.

Child is being aggressive because of triggers

Young children — especially toddlers — feel emotions as strongly as the rest of us, but they don’t know how to process these feelings and express them appropriately. Your job as a parent is to pinpoint the circumstances or things that trigger your child’s aggression.

In some cases it is food allergies or even ‘just’ food sensitivities to things like sugar or artificial flavourings.

In other cases the trigger can be aggressive play. Your toddler may simply not know how to ‘step down,’ or they just don’t realise that when they stop wrestling with their big brother, they need to put a lid on the aggression.

When your child is being aggressive, channel the negative into a positive

Whether your child is being mean because he's reacting to a certain situation or event, or mimicking violence, or is overstimulated, there is a need to address his aggressive behaviour.

Just as we express our anger and frustration in other ways — even when all we want to do is scream or throw something — we must teach our children to respond positively to negative situations.

Don’t deny your child the right to be angry though. Just deny them the ‘right’ to do whatever they think they need to do to express that anger.

child is being aggressive Give your child options as to how to express their anger. | Image courtesy: stock image

In addition, teach them to express their feelings in such a way that they will 1) feel better; 2) not hurt anyone; and 3) not destroy anything. Here are some things you can do when your child is being  mean:

1. Limit their exposure to things that triggers their aggressive behaviour and/or anger. This is not to be seen as denying their right to be angry — it's about protecting them from harmful and/or emotionally challenging situations.

2. Model positive behaviour. When something angers or upsets you, handle your anger and frustration in a calm, mature and peaceful manner.

3. Give your child options as to how to express their anger. Ask them, “Are you angry?”. Follow this up by providing them with a way or ways to release their emotions.

If your child is being aggressive, here are possibilities to calm them:

- Taking them outside to kick or throw balls;

- Riding their tricycle or taking a walk;

- Providing them with a ‘punching pillow (i.e. a pillow they can hit as hard as they wish when they are angry);

- Turn on music and encourage them to sing at the top of their lungs, preferably with you;

- Put them in a warm tub and give them toys to play with;  and above all else

- Talk to them. Teach them to share their feelings and work through them with someone they trust… you.

In the heat of the moment

So far we’ve talked about how to prevent aggressive and violent behaviour in young children. But what about in the ‘heat of the moment’? What do you do when your child hits, bites, pinches or punches you?

Firmly and calmly hold him/her close and say in a firm and gentle voice, “You are hurting me and it is wrong to hurt someone. You need to stop now.”

If they don’t stop, remove your child — by placing them in their bed, high chair or another designated ‘time out’ place. After a few minutes, you need to go to your child, take him/her on your lap and talk about what they did in the simplest of terms:

- You hurt me

- This makes me sad

- Why did you hurt me?

- Are you sorry you hurt me? (If no, explain the need for an apology.

- Express your forgiveness

- Express the fact that their behavior will not be allowed

No one said raising kids was going to be easy. It’s a rollercoaster ride of gargantuan proportions. But it’s absolutely worth it — just hang in there.

Also read: 7 signs your kids need more discipline