Aggressive behavior


Aggressive behavior is reactionary and impulsive behavior that often results in breaking household rules or the law; aggressive behavior is violent and unpredictable.


Aggression can a problem for children with both normal development and those with psychosocial disturbances. Aggression constitutes intended harm to another individual, even if the attempt to harm fails (such as a bullet fired from a gun that misses its human target). There is no single theory about the causes of aggressive behavior in humans. Some believe aggression is innate or instinctive. Social theorists suggest the breakdown in commonly shared values, changes in traditional family patterns of child-rearing, and social isolation lead to increasing aggression in children, adolescents, and adults. Aggression in children correlates with family unemployment, strife, criminality, and psychiatric disorders.

Differences exist between levels of aggression in boys and girls in the same families. Boys are almost always more aggressive than girls. Larger children are more aggressive than smaller ones. Active and intrusive children are also more aggressive than passive or reserved ones.

Aggressive behavior may be intentional or unintentional. Many hyperactive, clumsy children are accidentally aggressive, but their intentions are compassionate. Careful medical evaluation and diagnostic assessments distinguish between intentional behaviors and the unintentional behaviors of emotionally disturbed children.

Children in all age groups learn that aggressive behavior is a powerful way to communicate their wishes or deal with their likes and dislikes.


Infants are aggressive when they are hungry, uncomfortable, fearful, angry, or in pain . Parents can tell what babies need by the loudness and pitch of crying and the flailing of arms and legs. Crying is an infant's defense, the way to communicate feelings and needs.


Children between two and four years of age show aggressive outbursts such as temper tantrums and hurting others or damaging toys and furniture because they are frustrated. Usually the aggression in this age group is expressed toward parents as a way to get their compliance with the child's wishes. Verbal aggression increases as vocabulary increases.


Children between four and five years of age can be aggressive toward their siblings and peers. Because of greater social interaction, children need to learn the differences between real and imaginary insults, as well as the difference between standing up for their rights and attacking in anger.

School-age and adolescence

Aggressive boys between three to six years of age are likely to carry their behavior style into adolescence . In extreme cases, they may show aggression by purse snatching, muggings, or robbery, or in less overt ways by persistent truancy, lying , and vandalism. Girls younger than six years of age who have aggressive styles toward their peers do not tend to continue being aggressive when they are older, and their earlier aggression does not correlate with adult competitiveness.

Common problems

Frustration is a response to conditions that keep children from achieving goals important to self-esteem . Frustration and aggression are closely associated. If children learn that being aggressive when frustrated is tolerated or gives them special treatment, the behavior is reinforced and may be repeated. Aggression may be a way for children to face obstacles or solve problems. It is important not to attribute malice to children who are responding to anxiety , feelings of incompetence, or a sense of low self-esteem.

Through the media, including film, the U.S. culture reinforces violence and aggressive behavior in children. Police brutality, crime-based television programs, and governmental reliance on military aggression to solve political and economic differences all create a climate in which violence is presented to children as a legitimate solution to problems.

Violent behavior in children and adolescents

CULTURAL VIOLENCE Violence includes a wide range of behaviors: explosive temper tantrums, physical aggression, fighting, and threats or attempts to hurt others (including homicidal thoughts). Violent behaviors also include the use of weapons, cruelty toward animals, setting fires, and other intentional forms of destruction of property.

PREDISPOSITION TO VIOLENCE Some children are supersensitive, easily offended, and quick to anger. Many children are tense and unusually active, even as infants. They are often more difficult to soothe and settle as babies. Beginning in the preschool years, they are violent toward other children, adults, and even animals. They often lash out suddenly, sometimes for no obvious reason. When they hurt someone in their anger, they tend not to be sorry and may tend not to take responsibility for their actions. Instead, they blame others for their own actions. Parent should give this behavior serious attention and take measures to correct it.

Children may go through a brief period of aggressive behavior if they are worried, tired, or stressed. If the behavior continues for more than a few weeks, parents should talk to the pediatrician. If it becomes a daily pattern for more than three to six months, it could be a serious problem.

