Child Behavior: Defusing childhood agression

Our child behavior expert explores how parents can manage anger in children

Last month’s Hudson Valley Parent examined the issues of gang violence (“Gangspotting”) and offered some preventative measures for parents. Although gang membership affects only a small number of children and adolescents, aggressive behavior has become all too common among youngsters. This month I would like to offer parents some ideas regarding ways to help manage or control aggression in children. The emphasis will be on young children, as their issues and difficulties are vastly different from those of adolescents.

First and foremost should be the understanding that it is not the child’s feeling of aggression that should be viewed as wrong or inappropriate — anger is a normal and natural emotion that all children experience and express. What needs to be guided, managed, and controlled is the expression of these feelings, not the feelings themselves.

Behind the aggressive acts of children are usually very strong angry feelings of some event or person that has frustrated the child. Children should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed about their angry feelings. The task for parents is to acknowledge, and if the child has been wronged, accept what their child is feeling. The primary goal for parents is to help their children learn appropriate ways of coping with anger, and frustration, and the acceptable ways to express these feelings.

Accepting the angry feelings doesn’t mean accepting the aggressive actions. Generally, most children want to, and will, conform to parental expectations, especially if these expectations are delivered clearly, in a warm and accepting manner conveying respect for what the child is experiencing.

Managing and controlling the expression of feelings doesn’t come naturally to children, they must be taught and it takes time, energy, and patience. There are many packaged approaches and a multitude of books on controlling aggression in childhood, each promising guaranteed success with all children.
Please keep in mind, one method of managing aggression will not work with all children.

Today, what has had the most success for aggressive children is teaching control and alternative modes of responding rather than older ideas like “letting off steam” somewhere else, otherwise known as catharsis. (There is one book on behavior management I do recommend to parents, it’s Alan Kazdin’s The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. It’s practical, not one dimensional, and proven effective.)

Children can mimic

Sometimes the aggressive behavior exhibited by a child might be created or perpetuated by the management system used by parents. This doesn’t mean that parents intentionally teach or reward aggression in their children; or try to promote it; however, they may inadvertently encourage aggressive behavior.

For example, as a means of stopping their children from becoming aggressive, some parents may become too controlling of their child’s actions. Too much control may result in increased aggression and oppositional behavior, as aggression may be the only way a child has of asserting himself. This “authoritarian” style of management doesn’t teach a child “how to” behave, it just tells him he needs to control his aggression or else. The “or else” usually being some form of punishment.










Parents who rely on constantly spanking and using punishment as their disciplinary technique may suppress aggressive behavior in the short term. However, physical punishment is not a desirable or successful long-term strategy, especially if it is harsh or frequent. Parents who use physical punishment or the threat of punishment will often illicit a greater degree of negative side effects and reactions from their children. The most useless management postulate that parents can use is “do as I say not as I do”; children do as their parents do! Think of your behavior when encouraging what you desire of your child’s behavior. Children who are managed aggressively, imitate the adult models that punish them. 

A child hit by an angry parent learns to deal with his own anger or frustration in a similar manner. Research indicates that even moderate use of aggression such as spanking increases the very behavior parents are looking to control. Spanking also creates only an external control mechanism, and doesn’t help the child develop internal self-control or any means of coping with the problem that created the misbehavior in the first place, especially in other environments.

How much control is enough?

On the other side of the spectrum lies the permissive parent, who may be too accepting of their child’s impulses and aggressive behavior. These parents may use too little control over their children, trusting in their children's ability to control their own behavior and act appropriately with other children. Under control can prove almost as problematic as harsh punishment.

Too much permissiveness, or looking the other way by parents, can be seen as inadvertently rewarding aggressive behavior. Children see that if nothing happens when they are aggressive, it must be OK. While ignoring some behaviors can be an effective management technique, not so for aggression. Ignoring aggression may send a message to that child that aggression is a behavior that is tolerated. Always make it clear that aggression is not an acceptable means of dealing with anger. Inconsistent management can also have the same or similar effects. Being inconsistent may result in a child thinking “will I get away with it this time.” When rules have been established they need to be clearly understood and consistently enforced. Don’t make discipline a platform for “Let’s Make a Deal”.

Parenting is as much an art as it is a science. Staying away from either of the extremes in behavior management mentioned is a good starting place to help manage aggressive behavior when it happens. Some other techniques that have been effective:


  • Help children understand and verbalize what they are feeling. Don’t underestimate the power of talk.
  • Help a child develop alternate methods of dealing with conflict, frustration or anger. Role play with your child. Go through various scenarios asking what she might or could do differently next time.
  • Help a child to develop empathy. Be the broken record to your child, always asking “How do you think your sister feels when you do that?” Sooner or later it will help them change their thinking or behavior.

Be patient. Although anger is a normal emotion, aggressive behavior in childhood in most instances is a product of learning. If aggression is learned, with patience and appropriate responses to childhood instances it can be unlearned and appropriate behavior taught.


Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College. He is available for speaking engagements to parent groups.