If you’re a parent, you’ve probably dealt with your fair share of tantrums, meltdowns and freak-outs. Emotional regulation is a skill we all have to learn, and some kids take longer to master self-control than others. But how do you know when your child’s aggressive or violent behavior is not just part of their learning curve, but is getting out of hand? And what can you do to help?
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Do most kids act out like this?
It’s all about knowing what’s developmentally appropriate. “We generally expect toddlers to experience some aggressive behaviors,” says pediatric psychologist Emily Mudd, PhD.
“At this stage, kids tend to resort to physical expressions of their frustration, simply because they don’t yet have the language skills to express themselves. For example, pushing a peer on the playground could be considered typical. We wouldn’t necessarily call that aggression unless it was part of a pattern.”
How do you recognize true aggression?
By the time a child is old enough to have the verbal skills to communicate his or her feelings — around age 7 — physical expressions of aggression should taper off, she says.
If that’s not happening, it’s time to be concerned, especially if your child is putting himself or others in danger, or is regularly damaging property.
Watch for warning signs that your child’s behavior is having a negative impact:
- Struggling academically.
- Having difficulty relating to peers.
- Frequently causing disruptions at home.
“These warning signs are cause for concern and should not be ignored,” she says.
Your child’s behavior may have an underlying cause that needs attention. ADHD, anxiety, undiagnosed learning disabilities and autism can all create problems with aggressive behavior.
“Whatever the cause, if aggressive behavior impacts your child’s day-to-day functioning, it’s time to seek help,” Dr. Mudd says.
Start by talking with your pediatrician. If necessary, he or she can refer you to a mental health professional to diagnose and treat problems that may cause aggression.
What can parents do to help their child?
Dr. Mudd recommends these strategies for helping your child tame his or her aggression:
- Stay calm. “When a child is expressing a lot of emotion, and the parents meet that with more emotion, it can increase the child’s aggression,” she says. Instead, try to model emotional regulation for your child.
- Don’t give in to tantrums or aggressive behavior. For example, if your child is having a tantrum at the grocery store because she wants a particular cereal, don’t give in and buy it. This is rewarding, and reinforces the inappropriate behavior.
- Catch your child being good. Reward good behavior, even when your child isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. If dinnertime is problem-free, say, “I really like how you acted at dinner.” Treats and prizes aren’t necessary. Recognition and praise are powerful all on their own.
- Help kids learn to express themselves by naming emotions. For example, you may say “I can tell you’re really angry right now.” This validates what your child is feeling and encourages verbal, instead of physical, expression.
- Know your child’s patterns and identify triggers. Do tantrums happen every morning before school? Work on structuring your morning routine. Break down tasks into simple steps, and give time warnings, such as “We’re leaving in 10 minutes.” Set goals, such as making it to school on time four days out of five. Then reward your child when he or she meets those goals.
- Find appropriate rewards. Don’t focus on financial or material goals. Instead, try rewards like half an hour of special time with mom or dad, choosing what the family eats for dinner, or selecting what the family watches for movie night.
If your child is struggling with self-control, incorporating these strategies into your parenting should help you rein in those behaviors.
If the situation seems unmanageable, remember that you’re not the only one struggling with your child’s behavior. Pediatric psychologists are adept at helping children and families solve emotional and behavioral problems. Ask your pediatrician for the names of mental health professionals in your area.