Factors that increase risk of violent behavior

Parents and teachers should be careful not to play down aggressive behaviors in children. In fact, certain factors put some children at risk for developing violent behaviors as adults. These factors include the following:

  • being the victim of physical and sexual abuse
  • exposure to violence in the home and community
  • exposure to violence in media (TV, movies)
  • use of drugs and alcohol
  • presence of firearms in home
  • combination of stressful family socioeconomic factors (poverty, severe deprivation, marital breakup, single parenting, unemployment, loss of support from extended family)
  • brain injury

Parents can teach children nonviolence by controlling their own tempers. If parents express anger in quiet, assertive ways, children may follow their parent's example. Children need to understand when they have done something wrong so they can learn to take responsibility for their actions and learn ways to make amends. Responsible parenting does not to tolerate violence or use it in any way.

Violence prevention strategies

Efforts should be directed at dramatically decreasing the exposure of children and adolescents to violence in the home, community, and through the media. Clearly, violence leads to violence. Parents can use the following strategies to reduce or prevent violent behavior:

  • prevent child abuse in the home
  • provide sex education and parenting programs for adolescents
  • provide early intervention programs for violent youngsters
  • monitor children's TV programs, videos, and movies

The most important step that parents can take with aggressive children is to set firm, consistent limits and be sure that everyone caring for the children acts in accord with the parents' rules and expectations.

Parents should know the importance of helping children find ways to deal with anger without resorting to violence. Children can learn to say no to their peers, and they can learn how to settle differences with words instead of physical aggression. When children control their violent impulses, they should be praised.

Parental concerns

All children have feelings of anger and aggression. Children need to learn positive ways to express these feelings and to negotiate for what they want while maintaining respect for others. Parents can help their children develop judgment, self discipline, and the other tools children need to express feelings in more acceptable ways and to live with others in a safe way.

Understanding the aggressive child

When children lose their sense of connection to others, they may feel tense, frightened, or isolated. These are the times when they may unintentionally lash out at other children, even children to whom they are close. Parents should be careful not to let children think aggression is acceptable.

When children are overcome with feelings of isolation or despair, they may run for the nearest safe person and begin to cry. They immediately release the terrible feelings, trusting that they are safe from danger and criticism. Effective parents listen and allow the child to vent without becoming alarmed.

Disciplining aggressive behavior

Parents can control the aggressive child in various ways. They should intervene quickly but calmly to interrupt the aggression and prevent the their child from hurting another child. Younger children may need a time-out to calm down and before rejoining a group. Simple rules about appropriate behavior are easier for a child to understand than lengthy explanations. Parents can affirm feelings while stressing that all feelings cannot be acted upon.

Parents can reach older children with eye contact, a stern voice, and physical contact. Older children can be told that they need to learn a better way to handle conflicts. Parents can suggest that, for instance, the child ask an adult to intervene before lashing out at a classmate. Any disciplinary measures should be explained as a simple consequence to the child's aggression.

When parents arrive after conflict occurs, it may be useful to listen to the child's explanation. Having a parent listen can encourage the child to develop trust in the parent.

Parents should not expect the aggressive child to be reasonable when he or she is upset. The child may need time to calm down. Sometimes the child may feel trapped and may need adult support. Parents should encourage the aggressive child to come to them when they are upset, hopefully before violence occurs.


Anxiety —Worry or tension in response to real or imagined stress, danger, or dreaded situations. Physical reactions, such as fast pulse, sweating, trembling, fatigue, and weakness, may accompany anxiety.

Consequences —Events that occur immediately after the target behavior.

Misbehavior —Behavior outside the norms of acceptance within the group.

Time-out —A discipline strategy that entails briefly isolating a disruptive child in order to interrupt and avoid reinforcement of negative behavior.



Davis, Jean Q. Anger, Aggression, and Adolescents. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004.

Delfos, Martine F. Anxiety, ADHD, Depression, and Aggression in Childhood: Guidelines for Diagnostics and Treatment. Herndon, VA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003.

Valkenburg, Pattie M. Children's Responses to the Screen: A Media Psychological Approach. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.


Parents Leadership Institute. PO Box 1279, Palo Alto, CA 94302. Web site:


"Understanding Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents." American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry , March 2001. Available online at (accessed December 12, 2004).

Aliene S. Linwood, RN, DPA, FACHE

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