Aggression – Why children lash out and what to do

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when children are aggressive hittingOriginally published in The Natural Parent Magazine.

When one’s child goes through a phase of being defiant, rebellious and aggressive, this can really push a parent’s patience and tolerance to the limit.  Parents are often baffled to see their otherwise bright, happy and caring child lashing out verbally or physically, to see them pushing or hitting, perhaps purposely and angrily throwing or breaking items or defiantly shouting at their parent and storming off.

Developing impulse control and emotional self-regulation skills is big work for children and takes a few years.  It’s normal for young children to be anti-social, rebellious, defiant and even verbally aggressive at times and for children up to the age of about six to also be physically aggressive at times. You can particularly expect an increase in defiance or aggression at times of extra stress relating to changes like a new sibling, moving house, change of caregiver, increased conflict amongst parents or starting school.  But when a child’s defiant, destructive or aggressive behaviour becomes an ongoing issue, it’s important to look deeper into the difficult feelings and unmet needs that are likely driving their behaviour.

Children don't need us to accept all of their behaviour, healthy or unhealthy. They don't want or need to enrage us or overpower us, (that’s scary for a child of any age).  They don’t need us to tip toe around them avoiding the limits that might upset them.  They need the limits that help to keep everyone safe.  And they also need for us to accept and care about all of their feelings, the good and the bad, whether they’re happy, sad or mad.  This is what allows them to feel safe and secure, to move through the difficult feelings that life brings. This is what enables them to care for other people’s feelings.  And to truly put this into action, we need to maintain connection, warmth, empathy and support especially when we’re correcting them, setting limits or responding to situations where they act out aggressively.

Rather than just trying to make them stop acting aggressively regardless of how they feel, ultimately we need to help them so that the urge to be aggressive happens much less.  Children act out in rage when their feelings overwhelm them.  Unexpressed fear, insecurity and frustration tend to drive a child’s urge to be destructive or aggressive. Children don’t want to be violent; it’s scary for them when they lash out.  But they can’t self-regulate without our help, which often entails physical intervention, while  responding with as much calm confidence and empathy as we can muster when they do lash out.  This is easier said than done, but once a parent sees the value of this approach, they are much more likely to be successful in managing their own anger and urge to be aggressive to their child in return.  Parents who put this approach into practice report that as their child learns to trust that their frustrations and struggles will be met with empathy, their tendency to be aggressive diminishes greatly and they start to seek their parent’s support rather than lash out.  A big step!

When a child goes through a phase of hitting, you can say to her, for instance; “it’s normal to feel like hurting when you’re angry.  I know you know it’s not okay to hit.  I want to help you when you get really frustrated.”  It’s our understanding of how hard it is for them that’s going to help them dissolve their urge to hurt.  They already know it’s not okay to hit.  That’s not the information that helps them stop hitting.  But showing our understanding of why they feel like hitting is the piece that reaches a child; that alleviates the feelings of shame, aloneness and fear of rejection that overwhelm them.

Many parents I’ve helped to gain control of their own tendency to hit or verbally attack their child have admitted that when they start to spin out, hitting or verbally attacking their child gives them some relief from their rising tide of rage, and that this relief can be quite addictive.  They know it’s wrong.  Children know it’s wrong.  Invariably, the adults who struggle with lashing out were themselves treated harshly as a child when they became upset.  What adults and children need in developing healthier habits is support, empathy and understanding; as well as learning some healthy alternatives that will also bring them relief from their intense feelings.

”When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish. When children are understood, their love for their parent is deepened.   A parent’s sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child’s plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face reality.”  ~  Haim Ginott, author of “Between Parent and Child”

Trust that your child’s doing their best.  Assuming medical concerns and special needs are ruled out, you can be fairly certain that driving the anti-social behaviour are some uncomfortable feelings that the child’s unable to contain, probably unable to identify and clearly unable to express in a healthy way.  Despite the best parenting in the world, children become overwhelmed and scared at times and sometimes those fears get stuck inside them.  The moments when your child’s behaviour is at its worst are also the times when their most vulnerable sore feelings are closest to the surface.

When a child carries a backlog of unresolved emotions,
they tend to have a low tolerance to stress and even small requests, challenges or obstacles can feel overwhelming to them.  They may be happily playing one minute and suddenly a small disappointment sparks a strong reaction.  The feelings beneath a particular act of aggression may stem from past experiences and may be completely unrelated to the current situation that triggered the reaction.  As difficult as it is for parents, it’s exactly this tendency to over-react that is the external indicator of a child’s internal conflict that needs to be addressed.  Ultimately, they need to see that we’re genuinely willing to remain patient as they work to offload all the big feelings that have previously built up.

