Anger and aggressive behavior in children

Temper tantrums may continue well after the toddler years, as your child figures out how to cope with strong emotions like frustration and anger. Aggressive behavior in young children can be typical while they're still learning self-control. To help an angry child, start by doing your best to stay calm and consistent. If your child's behavior is unusually aggressive for more than a few weeks, they're hurting others, or they're causing serious problems at home or school, get help.

boy making a fighting pose
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Why is my child so angry?

An angry child is most likely feeling some sort of distress. The trick is to figure out what the trigger is. It could be as simple as your child being tired and hungry, or it could be more involved. Some common reasons your child may be angry:

  • Frustration is a common trigger. Your child may simply want to do something they can't, or not want to do something that you want them to do.
  • Anxiety can manifest as anger and aggression. If your child is anxious, and isn't supported in expressing their fears, they may have a hard time coping when they're distressed.
  • Medical issues that can result in anger include ADHD, autism, and sensory processing disorders.
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While all children will be angry at times, there are some signs that a child's anger is excessive. Talk to your child's doctor if their behavior is:

  • Unusually aggressive for longer than a few weeks
  • Dangerous to themselves or others
  • Causing serious trouble at school
  • Affecting their ability to get along with other children
  • Causing conflict at home and disrupting family life

Also talk to the doctor if your child is physically aggressive with other children, you, or other adults.

Why are children aggressive?

Aggression is a normal part of a child's development. Many children grab toys from classmates, hit, kick, or scream at times.

A younger child is still learning all kinds of new skills, from using scissors to speaking in complex sentences. Their brains are developing key emotion regulation skills such as impulse control. Kids can easily become frustrated with everything they're trying to accomplish and end up lashing out.

If your child is attending daycare or preschool for the first time, they're also getting used to being away from home. If they feel nervous, they might react by shoving the next kid who annoys them.

Other times, your child may simply be tired and hungry. They don't quite know how to handle it, so they respond by biting, hitting, or throwing a tantrum.

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Even an older, school-age child may continue to have trouble controlling their temper. A learning problem could make it tough for them to listen, focus, or read – hampering their performance in school and causing them frustration. Or perhaps a recent change (such as a divorce or an illness in the family) is stirring up more hurt and anger than they can deal with.

Whatever the cause of your child's aggression, it's likely they'll eventually develop more self-control. They'll learn to use words instead of fists and feet to solve their problems. The key is supporting their emerging skills with lots of patience and opportunities to practice.

That said, not all kids will grow out of aggression without extra help. Talk to your child's doctor if your efforts don't seem to be having an effect.

What to do if your child hits you or others

First, set clear rules that hitting is unacceptable behavior. If your child hits another child, immediately separate them and tend to the other child before addressing your child. To teach your child empathy, say "I know you're angry, but don't hit. Hitting hurts." To help your child manage their aggression, follow the steps in the next section.

If your child hits you, try to stay as calm as possible. Say that hitting other people isn't okay, and offer an alternative such as hitting a pillow or ripping up paper. Repeated aggression towards you or other adults is a sign to contact your child's doctor.

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What can I do about aggression in my child?

Set an example. No matter how angry you are, try not to yell or tell your child they're bad. Rather than getting your child to change their behavior, doing that simply teaches them that verbal and physical aggression are the way to go when they're mad. Instead, set a good example by controlling your temper and calmly pulling them out of the action, as needed.

Respond quickly. Try to respond immediately when you see your child getting aggressive. It's tempting to wait until they hit their brother for the third time before saying, "That's enough!" (especially when you've already reprimanded them for countless other transgressions in the last hour). Even so, it's best to let them know instantly when they've done something wrong.

Remove them from the situation to help them calm down. You can say "I see you're having a hard time right now controlling your body."

Stick to your plan. As much as possible, respond to aggressive acts the same way every time. The more predictable you are, the sooner you'll set up a pattern that your child comes to recognize and expect. With repeated gentle guidance from you, eventually they'll learn more appropriate strategies for expressing their angry feelings.

Even if your child does something to mortify you in public, stick to the game plan. Most parents understand your situation – they've been there before.

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Talk to your school-aged child. Let your child cool down, then calmly discuss what happened. The best time to do this is after they've settled down but before they forget the whole thing – ideally, 30 minutes to an hour later. Ask if they can explain what triggered their outburst. ("Why do you think you got so mad at your friend?")

Explain that it's perfectly natural to get angry sometimes, but it's not okay to shove, hit, kick, or bite. Suggest better ways of showing how mad they are: by kicking a ball, pounding their fist into a pillow, finding an adult to mediate the dispute, or simply voicing their feelings to a friend: "I feel really mad because you took my book."

Another way to help your child deal with their emotions is to try "time-ins" (as opposed to time-outs). Whenever your child blows up, stop what you're doing and ask them to sit down with you and be quiet for a moment.

If they'll let you, put your arm around them or hold their hand. Then, after a few minutes of peace, briefly discuss what happened and how they might have handled their anger differently. The idea is to teach them to recognize and understand their emotions while considering other options for expressing them.

It's also a good time to teach them to walk away from infuriating situations and people until they can think of a better way to respond than letting fists fly. You can help your child deal with their anger by reading books together on the topic. Try Aliki's Feelings or When I Feel Angry by Cornelia Maude Spelman.

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Reward good behavior. Rather than paying attention to your child mostly when they express negative feelings, try to catch them being good – when they ask for a turn playing a game instead of snatching the tablet away, for instance, or give up their swing to another child who's been waiting.

Tell them how proud of them you are. Show them that self-control and conflict resolution are more satisfying – and get better results – than shoving or hitting other kids.

Teach responsibility. If your child's aggression damages someone's property or makes a mess, they should help make it right again. They can glue a broken toy back together, for instance, or clean up the crackers or blocks they hurled in anger. Don't frame this action as a punishment, but rather the natural consequence of their behavior – something anyone would need to do.

Be smart about screen time. Innocent-looking cartoons and other media intended for children are rife with shouting, threats, shoving, and hitting. So try to monitor the shows and digital games your child sees by joining them during screen time – especially if they're prone to aggression.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to select high-quality, age-appropriate media for children, and to limit screen time. The organization also urges parents to watch with their child and talk about what they're watching.

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When to get help with childhood anger and aggression

Some kids have more trouble with aggression and anger than others do. Consult your child's doctor if your child's aggressive behavior feels out of control. Together you can try to get to the root of the problem and decide if a child psychologist or psychiatrist is needed.

Sometimes an undiagnosed learning or behavior disorder like ADHD or autism is behind the frustration and anger, or sometimes the problem is related to family or emotional difficulties such as trauma. Whatever its source, a counselor can help your child work through the emotions that tend to lead to aggression, and learn to control them in the future.

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Elizabeth Dougherty

Elizabeth Dougherty is a veteran parenting writer and editor who's been contributing to BabyCenter since 2015. She's an intrepid traveler, devoted yogi, and longtime resident of Silicon Valley, where she lives with her husband and son.