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The question about aggression in young children and how to deal with it is age old. When people refer to aggression in young children, they are mostly referring to hitting, grabbing, kicking, biting, yelling or demanding behavior. These behaviors are what this article will address when referring to aggression. Aggression is often seen as bad behavior. However, aggression needs to be understood at it roots and also in light of the developmental stages and needs of our young children. It is with this understanding that aggression can be dealt with the appropriate responses and consequences.

Understanding Different Reasons for Aggression:
1. Developmentally aggression emerges more significantly in the “me mine” stage in the toddler years. Aggression at this age is often due to a lack of verbal capability. In addition children this young are beginning to individuate by mastering their own bodies with potty training and developing independence. The ages 2 to 7 are considered the pre-operational stage by Piaget when children are ego-centric. However, while aggression at this stage is developmentally appropriate very often, it needs to be addressed. Modeling for children the words they need to get help and positively reinforcing behavior that you are teaching is a way to redirect this behavior without shaming, yelling or over talking to your child. Comments like, “You’re being such a kind friend sharing that toy” are an example of positive reinforcement.

2. Children are sometimes aggressive to get attention needs met. We live in a busy world often consumed with our smart phones, media, phone calls, chores, and often forget that a little quality attention goes a long way. I’ll admit to being a smart phone junkie. When I realize that my child’s aggression might be due to an appropriate need for attention, I address the aggression with an appropriate consequence of some quiet time, and then focus on giving him what he needs when the demanding has been redirected. I coach and model for him how to ask for what he needs and teach him how to be patient by being patient with him. As parents we need to then find the time to prevent these negative attention seeking behaviors. We can do this by providing quality time. Try not fall into the trap of giving in or giving negative attention. Either choice will encourage your child to continue to use aggression to get his /her needs met.

3. Children, like adult humans, get agitated when physical needs such as hunger, need for sleep and rest, or for exercise are not met. Some children have sensory processing issues which make regulating harder with the above needs, in addition to having difficulties with noise, sensitivity to touch or their environment. It is very important to be able to recognize these needs, and provide for them before the child becomes distressed and resorts to aggression. It is important however, not to meet the need right after the aggression occurs or you will be encouraging it to continue. Most children enjoy rough housing. Rough housing meets a need children have for contact that provides sensory needs being met, as well as a component of emotional needs as well. Create safe opportunities for your child to engage in rough housing whether with you or with their peers as prevention and fun!

4. Sudden increased aggression can be a sign of distress and/trauma. If we address aggression with physical or verbal aggression, we only reinforce it as a defense mechanism. Redirecting aggression with quiet time, and taking the time when the aggression has subsided to ask questions when the children are verbal creates a safe environment that your child needs most at this time.

It may seem complicated as to how to handle these different causes of aggression, even if we learn to identify them. Attempting to cease aggression by using physical or verbal aggression as the lesson simply only reinforces the pattern. While a firm commanding voice is often appropriate and necessary, this is distinctly different from yelling. As parents we are our child’s teachers, and modeling emotional regulation is very important. This kind of parenting takes effort and attention, but it really can work. It is important though, to forgive yourself when imperfect, and move on. Practicing, learning, and growing is also part of the equation for parents.

Image Credit: Janice Fransisco

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Andrea Giammattei has a Master of Science in Special Education from Fordham University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Oneonta State University. She is a seasoned learning specialist, educational therapist, and counselor with over 25 years experience. She has worked in public and private schools, as well as in private practice. Andrea has a diverse interdisciplinary background, experience leading teams, and many years of experience working closely with students and parents in partnership. In private practice she performs educational assessments and designs individualized curriculum for students with varied learning differences including ADHD, dyslexia, Math disabilities, visual and language based challenges, sensory challenges and spectrum disorders. Andrea is passionate and clear that students need to be taught skills for emotional intelligence as well as cognitive intelligence, and that these skills are easily integrated. She believes the kids greatly desire to work hard and be successful. Students are creative and inspired to be their best in the right environment, and will expand to their unique potential when given the chance and with people who believe in them. As an innovative educational leader, teacher and counselor, Andrea strives to inspire motivating learning environments full of curiosity, the courage to take risks, and development of positive self-esteem. She believes that the relationship between a teacher and her students needs to be one of trust partnership and creativity. Andrea is the owner of Open Minds Learning. You can reach Andrea at 808 280 0535 or at andreagia2014@gmail.com . She is currently residing in NY City.

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