Smacking, Pushing, Scratching! Why do children become aggressive?
"Why is my son behaving this way? He's never been aggressive before."
For those of you coping with aggressive behaviours at home or in daycare with your little one, you're going to want to tune in while we explore why kiddos can behave aggressively towards us, one another and even themselves. Let's get the ball rolling with the biggest reason we see these challenges in kiddos and why it's not what we may think: a "problem" child.
All behaviour serves a purpose as a form of communication. No matter how difficult things get, there is hope knowing that your child is behaving that way for a reason. Let's get into it.
The biggest reason your toddler to four year old is experimenting with aggressive behaviours at home or in daycare is simply due to their underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex.
As adults, our cortex finishes developing at a whopping 25 years old!! That's right.. the cortex is the last area of the brain to finish developing and the process takes a long time. Some young people are finished college before their cortex is finished!!
Okay, so why should we care about the cortex? The prefrontal cortex is where we do all of our problem solving, reasoning and thinking. As adults, this is the area of the brain we probably use the most. However, for youngsters they are still primarily using their mid-brain (primal brain) which is where we store our emotions and feelings of discouragement.
This means that your child is experiencing emotions at a much higher dose. This is why it is so easy for their brainstem to become triggered leading to a tantrum, defiance and/or aggressive behaviours. This is the first and biggest reason that your little one is struggling with aggressive behaviours when they are exposed to a challenge.
Why children should only apologise when they are ready.
"Go apologise! Can't you see he's upset?"
The second reason your kiddo may be coping with aggressive outbursts is their inability to see someone else's point of view. While we are all born with empathy, understanding and recognising another person's viewpoint doesn't come until further along in their development.
Notice how your little one will check in on their friends when they fall down but that same friend they will PUSH when they feel confronted?? Empathy and regulating are two different things.
If your child is aggressive towards others this doesn't mean that they lack empathy. It is more likely that they are struggling to cope with another person's needs. This is because their brain does not currently recognise someone else's needs.
The good news is this ability will come in time.
You can test your child's ego-centric development by holding up a postcard. One side has a picture and the other side is blank. Show your young child both sides, then ask them what they see. Without turning the postcard, now ask them what YOU see. They will tell you that you both see the same thing, which is whatever is in their point of view.
This is natural brain work and why children can seem so selfish and even aggressive when things do not go their way. By the way, this is important to keep in mind when we are tempted to force children to apologise for their actions. Hang in there, some gentle solutions for what to do instead are on the way!
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When screaming turns into hitting...
Dear IKEA mum,
We all know who you are. You're the mama with the screaming three year old trying to keep it all together while you wait in line to check out. While some passerby's may give you a quick nasty glance, we just want to run up and hug you!!
Why? Because we have ALL BEEN THERE.
We know how hard it is taking your sleepy, hungry youngster shopping!! Try as you may to get him down for a nap or fed a full lunch before leaving the house, somewhere in there something slipped through and now poor little guy is just losing it.
Girl, we feel you.
Let's talk about the screaming, hitting, pulling hair, banging head and all those behaviours that we are all deep down terrified will show up in IKEA!!
While I have an entire book on this topic, let's break it down into a quick, bearable few paragraphs. Outbursts and aggression take place in the brain first and foremost. Your youngster's behaviour is a message to you from their little brains saying, "I am not coping!!!! Send help!"
We already took a look at two reasons kiddos can become so aggressive, the underdeveloped cortex which makes reasoning virtually impossible during those early years and their brain's inability to see beyond their own needs.
Finally, check this out: your toddler or preschooler's brain is craving control. All of our brains crave control but none so much as that of a young child. This all goes back to our primal brain's instincts for survival. The brain is looking for easy, efficient ways to survive. Put simply, short cuts = getting my way immediately.
When your child's brain experiences a stressor (grab my book to learn more about stressors) the natural reaction is to resist and take over. Hint: your brain does the same thing! Which is why so many of us are tempted to control children when they're acting out. "You will not behave that way in MY house!!" Sound familiar??
Your little one is doing the same thing. Or, should I say: their brain is. Okay so, now that your child is experiencing a challenge such as "No", "Wait your turn" or "Get in the bath now!", their brain will naturally resist and seek control over the situation. Remembering that their skills are extremely limited, the easiest and quickest way to dominate control is their voice and body.
Here comes the screaming, pushing, hitting, running away... etc.
Let's briefly review:
👉Your child has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex meaning they are primarily using their primal brain.
👉Your child does not understand other people have different needs and experiences from their own.
👉Your child will naturally crave control over difficult situations, same as you, only their best options are aggression, defiance and disobedience at this point.
Deep breath!! This may seem insurmountable but I have some wonderful news for you. It's not!
"What do you need from me?"
ALL behaviour is communication. Yep, even the challenging behaviour that we long to either avoid or get rid of!! When your child is aggressive, the question that should be popping into your head is "What do you need from me?"
How often though do we hear the opposite, "How do I make this STOP?"
