Aggression is a hostile action directed towards another person with intent to cause physical or emotional harm. There is a difference between anger and aggression. Aggression could be intentional, reactive, proactive, overt or secretive. Therefore, it is important to identify this difference. Occasional outbursts of aggression are common, but aggressive behaviour becomes a problem when these outbursts are frequent. Aggressive children tend to be restless, impulsive and irritated. Aggression maybe verbal, physical, or passive and maybe displayed at two levels — low and high. For example, children may yell at each other or may hit each other over a toy.
Low level – sarcasm, criticism
High level – threats, obscene language
Low level – intimidating body language
High level – hitting, biting, kicking, scratching, punching
Low level – ignoring, non-compliance
High level – gossip, defamation
No child is born aggressive. Like other behaviours, aggression is a learned behaviour. Most children who behave aggressively lack self-control and appropriate social skills, problem solving skills and coping skills. For instance, when a child is not encouraged to express him/herself, or lacks the appropriate words to do so, or has not yet learned the acceptable ways to assert him/herself, in such a position, the child may feel frustrated and act aggressively.
Parents need to be very patient and consistent for their children to learn positive problem-solving skills and to outgrow their aggressive responses.
Aggressive behaviour may be picked up by a child by observing the family. Children learn by modelling the behaviour of adults and caregivers in the family. They learn to imitate the way caregivers and family members cope with or react to high levels of stress and negative interactions at home. Ineffective parenting might be one of the prime reasons for initiation or maintenance of aggressive behaviour in children.
Children may also learn aggression from the kind of cartoons, movies, television, news, video games that they are exposed to. Also, certain temperamental and genetic influences shaped by experiences may cause aggressive behaviour in children. An infant learns aggression in the form of crying and biting as a response to the frustration felt. This helps an infant to communicate his/her needs to the caregiver. A toddler, who has not learned how to share yet, is simply expressing his/her desire to play with the toy.
Children in the age group of two to five years have not yet developed the cognitive skills to understand the other’s perspective or to empathize, or plan the future, or differentiate between what they watch on television and what’s real. This inability leads them to misread certain situations and act aggressively. The most common aggressive behaviours observed in school going children are as follows.
- Defying authority
- Breaking rules
- Sitting alone
- Spreading rumours
Most often than not, aggressive behaviour displayed by children is rewarded by the parents or the teachers. This reward is in the form of attention either positive or negative. For example, the child throws a tantrum at the shopping mall and the parent complies by buying candy or the toy desired, this is positive attention. On the other hand, the parent might scold the child or hit him/her in order for them to stop, this is negative attention.
Any form of attention helps reinforce the negative aggressive behaviour. The best way to deal with such a situation is to ignore the child and not react. Once the child realizes that his/her behaviour has no effect on the parent they will look for a different and hopefully a healthier way to express themselves. Parents need to be very patient and consistent for their children to learn positive problem-solving skills and to outgrow their aggressive responses. They must realize that assigning the blame for aggressiveness either to the child or to themselves is futile.
It is important for parents to understand the child’s patterns before the aggressive act. For instance, what triggers the child? Is it before nap time? Or when the child is frustrated, around certain people, or in certain places? Children tend to have a predictable pattern before they act out. Once the triggers have been identified, the child can either be separated from the situation for a while or can be taught appropriate ways to deal with it.
Providing the child with a strict routine and structure will help him/ her in controlling moods and be more disciplined. It is also important to teach children to look at the more positive side of things. The key to eliminating aggressive behaviour in children for parents is to be consistent in their approach and be a good role model to their children.