Recently, I heard on the radio a program talking about child aggression. It talked to some parents whose children’s behaviour was more aggressive than what would be expected of child of their age and their family situation. Some children were very aggressive at home towards their siblings or even their parents or grandparents. Others were aggressive at school, towards other children or towards members of the staff. The program took me back to my own experience of working in a special unit for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and what I learned there.
Violence from children can be sometimes shocking, and although it certainly is unacceptable, it should be understood as way of communication, inappropriate, but communication nonetheless.
All behaviour has a function, it is there to fulfil a particular need. Aggression, however ineffective it might be, also has a function for the child. Of course the child is not consciously aware of this. Sometimes the child reacts aggressively because he or she is overwhelmed with uncomfortable emotions and doesn’t know another way to react. This is often occurs when children are very young and they have not yet acquired the skills to communicate effectively what the need or want, hence the “terrible twos”. Toddlers’ lives are full of frustration caught between the curiosity for everything, the strong desire for independence and their poor motor and verbal skills. As they grow older, their skills improve and they learn to regulate their emotions and accordingly, their aggressive behaviour recedes.
Persisting aggressive behaviour as children grow older could indicate:
- Stress due to a traumatic event, depression or anxiety.
- When children’s normal mood changes and they starts displaying atypical aggressive behaviour, it could be that they have experienced a traumatic event which has caused them to have a turmoil of negative emotions, which they don’t know how to handle. The traumatic event might not be disclosed by the child, or even if it is disclosed, the adults might not consider that the event is that traumatic, however it is for the child. They could also be suffering from depression or anxiety. One of the indicators of childhood depression is aggression. An angry reaction could just be the expression of the “fight or flight” response typical of stress and anxiety. Anger and aggression are clear signs that inside they are hurting.
- Lack of appropriate boundaries.
- Very loving parents or carers who have never shown any signs of violence or aggression can find themselves dealing with an aggressive child even if the child does not have an obvious developmental issue. Parents who never say “no” to the child and who don’t put age appropriate boundaries to behaviour may have caused the problem. They have allowed aggression to persist through their permissiveness and lack of adverse consequences for the child when he or she is aggressive. The child does not choose aggression in a deliberate way but simply uses what he or she has learnt that brings the right results the fastest way.
- The possibility of developmental delay or conditions such as:
- Autistic Spectrum Disorder with its overload of sensory information and difficulty in understanding others, or simply the frustration of not understanding to know how the world works.
- ADHD – Which impairs self-control and the memory of past consequences.
- Other forms of developmental delay with communication impairments leading to frustration.
- Copying aggressive behaviour from others
- Some children use aggression because they have come to consider it the natural response to resolve a conflict or to achieve what they want. In such cases it is often because they have learned this way of responding from others, whether it is members of the family, siblings, parents, carers or peers. Children learn from what they observe, not by what they are told. If they see others using violence as a way to resolve conflict they can accept it as a normal way to behave when thwarted. This is why hitting children as a punishment does not work to stop aggression, because it merely reinforces it as acceptable conduct. Fear might be a temporary deterrent but is does not promote self-control which is what is essential for the child to achieve.
- Later on in the child’s developmental stage: Puberty
- All of the above plus having to cope with puberty’s physical and hormonal changes.
- Hormones have a strong effect on behaviour. Aggression can appear simply because the child is having difficulty in coping with the rapid physical growth, brain changes and the hormonal onslaught typical of puberty. The younger the child starts puberty the more difficult it will be for him or her to know how to cope with the changes.
In conclusion, contrary to what we adults sometimes think, being a child is no picnic. With our busy lives sometimes we just don’t have enough time to listen properly to our children, to be aware of what emotional chaos they might be going through. They don’t have to go to work or pay the rent, but they have to figure out how to navigate a world they do not yet understand, and have to do this with limited critical awareness or resources. Children, can have the same, or bigger, practical and emotional challenges as adults do, but without the same level of control or understanding. So, we need to be patient and investigate the root cause of the aggressive behaviour. What message is this aggression trying to deliver?
If you are concerned about your child’s level of aggression and would like to find out more about how to help them to calm down and take control, please get in touch to explore how I could help you.