Your child needs you to help them change rather than demand they change.  An aggressive child is a stressed child, but aggression is the behaviour that generally elicits the least care and empathy from adults, but sadly it’s when they need our sensitivity the most.  If we could respond to very out of balance behaviour with some of the same qualities that we respond to physical illness, we’d live in a society where emotional instability in families is much less of a problem.

Instead of dreading the next act of aggression or destruction, be ready to embrace the opportunity to help relieve your child of some of the underlying feelings that are making things feel so hard for them.  Yes I realize this may be a complete 180 degree turnaround in attitude, but it’s one that can lift you out of feeling powerless and at the mercy of your child’s outbursts while relieving your child of feeling like she’s all alone with her big feelings.

The next time your child goes to lash out, rather than calling out verbal instructions from across the room, swoop in as fast as you can with the awareness and acceptance that he’s unable to stop when you ask him to stop.  A child lashing out is caught in the grip of a rising tide of intense feelings that they simply can’t contain or control.  Come down to his level, help him to stop lashing out verbally or physically by expressing your limit as gently as you can, while placing your hands on his body in a warm and affectionate way and truly connect, aiming to diffuse his anger and fear.  You might need to take his hands, restraining him as gently as possible and say “I’m not going to let you break anything”, or “I can’t let you hurt your little brother.”  This kind of expression is much less threatening than words like “don’t you dare”, “stop doing that right now.”

If they don’t get it out, they will act it out.  You can tell your child that you want to help her get her frustrations out of her body.  Talking to young children about feelings "in their body" helps them identify and name those feelings.  As well as encouraging cries, you might offer her an alternative like tearing up an old magazine or stomping her feet or growling or screaming into a cushion.  What you say isn’t as important as how you say it.  When our children interpret our limits and guidance as loving leadership, care and support, it's much easier for them to assimilate the limits and the positive expectations and much easier to calm down, return to reason and willingly cooperate.

There’s much that you can do to diminish the pressure on an already stressed child: 

  • Develop self-regulation, mindfulness and self-care skills that enable you to hold strong and steady during emotional storms, hence modelling the same.
  • Increase moments of connection, warmth and humour to deepen their sense of safety and security and alleviate fears of disconnection.
  • Give reassurances, choices, advance warnings and explanations to help them deal with the stress that limits bring.
  • Listen in a way that invites them to talk, share, vent and cry; showing that you value them pouring out the upsets that otherwise weigh them down.   Aggression is a cry out to offload tensions and feel heard.
  • Commit to not lose your cool when your child loses theirs.  Expecting a child to calm down while we criticism them is like sending them outside to play while restraining them.

Be assured that when their difficult feelings start to dissipate, your child can again feel comfortable and at peace in their own body, mind and heart.

One day when my daughter was five, she arrived at the dinner table and despite the fact that she loved her food, before I knew it, she hit the plate with full force sending it flying.  The plate smashed to the floor, food went everywhere and my daughter flung herself onto the floor enraged and out of control.  I was shocked and had no idea what had caused the upset but her actions were clear evidence that she was intensely distressed.  I moved towards her expressing my sympathy for her distress with my arms outstretched.  She initially growled at me “NO!” to which I responded, “it’s okay honey, I’m looking after you, everything’s just all too hard for you right now isn’t it.”  She cried and raged a bit more, then jumped into my arms collapsing into big deep releasing cries.  I could feel her tensions melting away.  “That’s it my girl, have a big cry.”

It’s time enough to talk with a child about what they could do differently next time when they’ve returned to a calm state and can reason again.  It’s also time enough to deal with the destruction when a child’s emotional state is again regulated (yes I know this can be very hard, but if you can do this, you’re much less likely to have more of the same behaviour).  Launching into talking about cleaning up while a child is still distressed is premature and would showthat the parent is more concerned about the state of the floor than the child’s state of being.  When caused accidently, it’s totally appropriate to say “oh dear, that’s a big mess, come on I’ll help you clean it up now”.  But when a problem is the result of upset feelings, it’s best, if at all possible, to prioritize caring for those feelings.

Later that day, it all came out about how scared and overwhelmed my girl had been feeling in her class, how she’d felt like running out of the class.  Yet, had I asked her in the heat of the moment about what was causing her upset, it’s unlikely she would have been unable to identify or express and the pressure to reason and explain would have likely escalated her distress.

