8 Tips for Dealing with (and Preventing!) Aggression & Outbursts in Children
By Amy Churchill, LPC
Whether your child is 2 or 12, it can be very frustrating to deal with angry outbursts, tantrums, or aggressive behavior. As a parent, it is easy to feel confused, embarrassed, and hurt when your child is acting out. Parents often wonder, “why is my child so angry?” and, “what can I to help my child stop his aggressive behavior?”
Here are 8 helpful tips for dealing with and preventing future outbursts.
- Understand the difference between anger and aggression.
Anger is a natural and very necessary feeling that we all experience, while aggression is a behavior – and often an impulsive, non-thought-out act. Aggression is only one way that anger can be expressed. Many parents come in and say, “I don’t want my child to be angry anymore” when what they really mean is, “I want my child to stop screaming and hitting.” Make sure that when communicating with your child you don’t tell him it is, “bad to be angry,” but instead, “the way he is handling and expressing his anger isn’t acceptable.”
- Model appropriate behavior for your child.
You are your child’s number one role model, and thus the way you handle your emotions will become the framework for how your child learns to handle her own emotions. Therefore, particularly when your child is acting out, it is very important you remain calm. Although it is often easier said than done, remaining calm when your child is acting out will not only model a healthy behavior for her, but will keep the situation from escalating and likely end it sooner.
- Ignore (tolerable) inappropriate behavior.
This will help to cease any behavior that is being reinforced by attention given to the child. Remember, there is some purpose to your child’s outburst (whether it be attention-seeking or want-driven), and therefore ignoring the inappropriate behavior is a clear sign to your child that a tantrum is NOT the way to get what he wants. Keep in mind, when children are throwing tantrums or outbursts, their bodies are physiologically aroused and cannot maintain this state of heightened arousal for extremely long periods of time (although 5-10 minutes can feel like much longer when experiencing a tantrum outside the home). However, if you can bare the social uncomfortableness, the tantrum will eventually stop on its own. So if time is available, remain calm and wait it out.
- “Catch” good, healthy, positive behavior.
This can require much diligence and patience. Be sure to praise any and all behavior that is acceptable. Immediately praising “good” behavior is the best way to reinforce it to happen again. This can also be a very useful way to turn around a tantrum. For example, if your child has been yelling and then begins to speak in a more appropriate tone, immediately point out the positive change by commenting, “I really like how you are talking now, what a good choice!” This can be a simple and positive way to help end an outburst and minimize future outbursts.
- Let your child have a “safe space” and/or “safe object.”
There can be an identified place for the child to go when she gets angry/upset. Additionally, the child may have a pillow to hit, or stress ball to squeeze – something for the child to physically do with her anger, as opposed to hitting or kicking a person. This is a way to allow your child to express her emotions, but to contain the way she is expressing them. Other positive outlets for expressing angry emotions are: going for a walk, taking deep breathes, counting to 10, reciting the alphabet backwards, writing, drawing, changing the immediate environment (going outside/upstairs), or redirecting (playing a game/helping make dinner).
- Know your child’s triggers.
Being aware of your child’s triggers gives you insight to what is causing your child’s tantrums and helps you be prepared for an outburst. If you don’t know off-hand what your child’s triggers are, keep a simple frequency chart and log when the outbursts happen, as well as what was going on before the outburst occurred. Good things to keep track of are: what time of day did the outburst occur, where was the child, who she was with, what was she doing, etc. When you know what may lead to an outburst in your child, you can avoid those triggers (if possible) or manipulate them. For example, if going to bed is usually a triggering time for an outburst, yet obviously an unavoidable task, changing the child’s bedtime routine might keep a tantrum away. Keep in mind common physiological triggers for children are when they are TIRED or HUNGRY. Being aware of your child’s sleep and eat schedules can also help avoid an outburst.
- Practice open & healthy communication.
When your child is calm, explain (age appropriate) feelings & emotions with your child. Talk about your feelings and positive ways you express yourself. Let your child know you are there to support him. Additionally, it is always important that your child hear, “I love you,” “You are such a good kid,” and “You are so great at _________” on a DAILY basis. This positivity can greatly influence your child’s behavior. Help your child be aware of his strengths, and let him know that ALL kids struggle in certain areas. Most importantly, if your child does make a mistake or engages in aggressive behavior, never tell him, “You were bad,” or “You’re being a bad boy.” This could lead him to internalize that he is a “bad child.” Instead you can tell him, “that was a bad choice,” or “your behavior wasn’t good/appropriate/ok.”Remember, it is the behavior that is unacceptable, not your child.
- Help your child succeed.
Help your child be aware of what behavior you are looking for. This means consistently explaining appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior to your child. Often, reward charts are great visual reminders for children of what behavior they are trying to maintain. Reward charts also provide external motivation to maintain good behavior, which can counter any gratification the child gets from throwing a tantrum or becoming aggressive.