Fighting the Good Fight: 5 Strategies to Curb Child Aggression

young angry boy with his fist up in the airYou’re at the park with your 3-year-old son, watching as he cheerfully climbs up the jungle gym and glides down the big, twirly slide. It’s by far his favorite pastime, and you must admit, you love watching him play.

He’s had the playground to himself for most of the morning, but things are starting to get a bit crowded as the day wears on. When another little boy approaches the slide–your son’s slide–you tense. Something is about to happen.

As you guessed, an argument breaks out. And before you know it, push comes to shove–literally.

“Get away!” your son yells as he drives both hands into the other boy’s chest.

As parents, chances are we’ve all experienced something similar. From meltdowns in the toy aisle to fights between siblings, we know what it’s like to watch as our little angels act anything but angelic. 

And I think we can all agree…it isn’t fun.

But what do you do when those meltdowns and tantrums turn into aggressive outbursts? When a sibling squabble turns physical or an argument between friends ends in a knock-down drag-out fight? 

The topic of child aggression is a tricky subject, but trust me when I say it’s one I’m very familiar with. In my years of experience as a parenting educator, I’ve had thousands of families come to me with this very same concern.

If you happen to be one of those parents, you’ve come to the right place. From my FREE parenting training to the 7-Step Parenting Success System, my desire is to help parents just like you. I’ll meet you right where you are and show you how to take your family from surviving to thriving! 

Address Unmet Needs and Skill Deficits

Before we talk about strategies you can use to ease your child’s aggression, I want to be clear about one important fact: 

Aggression is NOT the problem. It is a symptom of an underlying issue.

Now, you may be scratching your head thinking, What are you talking about, Amy? Of course, aggression is the problem!

Aggression is certainly a behavior we don’t like to see in our kids. But instead of being an outright misbehavior, it’s actually a symptom of a bigger issue. 

Just imagine you walked into the doctor’s office with a fever. The doctor is clearly concerned about the fever, but the doctor knows the fever isn’t the issue. 

Sure, they could try to give you medicine to bring your temperature down and make you drink a cold drink or sit in a walk-in freezer to bring your fever down. But you and I both know the fever isn’t the issue! It’s a symptom of an underlying problem.

When your child consistently exhibits aggressive behaviors, this is your cue that you need to address the underlying cause, rather than simply focus on the angry slap your daughter just dealt her little brother. 

By digging down to that underlying cause, you’ll be able to help your child be more successful in controlling aggressive outbursts down the road. To start, let’s take a look at what’s happening on a psychological level.

When it comes to children, there are two main buckets you should consider when evaluating the root cause of their aggression. 

I’m talking about Unmet Needs and Skill Deficit.

Unmet Needs

Once their physical needs like food and shelter are met, kids have an innate, subconscious need for a sense of belonging and a sense of significance. 

They yearn to feel emotionally connected to members of their family unit through positive attention and need to know their presence is important. They also need to feel an age-appropriate sense of power and control over their own lives.

However, if these needs for attention, power, and control go unmet, that’s where problems can arise. 

I’m talking about sass, tantrums, power struggles! And, yes, sometimes even lashing out and aggression. 

All of these misbehaviors, and many more, can happen because your child is using whatever means he must to get your attention or feel that sense of control or significance that he’s missing. 

He may walk over and deliberately push his little brother to the ground or slam a door so hard it causes your favorite family portrait to come crashing down, all because he knows these behaviors will get your attention. 

Simply put, when his needs aren’t met in proactive and positive ways, he may settle for getting them met by any means necessary–even if that requires him to use negative behaviors to get your attention or exert his power. 

And that’s why aggression is not the problem in itself. Instead, it’s a sign that your child might be seeking to achieve an unmet need.

And as difficult as it may be to deal with in the moment, I have wonderful news. Unmet needs can always be met! 

We’ll talk more on that later…

Skill Deficit

On the flip side, aggression may be the outcome when children lack the appropriate skills to resolve conflict. This is not misbehavior. They simply don’t yet know how to handle their strong feelings and emotions or communicate them effectively. 

Parents, this is a wonderful training opportunity! 

Now is the time to really put in the effort and teach your child how to handle and calm her big emotions. Once she has the skills to manage those big feelings, you’ll find her tendency to lash out when conflict arises decrease significantly.  

That said, here are 5 strategies you can use TODAY to help curb child aggression in your own home.

5 Strategies to Curb Child Aggression

Strategy #1: KNOW Your Child

When it comes to emotional and behavioral development, at one point or another, all children experiment with some act of aggression. Just ask any parent who has ever stared helplessly as their child kicked or hit another kid after having their favorite toy stolen. 

But just because experimenting with aggression is normal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be proactive in putting an end to the behavior early on. So how can you do that?

KNOW your child!

From their favorite food to the number of freckles on their cheeks, you know your child better than anyone else in the world. Why not take that knowledge and use it to help them be successful in potentially challenging situations?

For instance, if you know your child struggles with aggression, it’s up to you to remain vigilant in your supervision. Watch carefully during their playdates and be keenly aware of what’s going on. 

Should you sense things heading south–change it up! Interrupt the play and change the scenery–BEFORE the eruption.