The last thing that a child who is unable to contain their anger needs is to feel shamed, scorned or rejected.  These tend to be the feelings that overwhelm the child in the first place.  Some classic statements to avoid that further intensify a child’s negative feelings about themselves and their world and result in increased aggression:  “you should be ashamed of yourself”, “I’m so disappointed in you”, “you should know better than to act like that”, “the world doesn’t revolve around you, you know”, “you’re not going to get away with acting like that in this family”, “are you happy now that you’ve made your sister cry”, “why can’t you be more like your sister”, “go to your room and come back when you’re ready to be a part of this family”.

Warm connection, quality time together, play and laughter are great ways to help children resolve and dissolve difficult feelings.  When a child goes through a phase of defiance and aggression, tensions and power struggles can dominate the parent child relationship.  Turning up the dial on fun and humour can be hugely relieving and fun!

It's very challenging for parents to stay in their calm confident adult (as opposed to their hurt child state) when their child becomes reactive.  Parents feel powerless, embarrassed, they can feel like they’re failing or their child is failing, they often become enraged.  Adopting this approach of maintaining empathy when expressing limits or responding to aggression is the most effective way of addressing the problem at it’s source.  When a parent supports their child to release their pent up fears and frustrations through talking, crying or harmlessly venting, they help to dissipate their urge to be aggressive.  Especially, if ruptures (emotional disconnection) have happened during times of conflict, the child needs to regain feelings of acceptance and unconditional love during times of conflict.

Children who act aggressively need to be brought back into the family’s circle of love, belonging and security, they need and deserve to be reached in the heart, children always do.  ~

Written by Genevieve Simperingham; founder of the Peaceful Parent Institute, parent coach, educator and holistic counsellor
If you'd like to be among the first to hear about the soon to be released Aggression eBook that Genevieve is currently writing, be sure to subscribe up in the top right corner of this page.


You might also find these resources to be helpful:

The audio download of the Teleseminar "Getting back on track - Why we explode and what to do" by Genevieve and Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting.

The article on the same subject "Why we explode and how to prevent it?" which discusses why parents are inclines to lose their cool and ways to prevent yelling at their child.

Dealing with Anger in the family and in yourself

Genevieve's Stress Relief for Parents CD (also available on MP3) is a great resource for parents aiming to reduce the stress levels for themselves and their child.  It offers a simple guided relaxation, guaranteed to relieve some tension and great for children trying to settle at bedtime, as well as lots of useful information about the parent's journey of self-healing and equips you with self-regulation skills to help you manage your own frustration and stress.

What Causes Violence? by Aletha Solter PhD, psychologist and author of four parenting books

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  1. Ema Epps says:

    Thank you, just what I needed and am feeling soo much better!
    I almost wept when reading about the girl with the plate of food and her mother.

  2. Genevieve,

    Thanks for the great read. My five year old can melt down fast at the sound of the word “No” and I often don’t know what to do in response. Just reading your article has helped me to find other ways of reacting to his outbursts as I know that he’s having a hard time with his emotions when they happen.


  3. Catalina Corleone says:

    I was wondering, what if a child doesn’t recognize or reveal any deep-seated issues such as fear at school, insecurities, jealousy of a new sibling, a move to new surroundings and the usual situations that are likely to trigger aggressive outbursts? What about a child who just flat-out says he or she doesn’t want to do the things they need or should do? In such a case, wouldn’t that be along the lines of just seeing how far stubbornness and defiance will work in their favor?

    Also, isn’t there a possibility that if a child’s outbursts and hurtful/harmful behavior are always met with positive things such as family activities (fun) or humor, hugs, etc., the child might act up to get the “reward”?

    I don’t want to give the impression that I disagree with the practice of showing an upset child that their feelings are valid and offering them the opportunity to rid themselves of whatever it is that is bothering them. I totally agree with showing love and support and understanding, and realizing that in most cases, there are emotional issues behind the behavior. I am just not sure how any of it applies to a child who may not have any other issues other than the fact they just do not want to do the things they need to do and resent anyone’s efforts (loving or not) to get them to do these things.