But here's the thing: avoiding challenges ("Just ignore him...") and/or dominating challenges ("You will not hit in my house!!") goes off the assumption that these behaviours are your child's choice. However, we have revealed that these actions, even though very difficult at times, are not a conscious choice but merely reactive behaviours due to their primal, emotional, unreasonable, young brains...
We wouldn't smack a puppy for weeing on the floor, instead we would guide him to his training mat and reward him when he finished his wee on the mat. It's about allowing for self correction through guidance and support.
I think the big difference between this puppy example and your child's aggressive behaviour (apart from the obvious that your little one is not a puppy!!!) a child's actions can be so personal. We wouldn't take a puppy's wee personally, but a child smacking us in the face...ohhhhh that feels personal!!
This is why I have taken so much time to really break down their primal, young brains and exactly why these actions are not personal. Once we accept this fact, we are empowered immediately to become their pillar of calm when they need us the most.
Remembering that the brain does not fully mature until the age of 25, it is pretty understandable that during those early years your child needs YOU to do the self-soothing for them.
Here are a few ways you can be a pillar of calm for your child.
Change the way you see aggression.
If we believe that aggression = bad kid, then we are tying our hands behind our back before we have even started. Aggression and defiance are a child's call for help.
Ask, "What do you need from me?" when you do see aggression or frustration building up.
What is evoking the frustration? Does your child need help coping with "No"? Does your child need ideas for playing with friends without fighting? Does your child need ways to be heard without hurting anyone?
Now that you have a list of what they need from you, get going! Find ways to teach your little one when everyone is calm and happy. Do not wait til problems arise to simply lecture and react. Instead, come up with fun ways to build your child's ability to cope with hearing "No" from people, to play with their friends kindly and to feel heard when they are getting frustrated.
Lastly, remembering that emotions are normal and necessary, do your best to remain available when your little one is struggling. I know there is an innate reaction to avoid or lecture poor behaviour, but I urge you to do the opposite.
I'll leave you with some examples of 🤯what to say when your child is angry or aggressive to replace yelling or nagging them:
- Hitting classmates: I’m not going to let you hurt our friends. I’m here if you need me.
- Hitting you: I’m not going to let you hit me so, I’m standing up. I’m here if you need me.
- Hitting siblings: I’m not going to let you hit your sister/brother. I’m here if you need me.
- Screaming: (Waiting for them to catch their breath) I’m here, it’s okay to be upset.
- Throwing: (Gently remove anything fragile or dangerous, model safe ways to express anger or frustration.) “I can see you are angry because your cheeks are flushed. It’s okay to say, I’m angry!!”
Focus on validating those big, loud emotions. Self-soothing can only begin when a child feels safe and heard. “I’m here if you need me.”
We often confuse self-soothing and the need to control someone else’s behaviour. Self-soothing is intrinsic regulation. It cannot be coerced or coaxed from a child. Rather than focusing on consequences, teach self-soothing by validating big emotions in the moment and offering alternatives to undesired behaviour. For example, “It’s okay to say, I am SO angry!”
Your most powerful tool is your own ability to self-soothe. Regulate your big, loud emotional reaction to their behaviour so they can as well. Self-soothing begins with us. During those early years, we do it for them.
It's not always easy!! What are some ways you soothe your child during an outburst of aggression or anger? Are you ready to learn more and take some action today?!
Have you read this thinking, "This makes sense! I am ready to support my child through their aggressive behaviour."?? Then it is time to grab my digital book Calm, Happy Families: Guiding families from aggression to affection!! In my latest ebook I provide a step by step guide through multiple challenges regarding aggression. You will have actionable tools to put into practice immediately. You will feel confident and excited to put these evidence based strategies into place!
You should read this book if...
~You are worried about aggressive behaviour at home or at preschool.
~Your young child is behaving aggressively towards their younger, smaller sibling.
~Your kids are fighting and bickering with each other daily.
~Your youngster is aggressive at the playground.
~Your child is prone to self harm when they are upset.
~Your kiddo has taken their frustration out on you through hitting, scratching and more.
~You are eager to understand this stage of their emotional development.
I have been supporting children and families for fifteen years, so believe when I tell you that these behaviours are a normal and natural stage in their emotional development. Please find peace knowing that help is on the way!! You no longer need to doubt your parenting or your little one's future.
Enjoy my simple, sensible solutions to aggression and know your family is moving towards affection.
About the author
Stephanie Wicker is a child behaviour expert, parenting educator, counsellor and speaker - who has successfully guided families through early childhood for over 15 years. Through her experience with private consultancy, as a preschool teacher and special needs therapist - she has worked across the many facets of early childhood behaviour.
Stephanie's evidence-based programs are grounded in behaviour science and her passion for Relational Frame Theory (RFT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and developmental psychology all play a big role in her programs.
Stephanie’s experience covers early intensive behaviour intervention programs for children with special needs and for families newly diagnosed. She hosts live training events all over Australia, where she shares her practical solutions and language techniques, along with providing private, in-home therapy sessions for those seeking more personalised support.
Through her company, Simply Kids she provides family resources such as digital books and educational activities, designed to keep behaviour simple.
"By helping parents place emphasis on connection, empowerment and encouragement, I believe that all children have the ability to reach their full potential." - Stephanie Wicker