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There are a number of reasons why a young child may behave in an overly aggressive manner. This column will discuss some of the more common reasons for childhood aggression and some techniques to help you manage those behaviors.

Regardless of what you may have heard, aggressive behavior is not always related to how a child is being raised. While this may be the case in certain circumstances, other causes may exist that are prompting the behaviors.  

Remember that a young child does not have well developed language skills compared to older children and adults. Many parents tend to treat young children as "little adults" and set their expectations of the child accordingly. Often children will display aggression because they have no way to express how they are feeling verbally. Young children usually can understand language much better that they can use it.  

You can talk to your child using age-appropriate language and explain that it is not acceptable to hit others and how hitting someone makes them feel. You can also help the child use the words that he does know to express how he is feeling.

It may also be a possibility that the aggressive child is suffering from a disability. Many times this is difficult for a parent to ascertain since children develop language skills at different rates. Imagine how frustrated you would be if you wanted to be understood – or to understand what someone was telling you – but you could not!  

Hearing difficulties, verbal difficulties, and neurological problems can all result in negative behaviors. If you have concerns regarding possible disabilities, have the child tested by a competent Speech Language Pathologist or Neurologist. If a disability is discovered, these professionals will be able to guide you toward solutions. Generally, family physicians are usually not highly skilled in making these determinations.  

In previous columns, I have discussed in detail how a parent is constantly modeling behavior for a child. This is true regardless of the parent's intentions.  If your family often engages in friendly horseplay, the child may not be able to differentiate these behaviors when interacting with others.  

If it is OK to push and shove Daddy and end up in a much desired wrestling match – the child may think that pushing and shoving is an acceptable thing to do with others. If Mom and Dad are physically aggressive with each other when they are angry – how do really expect your child to behave?  

You will want to discuss this with the child and if necessary limit the horseplay at home until the child can make the necessary distinctions.

I can never stress enough the impact of television and other media on the behavior of a young child. Psychologists have demonstrated this strong connection over and over again since the late 50s.  

In my opinion, the vast majority of programming for children on television is absolute garbage and is designed only to generate sales for the sponsors. If you allow your young child to constantly watch television programs that are packed with violent behaviors that have no consequences – what are you allowing your child to learn? Why should you be surprised if your young child acts out what they have seen the cartoon characters do?  

Do yourself (and your child) a favor and sometime sit down and watch a Tom & Jerry or Three Stooges episode.  

An older child knows the difference between cartoons and reality – a young child does not! Try to limit exposure to this type of programming until the child can differentiate it from reality. If you find the child watching violent content – sit down with them and explain that that is just "pretend" – and real families do not act like that because it hurts and it is dangerous.  

Fortunately, there are a number of excellent programs, books, and games available for young children. Programs such as Sesame Street are not only fun and educational but they are also appropriate in terms of displayed behaviors. Take the time to preview what you are going to allow your child to watch.

Do you really keep track of what your young child is watching? You should. Parental controls in televisions are geared toward adult situations and violence – they are not designed to also filter out unacceptable behaviors for young children – that's your job. Let me repeat – that is your job!

Regardless of the source of the aggression, there are some general principles that you can utilize to help you prevent and/or control these aggressive behaviors.  

Always be consistent with your discipline. If it is not acceptable today – it must not be acceptable tomorrow. Be prepared for the child to test the boundaries a few times – but the consequences of their behaviors must be predictable to them even if they do like it. It teaches the child that negative behaviors have consequences in the real world. This helps make the environment predictable and safer for the child psychologically because it shows them that you will never let their behavior get out of control.

Be sure and tell your child that feeling angry is OK – but that hitting, or shoving, or biting people, is not acceptable. If you see your child getting angry, if possible use a "time out" before it escalates into aggression. You can also explain that adults use time outs also to help them manage their angry feelings.  

When the child does manage their anger in an appropriate fashion – always – always – praise them and tell them that you are proud of them.

Aggression is small children is frustrating at best. However, with a little thought and effort you can manage these difficult times.  

Thank goodness this period of childhood where your child learning the skills necessary to express anger is a relatively short one.

**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media




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