    • Hi there Catalina, these are some very good questions. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. It’s much easier for parents to be more patient and supportive when they know that their child is being aggressive or defiant because the parents are going through a separation or their child is sick or anything else that makes the behaviour more understandable. Yet more often than not, the parent doesn’t know why their child’s behaviour is so out of balance. But out of balance behaviour really is symptomatic of a child not feeling good in themselves and needing extra connection or quality time with their parent or extra listening, or just more down time or more sleep, but unmet needs of some kind. One mum I’ve been helping whose 6y.o. child has been excessively aggressive and defiant for a long time and the mum couldn’t understand why has started putting these tools into action. The other day when her child was raging at her, instead of reacting defensively, the mum said “I’m so sad to see you hurting so much, I wish I could do more to help you”, at which point the child’s aggression changed into a huge outpouring of how she wished she didn’t have to go to school, that she wished she could be with her mum all day every day. This made a lot of sense to the mum and was so relieved to be finally starting to hear the deeper feelings beneath the rage. It’s more often than not that it’s only when the child sees that their parent is truly sympathetic towards them at such times that they can themselves identify and feel safe enough to show their real feelings. Some parents never find out what the more vulnerable insecure feelings are, but I still suggest assuming that the child is not acting well because they’re not feeling well if the issues are to be resolved.

      In response to: “hurtful/harmful behavior are always met with positive things such as family activities (fun) or humor, hugs, etc., the child might act up to get the “reward”?” – The only instances where I believe there is any risk of caring responses leading to a child purposely acting aggressively just to gain the reward of the parent’s attention would be if this was the ONLY way that the child could gain positive attention and care from their parent. Children want to be happy, and have an insatiable desire for fun and laughter. Children don’t enjoy being in a distressed angry state. A child who is not in a highly frustrated state will seek positive attention from their parent by engaging their parent in activities like showing or talking about their current interest, be it an insect or a bike trick, they engage parents in silliness and laughter, they seek affection and hugs.

      Children often don’t want to do the tasks that are being asked of them and often resist, complain, bargain and negotiate. These are normal challenges in families when the wants and the needs of parent and child differ. The same for all family members. But once again, if the child’s response to reasonable requests and limits are so extreme that they are expressed as aggression, then that to me signals that something is wrong. Children who are accessing the warmth, love and the connection that they need and who are feeling generally good do not react aggressively to reasonable requests and limits. Angry outbursts are an expression of big feelings and these feelings are real and need and deserve to be cared for before parent and child can get back on track with healthy cooperation. I hope this has made sense. Genevieve

  4. I love this article. If only more people would read and see the wisdom. Behavior is always a symptom or something else going on and an attempt at communication that a child/adult does not have the ability to use. My son has hydrocephalus and a seizure disorder, caused by meningitis at the age of 2 months. His behavior can be a signal to me that he is having medical problems. He is kind and loving most of the time. He does however, have melt downs for no or little apparent reason. He will also have issues with his ability to walk from time to time, usually momentary and want you to pick him up. He is 7 years old and doesn’t weight a whole lot, 38 pounds. He has excellent medical care. When he gets into a tantrum state, you just need to hold him so he can’t hurt himself or you until it passes. Generally he has a headache, but doesn’t like to tell us because in the past, he’s had to go to the hospital for surgery, many times. He also has migraines, now better controlled with medication, which has decreased by 90%, hence fewer out of control issues. When this behavior increases, we know we may be headed to the hospital or the very least a doctor apt. Look for a medical underlying causes as well as emotional distress. Ear infections, cutting teeth, coming down with something, etc. can all cause disruptive behavior. Behavior is never meant to harm you but to express something is wrong, whether it be medical or emotional dis-regulation.

  5. Julie says:

    Any ideas for ear-piercing screaming from a 3 year old? I have tried describing it as being like hitting with your voice (it is actually painful because of the volume and intensity), but other than removing myself from the room or situation, I cannot figure out how to “keep us all safe” while also not doing something that amounts to social isolation. Currently I suffer through it and try to prevent as much as possible by paying attention to earlier cues for stress. Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Julie,
      This sounds incredibly challenging to deal with. It’s great that you’re tuning in to paying attention to the earlier cues, and it could be a good idea, if you haven’t already done so, to keep a journal over a couple of weeks and see if you can identify any patterns. It sounds like you haven’t yet identified the source of your little one’s distress, but there’s definitely some very intense feelings driving the screaming. It’s always worth investing in caring out some quiet days at home, some really good quality one on one time, which includes child led play, as these are great ways to help a child reset and come back into feeling more connected, secure and balanced.

