Ask the Parenting Coach – Aggressive Behavior

SONY DSCReader Question:

I’d like to learn strategies on addressing aggressive behavior in preschool aged child. I prefer a positive discipline approach, but this behavior is tough!


I am so glad you asked this question! Aggression is one of those parenting challenges that tends to get us very worked up, yet most parents of toddlers and preschoolers deal with it at some point. We know they are normal behaviors and that they will pass, but somehow they speak to that inner critic in us. Why is my kid doing this? What will other parents think?

Some children go through hitting stages out of frustration with not yet being able to express their emotions verbally. Others may just be bored at that moment and have noticed they get a whole lot of attention when they are aggressive. After all, those are the moments we are laser focused and they have are full, undivided attention.

No matter the reason for aggressive behavior, the first step is drawing your child’s attention to how the other child is feeling. I have found that younger siblings often want to play with their older sibling but are not great at initiating it, so they use aggression because it gets their big bro or sis engaged quickly. If that is the case, I would have lots of talks about ways he or she can invite their siblings to play with him in a different way.

It may also be helpful to spend a few days paying close attention to when it happens- what is the setting, what happens beforehand, what happens after, time of day, before or after meals, how much sleep she has had. Put your scientist hat on and see if you can break the code.

In The Moment

Here are some steps you might try when the hitting and kicking occurs:

  1. Get down on your child’s level, look him in the eyes and say “it’s not ok to hit or kick because it hurts other people.” Use a calm and respectful tone. Not yelling, not a lot of emotions, just the facts. Keep your reminder brief in the moment. A big response, a long conversation, or a lot of emotion from you may be exactly what your child is looking for.
  2.  Next, draw your child’s attention to the other person- “What do you think your brother might feeling right now?” If he or she doesn’t answer, ask the other child. If the other child is not able to answer, you can describe what you notice. “I notice your sister looks sad.”
  3.  Ask your child to check in with the other child. We often demand our child apologize, but sorry is just a word; and a pretty meaningless one when it is forced. Instead, ask your child if he or she can ask the other person if they need anything to help them feel better. If he or she refuses, simply say, “Ok, you can check in when you are feeling calmer.” Time and time again, I have watched my siblings check in with each other even when they initially don’t want to. Giving them a second to calm down without our lecturing or shaming allows them the space to make the repair on their own.

Plan Ahead

We are most effective as parents when we have a plan of action ahead of time, we increase the likelihood of our plan working when we share that plan with our kids at a time when the problem is not occurring.

Have a conversation with your child when he or she is calm. Say something like “I notice you have been using your body in a way that might hurt other people. It’s ok to be mad, to want some attention, or want someone to play with, but hitting and kicking hurt people, so let’s talk about other things could you do when you are feeling mad, left out, etc.” Then you get to come up with a plan for what he or she might do at those times, and equally important, what you will do. We cannot control anyone else’s behavior, but we can set kind and firm boundaries and let our kids know what we will do.

For example, if you were to decide that when aggressive behavior occurs, you guys would need to leave the situation, it would be important to discuss that at a calm time. Let your child know that if you are out and about and your child is hitting, you guys will need to leave where you are because you can’t let other people get hurt.

Next, check for understanding. Ask what will happen if he or kicks or hits other people when you are out. Before going to social outings, you can ask what he or she needs to do to keep her and her friends safe. Ask if he remembers what you will do if hitting or kicking occur.

When it happens, you have to then follow through in a calm way. We are most effective when we can keep our own emotions in check and respond in a kind and firm way. You could say, “I notice we are not being safe with our bodies so we need to leave now.” Your child will of course be livid, so it will be really important to work on keeping yourself calm. Avoid the urge to lecture, yell, or engage in a power struggle because this only reinforces that kicking and hitting get a big response and a ton of attention from his or her parents.

Follow through is an important part of helping kids shift their behavior, so it’s critical to think through how you plan to respond at a calm time. We want to model keeping our word, so only commit to what you know you can execute in a respectful way. If we say we will do something but don’t follow through, our children will just keep testing every time. After a few times of responding in a calm, decisive manner, children often let go of the behavior because it’s not giving them the power they were getting from the situation in the past.

In addition, make sure your child is getting plenty of time with you and your co-parent. It doesn’t take much. If children get 15-30 minutes of child-directed, uninterrupted play time with parents, it can make all the difference. If he stops getting attention for hitting and kicking, you will need to make up for it in other ways, so give lots of encouragement at the times he is asking for attention in positive ways.

I hope these tips will give you and your family some effective tools to move your child from using their body to using their words. This is a developmental process, and the more your child feels your clarity on the situation and your empathy for his feelings, the more he will be willing to use more productive ways of communicating.

To submit a question for the next edition of Ask the Parenting Coach – comment below!


About the Author

Sarina NatkinSarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, is a parent educator and consultant, and the co-owner of Grow Parenting. Sarina was a PEPS Participant, has volunteered as a PEPS Group Leader and co-leads the PEPS Advanced Facilitation Workshop “Leading with Confidence.” Sarina is a Seattle native with two giggling girls of her own who love to point out when she’s not following her own parenting advice!

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