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Mental Health

Handling Childhood Agression

07/23/2007

Question:

My 3-year-old has been violent towards teachers and other kids at his daycare for the past few days. There haven`t been any changes at home, and I asked the daycare if there have been any changes and they say there haven`t been. If he gets in trouble one more time they are going to kick him out of the daycare. I am not sure what to do. Please help.

Answer:

Physical aggression by young children is certainly a difficult problem for everyone to deal with, parents and teachers alike. Aggressive behavior comes from at least three sources:

Aggressive behavior that does not physically harm others is actually normal among toddlers and preschoolers, with boys showing more physical aggression and girls tending to show more verbal aggression and socially isolating other children, much as they do in grade school and later. Aggression is a way in which young children learn about who they are and about social limits since their age-mates usually set limits on each other's behavior.

Like older children and adults, young children have a full range of feelings about what happens to them and what is happening around them at home and in daycare and school settings. Very young children lack the verbal skills to say it rather than act it out. They may not know any words for the mad and sad they feel. As Dixon and Stein note in their 2006 book, Encounters with Children, 4th edition, the distances between mad, sad, and bad behavior are short indeed.

Physical aggression may also reflect limited verbal skills due to developmental delay that makes it very difficult for the young child to express in words the frustration, anger and sadness he or she feels. The only outlet, then, is physical behavior, which may be hurtful to self or to others. It sounds as though this is a new behavior based on your saying it has occurred only within the past few days. If this is true, and the physical assaults only occur in daycare, this suggests that something new is happening at daycare that is provoking the aggressive behavior from your son.

Despite our children being human beings, they are not born with good social behaviors and empathy. The adults in their lives have to teach them the rules for getting along with their fellow humans. Our children learn both good social skills and undesirable social skills from their parents. There is a large body of research that shows that even young children, such as your son, imitate the violent, aggressive actions they see at home between adult role models as well as on  TV and videos, and in video games. They imitate these harmful coping behaviors reliably in response to things that make them feel sad or mad.

It is important to take your child to his doctor or ask for a referral to an early childhood mental health specialist if your son's aggression:

Other signs of disguised anger and aggression include loss of bowel control in a previously potty-trained child, smearing stool, intentional destruction of objects, intentional harming of oneself, willful harm to animals.

If the behavior is new and limited to daycare, ask the daycare staff to please work with you. Have them keep a diary of what is happening when your son hits a teacher or a classmate. This may help to identify what is leading to his angry behavior. They may find that he acts out to gain their attention or his classmates' attention because he feels ignored; even punishment is better than being ignored to many a young child. Also, ask the teachers to verbally recognize him when he is being good, when he shares or plays well with others, and to ignore any undesirable behaviors that are not important to correct. Positive reinforcement is very effective in getting children to display more good behavior.

As always, these tough issues are good ones to seek help with from your child's doctor or nurse practitioner. We are as interested in the child's mental and social health and development as we are in the child's physical health and development. Parents should not feel alone in the very important job of caring for their children. I hope this information is helpful.

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Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University