Discipline Strategies to Manage Aggression in Children

Find out how to deal with hitting, biting, and sibling rivalry

Respond to aggressive behavior with an immediate consequence.
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Aggressive behavior can be normal at various times in your child's development. He may hit at times, just see what happens. Or, he may kick when he's angry, because he needs help managing his emotions.

On the mild end, aggressive behavior is easily manageable with consistent and effective consequences. On the more serious end of the spectrum, however, aggressive behavior can be a symptom of a much bigger problem.

Reasons Kids Behave Aggressively

Toddlers sometimes behave aggressively because they lack the language to share their feelings or get their needs met. A child who can't say, "Don't do that," when his brother takes the toy out of his hands, may hit or bite to express his displeasure.

School age children sometimes behave aggressively because they can't regulate their emotions. A child who lacks the verbal skills to say, “I’m really angry right now” might show his anger by lashing out.

Sometimes, kids behave aggressively because hitting or biting serves a worthwhile purpose. If bullying works, a child may learn that aggressive behavior is effective.

Sometimes, children hit their parents, in an effort to get their way. Poor boundaries and a lack of discipline are often at the root of aggression toward adults.

Provide Immediate Consequences

Any act of aggression should result in an immediate consequence.

Negative consequences deter children from repeating the behavior again. Examples of negative consequences include:

  • Time-out- When used appropriately, time-out teaches children how to calm down. The ultimate goal of time-out should be for children to put themselves in time-out before they lash out aggressively.
  • Restitution- If your child hurts someone, restitution should be part of the consequence. Restitution may involve loaning his favorite toy to his brother for the day or doing an extra chore around the house. Restitution can help repair the relationship and give your child an opportunity to make amends.
  • Loss of privileges- Take away your child’s favorite activity for 24 hours. Losing electronics or a chance to go to a friend's house can be an effective reminder not to hurt anyone else. 
  • Natural consequences- If your child destroys his own property, a natural consequence may be the most effective. If your teenager throws his phone and breaks it, don't buy him a new one. Going without a phone and then buying his own replacement can serve as a valuable life lesson.
  • Reward systems- If your child exhibits aggression often, establish a reward system. Provide positive reinforcement for good behavior, like gentle touches. A token economy system can eliminate aggression fast.

No matter what type of consequence you choose to use, make sure that it constitutes discipline and not punishment.

Shaming or embarrassing your child can backfire and may lead to increased aggression.

Teach New Skills

Aggressive behavior indicates your child lacks the skills he needs to manage his behavior appropriately. Teaching children new skills should be part of the discipline process. Social skills, problem-solving skills, and conflict resolution skills will reduce aggressive behavior.

Ensure that your discipline teaches your child 'what to do instead.' Rather than saying, "Don't hit," say, "Use your words." Help your child see alternative choices that don't involve aggression.

Seek Professional Help

Occasionally, aggressive behavior can stem from more serious behavior disorders or mental health problems. If your child's aggression is serious, or it isn't responding to discipline, talk to your pediatrician.

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