      It could also be good to get some ear plugs for these moments, pop them in to reduce the intensity to increase your ability to be present with your child at these times. Might they perhaps feel a sense of internal chaos at such times? If you could respond to the scream as you would if your child had just seriously hurt themselves (you don’t say if your child is a boy or girl), with really sincere empathy, focus, concern, support and be as soothing as you can be “come here sweetheart, sit on my knee, let me look after you, you’re safe, I’m helping you feel better, I’m right here looking after you”.

      Sometimes a parent doesn’t get to the core of the big feelings that are driving the behaviour, but your child is literally screaming out for something, and generally responding by becoming very present, warm, caring, affectionate and reassuring generally really soothes the underlying distress.

  6. Michelle says:

    This article really does give another insight to helping figure out the why’s in an outburst. My 6 yr. old son has many outburst almost daily and I have tried so many different approaches. I know there are some underlying reasons but getting him to calm down to be able to discuss and figure out what’s the matter is the hardest thing sometimes. He can say some of the most hurtful things to me when he is mad and its heartbreaking at times. I have been taking some of these approaches already and after reading this I can see I am on tract to being able to help him express his feelings better and in a less aggressive way. I can see a big difference in certain behaviors over the last year but others are coming about and are very challenging. the biggest thing lately has been getting him to leave his friends house when its time to. He has had complete melt downs and have made us chase him around to catch him all the while he kicks and screams all the way home. this is so embarrassing and really works the nerves, especially in the heat :) He’s an only child and really enjoys playing with friends this I know but showing out that way doesn’t help the situation. This happened twice so far but last night before we went over for play time we had a talk with him about how to act when it was time to leave. We explained how he acted last time did not get the result he was looking for and that we know he LOVES to play with his friend but when it was time to go home it was just that because of our school/work week schedule and that behaving would allow more days for play time. It was so hard the 1st time he showed out like that not to be fuming when it was all over, he completely embarrassed us but finding out he just felt lonely was what was so heartbreaking to me. So we gave him another chance and he was 100% better when it was time to leave. :) Baby steps for all! We learn something new everyday, we just have to breathe and have patience. Yes, I know this is much easier said than done face it we are all human, as parents we try to improve all the time :) Not everything works for everyone. Finding the balance is the key.

  7. Absolutely brilliant. Thank you for this.

  8. That is a very interesting article, thank you. However my (almost) 2.5 year old can be very aggressive with me for no apparent reason. Today he pulled and pulled at my hair, hit and bit me. There was no argument beforehand it just happened and he was aware that he was hurting me, it really upset me. I tried reasoning with him, I tried being calm and firm, but he just wouldn’t stop.

    Since the age of 18 months he has often lashed out at me and has shown a strong preference for his father. It is very hard to deal with and it doesn’t seem to matter how I react as he won’t stop. I am at my wits end with him as I find it impossible to always be calm and collected when he causes me such physical pain, he is surprisingly strong for such a young child. I am aware that when I loose my temper I am giving him a bad example however when I try being calm and loving it doesn’t seem to have a better effect on him either.

    Your advice would be much appreciated, thank you.

  9. sarin says:

    very inspiring article -thank you- it is a very difficult thing to be loving and kind when your child is anything but that- i feel like i hate her – but i realize that that is not a permanent solution – hating and hitting back – better be loving and kind

  10. Kylie says:

    I can’t seem to see this article.
    Only the comments.
    Can anyone help me out please?

    • Kylie, this is a glitch that I’ve been having with my website lately. If you put your cursor at the end of the address in the browser and click return it should work. Or copy the name into a new tab, or failing that a different browser. Good luck, it’s a great article.

  11. Katie says:

    Hi Genevieve, I have a 5 year old son (my second child) who is billingual. He started kindergarten last August and had a hard time trying to find his place. He has a close friend who we look after two afternoons a week but when the boys see each other my son starts to behave very silly and loud around him. At the beginning of Kinergarten the two of them were also very mean to the other children in the KG. They calmed down as the KG teacher was firm and consequent. But over the last couple of months our son has been losing his temper and getting frustrated when things dont go his way or he doesnt win a game or the other kids dont want to play with him then he is aggressive towards them throwing stones or pushing them over. He is very headstrong and can be quite bossy. We use timeouts when he breaks a rule or doesnt listen or hits his brother and follow through with a talk afterwards. But at the moment its hard to get him to listen. Can you give us some tips on how else to help him I feel really helpless and at a loss and we dont want to get cross with him. I think he is frustrated and he feels left out, so how do I help him feel more included? Thanks in advance, a very concerned Katie

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