Also, understand that with kids, not everything is visible on the surface. There may be additional underlying issues affecting their aggression. 

Is your child hungry? Embarrassed? Sleep-deprived, maybe? 

Once you get a better understanding of what may be driving the aggression, then you can put forth the work in helping them overcome those tendencies. 

Helpful Hint: One thing parents often overlook when it comes to their child’s aggression is the importance of sleep. In addition to the following 5 strategies, be sure your child is getting sufficient sleep–rich in both quality AND quantity. And if bedtime is an issue, Positive Parenting Solutions Members can check out our Ultimate Survival Guide: Curing the Bedtime Blues. 

Strategy #2: Maintain Your Composure

Imagine…

Your oldest just sucker-punched his little brother in the gut when he refused to share the TV remote…right in front of your visiting in-laws. Naturally, you’re upset over his behavior, but having an audience made it so much worse.

You’re angry, embarrassed, and, now, finding it very hard to keep your cool. But as difficult as it may be to remain level headed, I promise you, now is not the time to lose control. 

Here are a few things you definitely DON’T want to do when your child’s aggression is on the rise.

DON’T make a scene. Adding anger, frustration, and hostility to an already heated environment will only raise the chances of another harmful encounter, and it will make it harder for your child to regain his composure. 

DON’T spank, slap, or otherwise punish–no matter how upset you are–as it only models the behavior you’re trying to avoid. 

DON’T force an insincere apology. I know this goes against every parent’s first instinct, but when you force a child to apologize before he actually feels any remorse, it doesn’t actually do any good. Instead, wait until he calms down and explain how his actions made the other person feel.

DON’T take sides. Even if you saw the whole thing go down, it’s best to remain neutral. By assigning victim and aggressor roles in the aftermath of a fight, you increase the likelihood of a repeat performance. 

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, review Step 5 Lesson 43 “Put ‘Em All in the Same Boat” for insight on how to encourage problem-solving and end any argument.

With so much to consider NOT doing, you may be wondering, What is it that I CAN do, Amy? 

My answer is simple: Take a deep breath, calm yourself (and your child!), and talk it out.

By controlling your own reaction to the situation, you can quickly navigate your aggressive child into a much calmer mindset. 

Take the opportunity to control the environment by stepping aside–away from the judgment of others–and talk through the issue at hand. 

After all, there’s very little that can’t be solved when the right words align with the proper emotions.

Notice that we’re not punishing, or even assigning consequences, to the actual aggressive act. Many parents are surprised by this–understandably thinking, “Wait, my child doesn’t even get in trouble for hitting?”

Sure, your child may need some quiet time away from the action to calm his emotions, and afterward, might need to make amends. But the truth is, you’ll get much farther by focusing on solutions first, and decoding the root causes of the aggression second, than by putting harsh penalties on your child. 
end childhood aggression

Strategy #3: Teach Them Conflict Resolution

Conflict costs!

Just ask any company–large or small–that invests a portion of its profits into conflict management. It costs money. It costs relationships.

And for families, it can cost even more…

This is why it’s so important to combat aggressive behavior with learning opportunities. Teaching your child how to resolve conflicts gives them plenty of positive alternatives to aggression.

Start by helping them recognize and label their big emotions. Then follow up with how to control and calm them. Perhaps you sing Elmo’s Belly Breathing song with your toddler or take a walk with your older child. 

Then practice, practice, practice!

For younger kids, you can role-play using stuffed animals or action figures to talk about feelings. “Watch how Mr. Puppy can ask for a turn on the slide from Stripey the Tiger instead of pushing him out of the way.”

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, review Step 5, Lesson 44 for conflict resolution for kids ages 1-4.

Try talking through various scenarios with your older kids and discuss different strategies they can use when conflict arises. That may be “I Feel” statements, problem-solving, or simply knowing when to walk away.

When you take time for conflict resolution training–and do it consistently–the change you’ll see is nothing short of spectacular. You’re gifting your child a skill that will benefit them now AND when they’re grown and flown.

Strategy #4: Model Good Behavior

what we are shouts louder than what we say

Our children are watching us and paying close attention (even though it may not feel that way). So it makes sense that the behavior we see in them is a direct reflection of the behavior they see in us as parents.

This is how children learn! They model the behavior before them. 

So how might you apply this knowledge to your child’s aggression?

Control your own aggressive attitude! 

Again, we should never respond to a child’s aggression with more aggression. When we choose to hit/spank/slap your child as punishment for aggressive behavior, it sends a mixed message. 

Kids aren’t clueless to double standards–especially when they see them played out right before their eyes. They may wonder, Why can Dad do this but I can’t?

Additionally, being aggressive toward your child doesn’t put a damper on their own aggression. But it does increase the likelihood that they’ll lie in the future to avoid punishment.

Of course, you’re human and staying calm can be just as difficult for you as it is for your child. Perhaps work has been stressful, or the long days spent at home with your kids have left you exasperated and desperate for a retreat.

Whatever the case may be, in times of high anxiety and frustration, do your best to work on maintaining a calm demeanor. Then, go one step further and model it in front of your kids.

