In detail

Child aggression, causes and solutions

Child aggression, causes and solutions

"You can choose how angry, frustrated or sad you want to feel. You can also choose to change your feelings."


  • 1 Learn to control yourself
  • 2 Child Aggression
  • 3 Some theories explain the causes of aggressive behavior
  • 4 Social Learning Theory
  • 5 Influential factors in aggressive behavior
  • 6 How to evaluate whether or not a child is aggressive? Evaluation instruments
  • 7 How can we treat the aggressive behavior of the child?
  • 8 Some considerations about punishment in general
  • 9 What can parents and teachers do?

Learn to control yourself

The problem of child aggression is one of the disorders that most invalidate parents and teachers along with disobedience. We often face aggressive, manipulative or rebel children but we don't know very well how we should act with them or how we can influence their behavior to change it. In this article we will try to define the symptoms for a correct evaluation of this characteristic disorder and establish different treatment modes.

A good prognosis in time always improves an abnormal behavior that usually predicts other psychological pathologies in adulthood. Excessively aggressive behavior in childhood if left untreated will probably result in school failure and antisocial behavior in adolescence and adulthood because they are mainly children with difficulties to socialize and adapt to their own environment.

Aggressive behavior complicates the social relationships that it establishes throughout its development and therefore hinders its correct integration into any environment. The work therefore to follow is the socialization of aggressive behavior, that is, correcting aggressive behavior so that it leads to an assertive style of behavior.

Certain manifestations of aggressiveness they are admissible at a stage of life for example it is normal for a baby to behave crying or kicking; however, these behaviors are not considered adequate in later evolutionary stages.

Child aggression

We talk about aggressiveness when we cause harm to a person or object. Aggressive behavior is intentional and the damage can be physical or psychic. In the case of children, aggressiveness is usually presented directly either in the form of a physical violent act (kicks, shoves, ...) or verbal (insults, swear words, ...). But we can also find indirect or displaced aggressiveness, according to which the child attacks the objects of the person that has been the origin of the conflict, or contained aggressiveness according to which the child gestures, shouts or produces facial expressions of frustration.

Regardless of the type of aggressive behavior a child manifests, the common denominator is a stimulus that is harmful or aversive against which the victim will complainIt will escape, avoid or defend itself.

Outbursts of aggression are a normal trait in childhood but some children persist in their aggressive behavior and in their inability to master their temper. This type of children makes their parents and teachers suffer being frequently frustrated children who live the rejection of their peers and cannot avoid their behavior.

Some theories explain the causes of aggressive behavior

Theories of aggressive behavior are included in: Active and reactive.

  • The active they are those that put the origin of aggression in internal impulses, which would mean that aggressiveness is innate, that it is born or not with it. Defenders of this theory: Psychoanalytic and Ethological.
  • Reagents they put the origin of the aggression in the environment that surrounds the individual. Within these we can talk about impulse theories that say that frustration facilitates aggression, but it is not a necessary condition for it, and the theory of social learning that states that aggressive behaviors can be learned by imitation or observation of the behavior of aggressive models.

Theory of Social Learning

In order to act on aggressiveness we need a model or theory to follow and this, in our case, will be the social learning theory. Usually when a child emits aggressive behavior it is because he reacts to a conflict. Such conflict may result from:

  1. Social relationship problems with other children or with the elderly, regarding satisfying the child's own wishes.
  2. Problems with adults arisen for not wanting to fulfill the orders that these impose on him.
  3. Problems with adults when they punish them for having behaved inappropriately, or with another child when he attacks you.

Whatever the conflict, it causes the child a certain feeling of frustration or negative emotion that will make him react. The way you react will depend on your particular previous experience. The child can learn to behave aggressively because he imitates him from parents, other adults or peers. It is what is called Modeling. When parents punish by physical or verbal violence, they become models of aggressive behavior for the child. When the child lives surrounded by aggressive models, he acquires a behavioral repertoire characterized by a certain tendency to respond aggressively to the conflictive situations that may arise with those around him.

The modeling process to which the child is subjected during his learning stage not only informs him of aggressive behavior modes but also informs him of the consequences that such aggressive behaviors have for the models. If these consequences are pleasant because what is wanted is achieved, they are more likely to be repeated in the future. For example, imagine that we have two children, Luis and Miguel, aged 6 and 4 respectively. Luis is playing with a ball quietly until Miguel breaks in and they start fighting or arguing for the ball. Miguel screams and kicks because he wants to play with that ball that Luis has. We approached and regretting poor Miguel, we increased Luis to leave Miguel the ball. With this we have got Miguel to learn to scream and kick when he wants to get something from his brother. That is, we have positively reinforced Miguel's aggressive behavior, which guarantees that the behavior will be repeated in the future.

