Helping an Aggressive Preschooler

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Our 3-and-a-half year old son is aggressive with other children at school. His teachers have tried reward systems for good behavior, which seemed to help for a day, but not longer. What can we do?

There is a long list of possible causes of excessive agression in preschoolers. To make it more complicated, most children are dealing with several of these contributory factors. Each child’s situation and solutions are different.

What is aggression?

Infants and young toddlers are not truly aggressive. They barely understand that other people have feelings, or that broken objects stay broken. They have little, if any, sense of right and wrong. Furthermore, they have little ability to control themselves. For all these reasons, children in their first several years of life are not misbehaving or being aggressive as we understand it. They require teaching, limit-setting, encouragement to develop controls, and active oversight by adults who supply the judgment and controls these children are in the process of acquiring.

Age 2 is a transition year to the next phase, which is in full swing for 3-year-olds. Many 2-year-olds and most 3-year-olds understand it is wrong to hurt or destroy. Children around this age care about doing the right thing due to an internal sense of morality and a concern about rewards and punishments. Also, they have a gradually increasing ability to control themselves.

Of course, no 3-year-old fully understands right and wrong, or can completely control himself. Children will occasionally act out when stressed, tired or overcome by some strong desire. But the basic understandings and capacities are in place. When children are having a tougher time, they should generally be able to manage their aggression without inflicting it on objects or people.

Aggression is almost always a secondary reaction. Typically, one becomes aggressive after he or she has been embarrassed or hurt, or is jealous, anxious or sad. When children cannot cope with these feelings, they become overwhelmed and often resort to aggression.

The capacity to control aggression

Just as a good cake needs all the requisite ingredients, children’s ability to manage aggression depends on many other developments. The following is a list of some of the more important abilities a child needs. Successfully acquiring these capacities is affected by genes, experience or both.

*   Sufficient intelligence to understand situations and expectations.

*    The ability to anticipate the consequences of actions, and to understand the relationship between actions and their consequences.

*    The ability to understand social relationships.

*    The ability to understand language, and to use language to express needs and emotions.

*    The ability to understand right and wrong, and to care about doing the right thing.

*    The ability to delay expression of impulse.

*    The ability to manage the various negative emotions that can stimulate aggression.

*    The ability to concentrate and focus.

*    Interest in the rewards of good behavior, such as friendships and approval from loved ones and caretakers.

Helping an aggressive child

Your child’s challenges could result from different causes or a combination of   causes. But there are some general guidelines you can follow.

Ask your son’s teachers to offer thoughts about why they think he is aggressive, as well as ideas for how they can suggest that he can handle a situation differently next time. Perhaps they could say, “Hurting is never a good way to fix the way you are feeling. You became worried when Bryan came close to your toys, and that is why you pushed him. When you are worried, you can say to Bryan, ‘Please move over.'”

A parent’s support is always helpful when a child experiences trouble at school, so allowing him to bring reminders from home, or call you or receive a call from you during the day, might improve the situation. You may also try spending more time  with him at drop-off and pick-up. If problems recently developed, think about what might have changed at home.

Should you get professional help?

Clinical research shows that children with excessive aggression often, but not always, continue to experience emotional difficulties as time goes on. It can be a worrisome sign. Talk with a qualified professional who specializes in children’s mental health if the aggression has been present for more than six months, occurs more than occasionally or results in a direct physical attack. Occasional aggressive behavior at home with parents or siblings is less of a concern than when it happens outside the home.

When it comes to excessive childhood aggression, an ounce of prevention from a knowledgeable professional is worth a pound of cure.   n

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency that promotes the health and well-being of children and families. To submit a question, email with “Ask Lucy Daniels” in the subject line. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents’ questions.

Categories: Early Education, Health and Development, Preschool Development, Preschool Health & Wellness, Preschoolers