You can try inviting them to meditate or practice some deep breathing exercises. If your kids are young, make sure to explain what you’re doing in terms they will understand.

“Mommy is breathing to calm her big feelings. Want to join me? Let’s pretend to smell a beautiful flower, then blow out a birthday candle! Doesn’t that feel great?”

There’s exceptional power that comes with the ability to stay calm. And when you work on mastering your own aggressive attitude, your child won’t be far behind.

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, review Lesson 13, “The Power of Calm,” in Step 2 for helpful tips to help you remember to use your calm voice.

Strategy #5: Give Plenty of Positive Power and Attention

This may be a tough pill to swallow, but it must be said. Parents have just as much to contribute to their child’s misbehavior as the child himself.

Fun Fact! Part of the 7-Step Parenting Success System is the Parenting Personality Assessment. Find out what your parenting personality is and how you can tweak it to get more cooperation from your kids!

Remember, earlier, when we talked about our children’s Unmet Needs and how they can always be met? Well, here you have it! We now know that when those basic needs for belonging and significance go unmet, problems start to transpire.

The only way to combat all of these negative emotions and behaviors is by pouring into those needs for positive power and attention. Here are three fantastic ways you can do it!

Tactic #1: Use Encouraging Phrases

Although this one may sound easy enough, the truth is many parents fall into a trap when it comes to encouraging their kids. They want to build their child up and show their support, but what is supposed to sound encouraging oftentimes comes out as shallow praise.

You know how it goes. . .

“I’m so proud of you!” or “You’re so smart!” 

Of course, there’s no ill-intention when a parent says these things to their child–they do mean them after all! But praise may actually do more harm than good because it focuses on external motivation

This is the motivation that comes from anyone other than your child–whether it be praise, rewards, social media likes–whatever! Eventually, children who receive lots of praise end up needing–even craving–external affirmation. 

Instead, try Encouragement.

Encouragement focuses on internal motivation. It doesn’t matter that YOU think your child is smart. THEY need to know they can work hard and take specific actions to achieve the results they want. And so you encourage them…

“You worked so hard to receive that A. You must feel so proud!”

“Your sister really appreciated how patient you were today while you two were building the tower. I bet it felt good to be so kind!”

Encouragement helps foster good behavior because it’s personally rewarding. And when it comes to curbing aggressive attitudes, providing the right amount of encouragement–NOT praise–can make a world of difference.

For instance, when you see your child struggling to control her emotions, perhaps say, “I can tell you are working hard to stay calm.”

It can also help reinforce better choices. “I appreciate you not getting upset when your brother took your truck. That must feel so good!”

It may be hard to get into the habit, but give it some time. I promise, the more encouraging phrases you use with your child, the more naturally they will come.

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members can check out Step 2 for a great list of ideas on how to help kids feel more capable and significant. 

Tactic #2: Daily Mind, Body, and Soul Time

mind body and soul time is an investment in good behavior

There’s a power-packed tool our Positive Parenting Solutions students refer to as Mind, Body, and Soul Time, and let me tell you–it works wonders!

All you need is as little as 10-15 minutes, once or twice a day, to spend one-on-one with your child doing something they want to do. Simply ditch your own distractions and get ready for some fun. Play a board game, try a new recipe, make a chalk art masterpiece–the sky’s the limit!

Quality time is what’s important here. With Mind, Body, and Soul Time, you’ll give your child a heaping portion of what they need most: a sense of belonging and significance. In so doing, you’ll cut down on the negative behaviors they turn to in an effort to achieve these for themselves.

Tactic #3: Give Them Some Control

You can cut back on child aggression by creating a Decision-Rich Environment in your household and handing off a little control.

As adults, we get agitated when things don’t go our way or according to our own timelines. And if it’s hard for us to lose control, just think how tough it must be for our little ones. 

If your child is wrestling with aggression, consider her worldview. What areas of life does she have some–if any–control over? Then, consider where you can loosen the reins a bit.

Maybe that’s letting her choose which shoes she wants to wear each morning or what music you listen to on the car ride to school. Throughout the day, make sure you are giving her plenty of opportunities to exercise some (age-appropriate) control. 

Not only will this tell her, I trust you to do this!, but you’re going to be giving her a huge boost of positive power. Over time, you’ll find those aggressive outbursts starting to dwindle.

Now doesn’t that sound nice?

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions Members, review Step 3 for more ways to hand off control and create a Decision-Rich Environment.

Final Thoughts

From tantrums to hitting and biting, child aggression comes in all shapes and sizes. And while a certain amount of aggression in children is normal, it’s definitely something parents want to overcome–quickly!

At Positive Parenting Solutions, we’ve made it our mission to meet parents exactly where they are. Whether you’re on the highest of mountaintops or stuck in the lowest valley, we’re here for you every step of the way.

If you’re struggling to help your child work through their aggressive behavior–or struggling to stay calm, cool, and collected yourself–we have what you need to make it through to the other side.

If you’re still not sure if our program will work for your family, I’d be honored to have you join me for a FREE PARENTING CLASS to see if our 7-Step Parenting Success System is right for you. Together we can work to end the battles and bring back the JOY to your household!

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.