According to this modeling Many adults are teaching children that the best way to resolve a conflict situation is by shouting at them, because we shout at them to say don't shout. What a contradiction! And if you look like that we usually do many daily.

Influential factors in aggressive behavior

As we have already said, one of the factors that influence the emission of aggressive behavior is the sociocultural factor of the individual. One of the most important elements of the child's sociocultural environment is the family. Within the family, in addition to the models and reinforcements, they are responsible for aggressive behavior. type of discipline to be submitted. It has been shown that both a non-demanding father and one with hostile attitudes that constantly disapprove of the child, encourage aggressive behavior in children. Another influential family factor in aggressiveness in children is the inconsistency in the behavior of parents. Incongruence occurs when the parents disapprove of the aggression by punishing it with their own physical or threatening aggression towards the child. It also occurs incongruity when the same behavior is sometimes punished and sometimes ignored, or when the father scolds the child but the mother does not. The impaired relationships between the parents themselves causes tensions that can induce the child to behave aggressively. Within the sociocultural factor, the type of neighborhood where people live and expressions that encourage aggressiveness "don't be a coward" would influence.

Aggressive behavior also influences organic factors which include hormonal factors, brain mechanisms, states of poor nutrition, specific health problems.

Finally, the social skills deficit necessary to face those situations that are frustrating to us. It seems that the absence of verbal strategies to cope with stress often leads to aggression (Bandura, 1973).

How to evaluate whether a child is aggressive or not? Evaluation instruments

In the face of aggressive behavior issued by a child, the first thing we will do is identify the background and the consequences of such behavior. The background will tell us how the child tolerates frustration, which frustrating situations he least supports. The consequences will tell us what the child earns with aggressive behavior. For example: "A girl in a park wants to go down the slide but other children slip in before they slip. The girl complains to her parents who tell her to push them so they don't sneak. The girl performs the behavior that his parents have explained and the consequence is that no other child sneaks in and can use the slide as many times as he wants. "But just evaluating background and consequent is not enough to achieve a complete evaluation of the aggressive behavior that a child emits, we must also evaluate if the child has the cognitive and behavioral skills necessary to respond to conflict situations that may arise. It is also important to know how the child interprets a situation, since the same type of situation can cause one behavior or another depending on the intention that the child allocates. We evaluate if the child has deficiencies in the processing of the information.

To evaluate aggressive behavior we can use direct techniques such as natural observation or self-registration and indirect techniques such as interviews, questionnaires or self-reports. Once we have determined that the child behaves aggressively it is important identify situations in which the child's behavior is aggressive. For all the steps involved in a correct evaluation, we have multiple clinical instruments that must be used correctly by the expert to determine the subsequent therapy to follow.

How can we treat the aggressive behavior of the child?

When we treat the aggressive behavior of a child in psychotherapy it is very important that there is a strong relationship with all adults that form the child's environment because we have to influence that environment to change the behavior. Obviously the ultimate goal is always to reduce or eliminate aggressive behavior in all situations that occur but to achieve this it is necessary for the child to learn other types of behavior alternative to aggression. With this I want to explain that the treatment will always have two objectives to achieve, on the one hand the elimination of aggressive behavior and on the other the empowerment together with the learning of assertive or socially skilled behavior. There are several procedures we have for both objectives. Which one to choose for a specific child will depend on the outcome of the evaluation. Let's see some of the things we can do.

In the case of a child we have evaluated, aggressive behavior is maintained by subsequent reinforcers, it would be a question of suppressing them, because If your behaviors are not reinforced, you will end up learning that your aggressive behaviors are no longer successful and you will stop doing them.. This method is called extinction and can be combined with others, such as positive reinforcement of adaptive behaviors. Another method is to ignore aggressive behavior but we must be careful because It will only work if the reward the child received and maintained aggressive behavior was the attention given. Moreover, if aggressive behavior has painful consequences for other people, we will never act with indifference. Nor if the child can assume that with indifference all we do is approve of his aggressive acts. There are also procedures such as Time out or the cost of response. In the first, the child is removed from the reinforcing situation and is used quite a lot in the class situation. The results have always shown a decrease in such behavior. Times must be short and always depending on the age of the child. The maximum would be 15 minutes for children of 12 years. The cost of response is to withdraw some positive reinforcer contingent upon the emission of the aggressive behavior. It may consist of loss of privileges such as not watching television. Physical punishment is not advisable. in none of the cases because its effects are generally negative: aggressiveness is imitated and the child's anxiety increases.

