Aggressive behaviour can be defined as behaviour that threatens to cause, or causes, any kind of harm—physical, mental or emotional—to others. Research and studies show that emotional problems are the most common cause of aggression in children. Aggression can result from a wide variety of situations or incidents in a child’s life—for example, problems in the family or school environment, socioeconomic factors or even health issues. As a parent, when do you decide that the temper that your child is displaying is more than a tantrum or naughtiness, that it could be aggression; that he could hurt himself or others?
ParentEdge spoke to Singapore based counsellor and psychologist Riona Lall Raman to understand the causes of aggression, and how to deal with a child who exhibits aggression.
What are some of the common problems to look out for in a child who might have aggression or anger issues?
This depends on the age of the child but some of the red flags that require further investigation would include hitting, kicking or biting other children, or even behaving in an aggressive manner with objects, such as throwing books, pencils and other objects. Parents would also do well to note whether the aggressive behaviour occurs on provocation or at random.
What are some of the factors that increase the risk of violent behaviour in children?
Developmental difficulties like autism or speech impairment are major causes of aggressive behaviour in children.
In addition to this, a non-conducive environment at home—for example, if both parents are working and are unable to meet the emotional demands of the child—can also contribute to aggressive behaviour patterns. Most importantly, aggressive behaviour displayed by parents towards each other or towards the child can be extremely dangerous for the child, as the child then starts imitating the behaviour patterns of the parents, assuming these are acceptable forms of behaviour.
How can a parent prevent her child from bullying others / being aggressive towards other children?
If the child is bullying other children, explain to him how and why it is harmful. Have a discussion on how he would feel if he were to receive the same treatment from others. Supervising the activities of the child can be effective; if the child knows that he is being watched, his behaviour will be more controlled. Reinforce positive or helpful behaviour towards other children, and provide consequences for negative outbursts—this will effectively demonstrate that he cannot get away with bullying and aggression, and that negative ways of interaction will have unpleasant consequences. If your child is older, explanations and reasoning work best— help your child realise the gravity of what he is doing. Also, continuously instruct him in appropriate social skills and take the help of his teachers to monitor his progress in school. Many times, bullying is related to internal feelings of low self-esteem and low self-confidence; these need to be dealt with first.
“Avoid physically punishing your child; this will only serve to
reinforce aggression as an acceptable way of dealing with problems.”
- Riona Lall Raman
What methods could parents use to discipline a child who exhibits aggressive behaviour?
• When your child is young, his outbursts could simply be a result of not understanding acceptable ways of interaction. Explain the concept of positive and negative behaviours to him in age-appropriate language, and
make sure that he has a clear idea of what kind of behaviour is acceptable and what is not.
• Model positive behaviour—if there is an aggressive parent at home, it is unrealistic to expect the child to refrain from aggressive reactions.
• It is certainly important to discipline and correct a young child who shows signs of aggression. However, keep in mind that when you point out consequences of aggressive behaviour, you should avoid using physical punishment, as this will only serve to reinforce aggression.
• Enforce age-appropriate logical consequences, which can be agreed upon with the child. Thus, the consequence for a toddler could be that he will lose his favourite toy or will not be allowed to watch his favourite cartoon; for an older
child, you could withhold a privilege for a specified duration.
• It is extremely important to focus on, praise, and encourage good behaviour, instead of focusing on bad behaviour. Reinforce desirable behaviour through positive means— when the child refrains from aggression and instead deals with a situation in a calm manner, or when he is helpful to another child, reward him with lavish praise.
How do you know when it is time to seek professional help with the child’s behaviour problems?
If there are multiple cases of aggressive behaviour reported in a variety of settings (school, playground, different
classes in school) over a period of time (typically one month or more), and with no discernable cause, then it is time to consider professional help. Parents and teachers could have tried interventions and ways to deal with aggressive behaviour with no results. This kind of behaviour is often accompanied by speech and motor difficulties, so look out for those. If the child shows no remorse or empathy over incidents of aggression, shows cruelty towards animals or engages in the wilful destruction of property (setting fire, etc.), these are definitely some major warning signs. Self-injury (hitting, cutting, head banging) and a history of aggression in the family are also some signs that it is time
to seek professional help for the child’s behaviour.
- Ashmita Chatterjee