30 May 2024

How to deal with an aggressive child

All children express anger and aggression at some point during their childhood, but at what point does anger in children become an issue? As a parent, …

All children express anger and aggression at some point during their childhood, but at what point does anger in children become an issue? As a parent, it can be stressful when your child has outbursts of aggression. Not only can it be upsetting to see your child unhappy, but it can also affect the risk of injury to themselves and others. In our guide, we’ll explore some of the reasons your child might find it difficult to process their emotions and some coping strategies to help you deal with an angry aggressive child.

Causes of aggression in children

Like adults, multiple factors can contribute to aggression in children. It could be as simple as your child not getting their way, but there can be other underlying issues that can cause your child to be more prone to aggression than others.

Unmet needs

One of the most common causes of aggression in children is a reaction to specific situations. Children have a strong desire for immediate gratification. Young children in particular can feel frustrated if their desires and needs are unmet, whether that be attention, screen time or a toy. A child’s physical needs like hunger, tiredness or discomfort can make it more difficult for them to regulate their emotions leading to a worsening of behaviour.

Communication issues

Young children, or children who have delayed speech are more prone to aggression due to feelings of frustration as they are unable to communicate their thoughts and needs in a way that is easily understood. This leads to issues with misunderstandings which can cause your child to respond with hostility or aggression as a way of drawing attention to their needs.

Overstimulation

Your child’s environment could be overstimulating for them particularly if they have undiagnosed Autism or ADHD. Excessive noise, crowded spaces or bright lights could be too chaotic for them, causing aggressive behaviour as a way of processing their frustration. It’s not just their environment that can be overstimulating, activity that results in intense emotions like fear can also lead to aggression as a response to emotional overload.

Coping mechanism

For some children, aggression can be a coping mechanism. Especially, if they struggle with effective problem-solving skills. Some children will default to aggression as a way of resolving conflict, especially if they lack the skills to calmly discuss the issue responsible for the conflict.

Children who have low esteem can also use aggression as a defence mechanism to protect themselves when feeling insecure, they may also project their feelings of anger or frustration in a display of aggressive behaviour.

Emotional sensitivity

Some children might be more reactive if they have high levels of emotional sensitivity. Some children feel their emotions very intensely and find it impossible to regulate their feelings – particularly if they are feeling overwhelmed. Children with high emotional sensitivity often have a much lower threshold for frustration which can come out as an aggressive outburst.

It’s also important to remember that children don’t always fully understand the consequences of their actions, which can contribute to the level of aggression they display. They might also lack the ability to understand things from other people’s perspective, which will be even more prevalent if they have undiagnosed Autism.

ADHD and aggression in children

While aggressive behaviour does not necessarily mean your child has ADHD, certain traits associated with ADHD can significantly impact the way your child responds to frustration, as well as their emotional sensitivity.

Impulsivity is one of the core traits associated with ADHD. This means that children with ADHD are more likely to act without thinking out of impulse. This can lead to poor self-control, rather than thinking things through, children with ADHD could be more likely to react explosively.

Hyperactivity is another characteristic of ADHD and sometimes children with excessive energy can find that their restlessness can lead to boisterous behaviour, especially if they don’t have the outlet to release their energy in a controlled manner.

Inattention is another trait associated with ADHD and it can impact your child’s ability to follow rules, ultimately this can lead to frustration due to misunderstandings surrounding rules which can provoke an aggressive reaction.

Autism and aggression in children

Not all children with autism will have aggressive behaviour. And, if your child is prone to aggression, it won’t automatically mean that your child is autistic. However, if your child is undiagnosed autistic, they may be more likely to have an aggressive reaction to certain situations, sensory sensitivities and communication challenges.

Autistic children have an intense need for routine and predictability, this can leave them ill-equipped if there is an unexpected change to their routine causing significant distress.  All children can react to various sensory stimuli such as loud noises and crowded areas. However, children with autism might also find other sensory inputs more overstimulating like certain tastes, textures and smells. They might have little control over their reaction to being overstimulated which can manifest as aggressive behaviours like hitting or banging their head as a coping mechanism or to self-soothe.

Another trait associated with autism are challenges associated with reading social cues resulting in increased frustration and conflict. Social interactions can also be anxiety-inducing, which can manifest an aggressive response. Some children with Autism also have alexithymia which is a difficulty in expressing and describing emotions, which can result in aggression as a way of expressing their feelings when they can’t articulate them.

How to deal with aggression in children

Several strategies can be used to help manage aggression in children, how effective they are will depend on the situation and the individual child. It’s important to remain consistent with how you communicate with your child, especially if they are prone to aggressive outbursts.

Helping your child to improve their ability to regulate their emotions can help them deal with their feelings and healthily express them.

  • Teach your child how to identify their emotions by talking about the emotions you’re feeling and explaining the feelings they are expressing.
  • Make sure your child feels safe and validated when they express their feelings without being worried about punishment.
  • Teach your child coping strategies, such as deep breathing when they are feeling overwhelmed to help ground them and calm them down.
  • Role-play different situations so that they learn how to problem-solve and navigate varying social situations.
  • Develop a routine with your child to reduce any risk of anxiety about unexpected changes.
  • Use positive reinforcements and praise when your child handles a situation well or uses a coping strategy effectively.
  • Make sure your child has a space at home where they can calm down and relax.

If your child continues to struggle with emotional regulation, despite establishing coping strategies to help them deal with their feelings, you should consider talking to a professional such as a child psychologist or counsellor.

Quality assessments from the Autism Service

If you find that your child displays other traits associated with autism or ADHD that impact their day-to-day life. Or, if you’re concerned that your child’s aggressive behaviour might be due to undiagnosed autism or ADHD, find your nearest clinic today for quality assessments without lengthy wait times. So you can get your child the support they need.

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