If there is one behavior that many parents fear, it's physical aggression. When children hit, push, kick or bite, parents tend to panic. The truth is that some physical aggression can be a very normal part of child development, even during the school age years. Children experience anger and frustration at various points throughout the day, and they don't always know how to channel their feelings.
The single most important thing parents can do when children engage in aggressive behavior is to teach feelings identification. Children act out when they are angry or frustrated, but they don't always understand what those feelings truly mean. Labeling your child's feelings and helping him connect his feelings to his behaviors helps your child begin to understand how to cope with his feelings.
It's essential to help children identify what triggers their feelings of anger and frustration. Big kids tend to struggle with big transitions and environmental changes, and might also display aggressive behaviors when experiencing friendship problems, academic issues, competition on the playing field and problems at home.
Talk to your child about his specific triggers. When you are aware of the triggers, you are better prepared to either avoid them or cope with the emotions when they arise.
Many children simply don't know how to channel their anger and frustration. When words fail, they resort to aggression. They need an anger toolbox.
- Anger thermometer: Draw (or download a template of) a thermometer on a blank piece of paper. Have your child use a red marker to color in how hot he's feeling. Furious scribbling? No problem! The exercise is meant to release emotions while venting the source of frustration. When he's finished letting his anger out, talk about ways to cool back down (think calming activities at home).
- Get physical: One of the reasons kids choose aggressive acts when angry is that it actually feels good to experience that physical relief. In the moment, anyway. Teach your child to stomp his feet like a herd of elephants, run, clap his hands as loud as he can or throw wet paper towels against a wall (outside, of course).
- Tear it up: Have your child tell you what made him angry. Write it on a piece of paper for him. Hand him the paper and ask him to tear up and throw the papers as quickly as possible. The act of tearing up the paper (thick construction paper is more difficult to tear but more rewarding after) provides both physical and emotional relief for the child. They get to tear up the bad feelings while releasing some pent up anger.
- Recycle it: Explain to your child that people experience anger and frustration regularly. Sometimes those feelings are resolved and go away, but sometimes they come back. Have your child decorate a small box or paper bag to look like a recycling bin. Help him write down his feelings and throw them in the bin to get them out of his mind. When the bin is full, carry it out to your larger recycling bin and send them away. Read through the slips before you send them off in case he needs to revisit those feelings or keep them around for a while. Children love visuals. This is a great one for a child with ongoing frustration.
If your child appears angry more often than not and engages in aggressive behavior on a daily basis, it's time to seek help. Anger in children can be a sign of depression and ongoing oppositional behavior can require therapeutic intervention. It's always a good idea to check in with your pediatrician first, as dietary issues and medications can cause aggressive behavior, and then ask for referrals to a child therapist in your area.