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As children grow, most of them will be exposed to or experience the impact of aggressive behavior.

This lesson will discuss the causes of aggression in school-aged children and review some guidelines on how it can be managed.

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Out of Control

Julie is a single mom who has been raising her son David on her own. David has always been an angry child who has a difficult time controlling his emotions. When he was just three, he bit his mother on the arm when she made him leave a birthday party. Now at the age of 15, David’s anger appears extreme. He blatantly disobeys his Mom, yells obscenities at her, punched a hole in the wall of his room, and has broken several dishes.

Julie thinks David’s aggressive behavior is out of control and inquires about obtaining professional help.

What is Aggression?

Aggression in Kids
Kids fighting

Aggression is an emotion that is present in all of us. While outburst of anger and aggression are considered normal when they happen on occasion, outbursts that occur frequently and seem to be outside of someone’s control could signal a problem. In early childhood, for example, aggressive behavior is often normal and results from the frustration of having a limited ability to express feelings. Language skills may not be fully developed, and hitting a playmate might be the easiest way for a young child to tell another to leave them alone. As children enter school, however, this behavior is no longer acceptable.

Aggression in School Age Children

While some occasional aggressive episodes in school age children might be normal, sometimes they signal an underlying problem. Let’s take a look at some causes of aggression in elementary and high school aged children.

Aggression During the Elementary School Years

We’ve all heard of the schoolyard brawls that get young kids in trouble. Typically these incidents are isolated and rectified with appropriate discipline. However, when aggressive behavior becomes constant, it is important to examine the potential cause of the behavior. Some underlying causes of aggressive behavior in elementary school include:

  • Inadequate social skills – children may lack important social skills that are crucial to resolving differences without aggression.

  • Seeking attention – children who act aggressively get noticed. Although this attention is negative, it’s attention nonetheless.
  • Medical conditions – at times underlying medical conditions can contribute to aggressive behavior. Psychological disorders, like bipolar disorder, for example, can cause excessive aggression and may not be readily diagnosed in young children.
  • Irritation and anxiety – anxiety can leave children on edge and easily angered and irritated. Children who are experiencing stressful situations at home, such as parents going through a divorce, may act more aggressively than others.

Aggression During the Teenage Years

When aggression progresses into adolescence and persists throughout the high school years, it can become highly problematic.

Let’s go back to the example used at the beginning of this lesson. David had issues with aggression early on, and it has now carried over into his teens. The consequences of such aggressive behavior can lead to disciplinary sanctions at school and in the home, and may even lead to involvement with the law. Some common causes of aggressive behavior in teens include:

  • Anxiety and stress – teenagers often are under pressure to perform successfully in school and juggle multiple responsibilities such as involvement in sports, and holding down a part-time job. This can all add up to build stress and anxiety to which aggression might be a response.
  • Substance abuse – involvement with drugs and alcohol can bring about aggressive behavior because it alters normal emotional states.
  • Involvement in poor relationships – teens who are unsupported at home, or who are exposed to abusive relationships, can be more likely to become aggressive themselves in their relationships with others.

  • Hormonal changes – boys are more likely to behave aggressively than girls. Hormonal changes during puberty, including increased levels of testosterone in males, can lead to more aggressive behavior.

Managing Aggressive Behavior

The sooner aggressive behavior is addressed, the less likely it is to escalate and continue. There are several management techniques for aggressive behavior. These include:

  • Being proactive – providing positive reinforcement for things children are doing well builds self-esteem and encourages cooperation and teamwork.
  • Setting boundaries and sticking to them – defining expectations and consequences clearly goes a long way in preventing aggressive situations.

    When children and young adults know what is expected, and understand the consequences for rule infractions, they are better able to manage their behavior.

  • Walking the talk – if as a parent or educator you say you are going to do something, then do it. Consequences should not be applied arbitrarily, but instead, need to be applied firmly and with consistency when dealing with aggression and other problematic behaviors.

  • Time out – using time out is often associated with younger children to allow them an opportunity to sit quietly and reflect upon their actions. However, giving teens a time out can work wonders as well. For example, when as a parent you see your teen is about to explode, sending them out for a walk around the block can help them to collect their thoughts and approach the situation more diplomatically.
  • Get help – sometimes despite our best efforts, the problematic behavior doesn’t seem to be improving. In these situations, seeking out professional help and guidance might be the best solution.

Lesson Summary

Aggression is an emotional response to anger that is present in all of us. Although most aggression is normal, it can become problematic if it is pervasive.Some underlying causes of aggressive behavior in elementary school include low frustration tolerance, poor social skills, and anxiety.

In addition to this, causes of aggressive behavior in teens expand to include things like substance abuse, hormonal changes, and being involved in poor relationships.Regardless of when and how problematic aggressive behavior surfaces in children, it is important that it is appropriately managed. Some of the management techniques for aggressive behavior include setting limits and sticking to them, having clear expectations and consequences, and offering pro-active positive reinforcement. When these methods fail to get the desired results, medical professionals should be consulted.

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