Some considerations about punishment in general

  1. It must be used in a rational and systematic way to improve the child's behavior. It should not depend on our mood, but on the behavior emitted.
  2. When applying the punishment do not do it by scolding or shouting, because this indicates that our attitude is vindictive and often reinforces unacceptable behaviors.
  3. We must not accept excuses or promises by the child
  4. Must give the child a warning or signal before the punishment is applied.
  5. The type of punishment and the way of presenting it must avoid fostering strong emotional responses in the punished child.
  6. When the punishment consists of a denial must be done from the beginning firm and final.
  7. Must combine punishment with reinforcement of alternative behaviors that will help the child distinguish acceptable behaviors from a given situation.
  8. Do not wait until the child emits the entire chain of aggressive behaviors To apply the punishment, it must be done at the beginning.
  9. When the child is older, it suits use punishment in the context of a behavioral contract, since this helps him develop self-control skills.
  10. It is convenient that the punishment application requires little time, energy and discomfort by the adult who applies it.

What can parents and teachers do?

Once you have reached this section, most of you have already realized that your son's aggressive behavior is a learned behavior and as such can be modified. Also the previous reading has helped you to understand that a behavior that is not possessed can acquired through learning processes. Whereby the goal at home or at school will also be twofold: unlearning inappropriate behavior and acquiring adaptive behavior.

If we set up a program to change the aggressive behavior that our child maintains, we must take into account that the changes are not going to happen overnight, but we will need a lot of patience and perseverance If we want to solve the problem from home. Once the above is clear, the modification of the aggressive behavior will go through several phases that will go from the clear definition of the problem to the evaluation of the results. We will analyze separately each of the phases that we must follow:

Behavior Definition

You have to ask yourself first what exactly our son is doing. If our response is confusing and vague, it will be impossible to make a change. By this I mean that for this phase to be solved correctly it is necessary that the response be specific. Those will then be our objective behaviors (for example, the patalea child, shouts when ...).

Frequency of behavior

Make a table in which to write down daily how many times the child emits the behavior that we have called globally aggressive. Do it for a week.

Functional definition of behavior

This is about writing down what caused the behavior, for which it will be necessary to record the background and the consequences. Also examine the specific data of the attacks. For example, when are they most frequent?

Procedures to use for behavior modification

We set two goals in the choice: to weaken aggressive behavior and reinforce desirable alternative responses (if the latter does not exist in the repertoire of the child's behavior, we must also apply the teaching of social skills).

  • Certain conditions provide the child with signs that aggressive behavior can have rewarding consequences.. For example, if at school at the time of the playground and when the teacher is not present, the child knows that by hitting his teammates, they will give him the ball, we must put someone to control the game until it is no longer necessary.
  • We must reduce the child's contact with aggressive models. On the contrary, it is convenient to provide the child with models of non-aggressive behavior. Show your child other ways to solve conflicts: reasoning, dialogue, setting standards. If the children see that adults try to solve the problems in a non-aggressive way, and with this pleasant consequences are obtained, they can imitate this way of acting. For you parents train self-control with the help of relaxation.
  • Reduce the stimuli that cause behavior. Teach the child to remain calm in the face of provocation.
  • Reward your child when he plays a cooperative and assertive game.
  • There is a thing called "Contingency Contract" which aims to engage the child in the behavior modification project. It is a writing between parents and child in which it is indicated what behaviors the child must issue in the face of the next conflictive situations and that he will perceive for the adult in return. It also indicates the cost of issuing aggressive behavior. The contract should be negotiated with the child and reviewed every X time and should be well in sight of the child. We have to record the child's level of behavior daily (as we did with bedwetting) because the mere sign of the record already acts as a reinforcer. This is suitable for children from 9 years.

Implement the plan

When you have already determined which procedure you will use, you can start putting it into operation. You must continue to record how often your child emits aggressive behavior in order to verify whether or not the procedure used is effective. Do not forget to inform all those adults who are part of the child's environment of the chosen strategy. Keep a positive attitude. Fight for what you want to achieve, don't crumble easily. Finally, look at the progress your child is making rather than the failures he may have. In the end they will feel better both you and your child.

Evaluation of program results

Along with the treatment you have decided to eliminate your child's aggressive behavior, you have also planned to reinforce alternative cooperative behaviors that symbolize an adaptation to the environment. After about three weeks following the procedure, you should proceed to its evaluation. If we have not obtained any improvement, however small, something is failing, so we must re-analyze all the previous steps. The registration form will help us to evaluate the results. If we have reached the intended objective, that is, reduction of aggressive behavior, we must not drastically leave the program we carry out, because we must prepare the ground so that the results achieved are maintained. To ensure that the change will be maintained, phase out material reinforcers. Do not forget that the procedures that you as a parent have learned can be internalized to cause a change of attitude in yourself. Practice the training in assertiveness And he will be happier.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel
All Psychological Therapies