To Prevent Aggressive Behavior, Catch Children Being Good!

One of the most distressing and challenging aspects of parenting is figuring out the best way to deal with a child’s aggression. Fortunately for parents, working with children to learn to control themselves during their earliest years has been shown to be the most effective way of preventing the development of behavioral issues as they mature.

Why Children Act Out

Along with a limited ability to express themselves, babies have very little control over their feelings and behaviors. Because of their restricted ability to express themselves, many young children often become angry because they feel helpless. A young child’s anger is often generally an expression of their frustration. Many toddlers start to show aggressive behavior around 2 years of age mainly out of frustration. Their desire to do things is greater than their capability. They want to communicate their needs and wants, but have a limited vocabulary. Toddlers often perceive aggressive behaviors such as biting, pushing and hitting as communication tools — and these behaviors can be perfectly normal for their developmental level.

By the age of 2, most children are beginning to learn socially acceptable ways to communicate and to deal with their frustrations. For example, some behaviors in infants can become aggressive behaviors in toddlers if parents are unable to correct them. Fortunately, there are various ways that you as a parent can work with your child to reduce anger and aggressive behaviors.

How to Address Aggressive Behaviors

From 2 to 3 years of age, children are learning all about socially acceptable behavior: "How am I supposed to act?" During this time, it is up to parents and caregivers to model appropriate behavior for your child. Research in the area of child development has illustrated that frequent exposure to violence in the home significantly increases a child’s risk of developing aggressive behaviors.1 This is particularly true when children witness their parents being aggressive with each other. Parents should recognize the significant influence their actions have on their child’s behavior. If you curse when angry, don’t be surprised when a child does as well. However, if you take a few deep breaths to calm down when angry, don’t be surprised if your child practices that same good behavior as well. In this way, you are teaching other ways to vent frustration without acting in hurtful or damaging ways. Modeling appropriate behaviors for your child can be one of the most important aspects of parenting. Children are highly perceptive and responsive to a parents feeling and interactions. By modeling behaviors that promote self-confidence and self-esteem you are helping to instill these traits in your child. Show and tell your child alternative ways of using his hands to communicate: "We don't hit, we hug. Hitting hurts mama!" as you put on your unhappy face. Then show them a positive behavior instead: "Kiss mama. That's nice!" as you put on your happy face. You want your child to make the connection that kind gestures are rewarded with kind reactions.

Once your child has begun to engage in positive behaviors, focus on praising them—catch your child being good! So much focus and attention is given to children engaging in negative behaviors. By addressing and focusing on rewarding good behaviors, children will learn that their good behaviors will be received with attention and praise. Communicate with your child once you see good behavior: “I’m so glad you came and told me that you need help rather than throwing your puzzle on the floor—you deserve a big hug!” Taking an interest in your child’s positive behaviors fosters pride in your child. Frustrations often mean less when a child knows their parent loves them and is proud of them for things they do.

Often times it can be challenging to remain calm when your child is acting in an aggressive manner. Out of frustration, parents can often lose control and punish a child for bad behavior. Research has shown us that if a parent frequently uses physical punishment, children often have trouble learning to control themselves. Physical punishment makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, and when parents are not present to administer the punishment, those same children are more likely to misbehave.2 Children who are physically punished have an increased risk of mental health problems in childhood and adulthood, and there is an increased risk that they will abuse their siblings, playmates and act aggressive themselves. Hitting or spanking your child is likely to decrease the quality of your relationship with them.2 Given this, it is critical to learn to discipline your child in a way that actually decreases their aggression rather than increase it.

Good discipline includes setting limits, but being flexible when needed. It means explaining the rules and sticking to them in a calm and neutral way. Handling angry children means understanding why they are angry and responding appropriately. Try to identify the trigger of the behavior. Once you have identified the trigger, try to help change it as much as you can. Be sure to give a “time out” if you notice your child acting out. Children respond well to rhyme rules: "If you hit, you have to sit!" After the time out, show your child how to play nicely. Children 2 to 3 years of age can make the connection between being aggressive and getting undesirable consequences, thus preventing these behaviors from future occurrence.

Setting rules and boundaries for children is a show of love and consistency for your child. Making and keeping household rules that are appropriate for the age of the child that are reasonable and meaningful are critical to their sense of stability. These rules should be obeyed and parents should not ignore them when a child disobeys them but should explain why the rules are important and help the child to understand the rules.

Most importantly, showing love and engaging in positive interactions, such as singing, touching, reading, playing with your child increases the likelihood that they will develop self confidence and interact with others in a positive way.

I’ve tried everything! What if I can’t control my child’s aggression?

Some situations may be too challenging for a parent to handle and may warrant seeking professional help. For example, parents probably should seek help if children demonstrate: frequent aggressive acts toward others, self, pets, or property, often increasing in severity; if your child never follows directions or listens; if your child frequently throws tantrums and is non-compliant.

Fortunately for these parents there is a FREE local program called the Regional Intervention Program of Memphis, which specifically works with parents of children under age six who have mild to severe behavior problems. This program is based on the premise of positive behavior management, positive reinforcement, developmentally appropriate social skills training, and positive parenting. A 2001 study of the RIP program found that it significantly improved short and longer term behaviors in child participants.3 Additionally, the earlier the child began the program, the better the outcome. With that said, if you feel overwhelmed or feel your child could benefit from this program, it is critical to join the program and start early. The sooner you work with your child to extinguish these behaviors, the better their behaviors will become!

For more information on the Regional Intervention Program (RIP) please contact:

RIP Memphis University of Memphis, Park Avenue Campus
4111 S. MSU B Street
Building 48, Suite 110
Memphis, TN 38152
(901) 678-5258


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2001). Understanding Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Bulletin, 55.

Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Parental corporal punishment and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539–579.

Strain, P.S. & Tim, M.A. (2001). Remediation and Prevention of Aggression: An Evaluation of the Regional Intervention Program Over a Quarter Century. Behavioral Disorders, 26(4), 297–313.