Beyond Little Outbursts: How to cope with an aggressive child

By Olivia K Pitkethly, MA, LMHC

Children express their emotions in physical ways before they learn how to verbalize them. I have a video of my 6-month-old daughter in a high chair, slamming her pudgy hand on the tray when she thought her brother was going to steal her food. While we have watched and laughed at this video over and over, as children reach elementary-school age, this type of communication loses its humor.

When a child does not know how to express himself verbally, he will act out in physical or aggressive ways. The behavior may begin as a child throwing items in a tantrum, continue with punching a wall, and escalate into physically abusing another person.

Laurie Reid is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Breaking the Cycle Consulting, a program designed specifically to address child to parent violence and aggression issues. Reid’s program offers education, information and programs for the whole family.

“While every child may engage in aggressive behavior at some time, a child headed down a path toward increased physical abuse will exhibit more an increase in hostility, and more frequently,” said Reid. “If you think your child may be becoming more and more aggressive, begin by noting and recording how frequently they exhibit these behaviors and under what circumstance. If you think your child is overly aggressive or becoming more agitated, it is important to address the behaviors as soon as possible before they escalate.”

Reid pointed out that a child’s aggressive behaviors do not rely solely on parenting skills, but also outside triggers, such as bullying or medication interaction, or brain injury. She said that traumatic stressors, such as recent hurricanes, can cause an increase in anger, frustration and fear, which lead to outbursts.

She stressed the importance of parents finding the support they need. Social media has negatively impacted parenting due to the pressure of perfection.

“Try posting the ‘realness’ of your children on any social media platform and wait for someone to bamboozle you with parent shaming,” said Reid. “Our life wants us to show only our ‘perfect’ children, marriage and even ourselves while we writher in isolation when something goes awry with one’s parenting. These inaccurate influences place undue pressure on parents to ‘control their children’ by strong-arming them into obedience and compliance rather than relationship building.”

Reid said fear, shame, anger and doubt inhibits effective parenting. In her work, she focuses on the needs of the parent, including safety and support, rather than on parenting skills.

“If [someone] is struggling to parent an angry, aggressive child, we want [them] to know there is hope, and there is help,” said Reid.

Reid offers the following advice to parents who are struggling with an aggressive child.

  1. Remain calm. Maintaining your emotional state is important. Investing yourself in their outbursts can easily escalate and fuel the verbal abuse into physical rather quickly.
    2.  Take a time out. The importance of taking a moment to separate and cool down is vital as a parent. During this time, call a person you trust to help you remain calm and rational.
    3. Get to the bottom of what is causing the angry outbursts. Once your child is calm, ask him/her what is happening in school, at home or in the community that could be affecting their aggression.
    4.  Check in with their teacher, day care or after-school worker to see if something happened. Ask them if they saw or heard anything that could have contributed to the aggression.
    5.  Lastly, seek professional help. Start with the pediatrician to see if there is a medical condition, then seek out counseling with a qualified therapist who is an expert in working with young children.