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Aggressive Behavior and Violence

A teenage boy showing an angry expression

Aggressive behavior is common among youth, especially young children.

However, families and health professionals can take steps to help reduce violence and aggression. Some examples: Stay calm, praise positive behavior, and work with the child’s health professional.

Examples of physical aggression:

  • Biting
  • Hitting
  • Kicking

Examples of verbal aggression:

  • Saying “no” to parents’ or teachers’ rules
  • Screaming or shouting
  • Using foul language

The anger or frustration of toddlers is usually reactive or impulsive in response to something that has happened to them, such as having a toy taken away. As children grow and develop more advanced language, social skills, and planning ability, proactive or planned aggressive behavior may become more common.

Aggressive behaviors that cause damage to objects or harm people or animals are considered violent behaviors. Not all violence comes from physical aggression; verbal aggression can also cause harm.

Children with Developmental Disabilities

Most children with developmental disabilities are not any more violent or aggressive than other children. However, some children may feel a lot of frustration related to their developmental disability. This frustration is sometimes shown through aggression or even self-harming behaviors, such as banging their head or cutting their skin.

Other children have conditions that are more directly connected to aggressive behavior. For example, children with oppositional defiant disorder are often annoyed and angry, and they argue with adults in order to gain control.

There are many reasons children with developmental disabilities may have aggression problems. It is important to remember that everyone has times when they get frustrated or angry, and children should be taught that frustration is normal. It is best to try to understand the reasons behind the aggression and violence. Knowing this will help parents and health professionals work toward reducing the problems; teaching the child ways to cope with frustration should be part of this plan.

What Can We Do?

Parents

There is no single way to reduce aggression and violence in all children. Some things to consider are the child’s age, their disability, and goals for the family. Here are some ways parents can try to create an environment in which violence and aggression are less common.

  • Walk the talk! Do not use aggression or violence yourself.
  • Do your best to keep your home life calm, supportive, and respectful.
  • If your child is acting aggressively, reinforce alternative or competing behaviors. For example, have a drawing pad handy, or play a game that requires your child’s calm attention, such as “eye spy”.
  • Be sure to praise good behavior immediately and often.
  • Help your child articulate his or her feelings. Talking through their emotions helps children of all ages.
  • Work with your child to develop strategies to calm him or her when he or she feels scared, angry, or frustrated.
  • For some children, it is best to explain consequences for misbehavior ahead of time. It is important that the child understands the consequences before they are enforced.
  • Once you have set up consequences, enforce them! If bad behavior is not addressed regularly, it may continue or even get worse.
  • Notice when and where your child is most aggressive or violent, and try to avoid those places.
  • Tell your child’s healthcare providers as many details about your child’s behavior as possible.  He or she will be able to offer tips and work with you to develop a plan.
Health Professionals

Health professionals help reduce or prevent aggression and violent behaviors. Depending on the child, here are some of the more common ways:

  • Direct therapy at symptoms that are causing the most impairment or the most impairing diagnosis (e.g., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, aggression, or compulsions).
  • Offer alternative training and other programs that help caregivers reduce aggression in their daily routine.

Resources

The Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit from Autism Speaks provides strategies and resources to address challenging behaviors, and to help support you and your loved one with autism during these difficult situations.

http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/tool-kits/challenging-behaviors-tool-kit

The Injury Center’s Youth Violence webpage has information on types of violence, prevention strategies, and facts at a glance.

http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/youthviolence/index.html

The Injury Center’s Electronic Aggression webpage offers information on ways that technology is being used by youth for embarrassing, harassing, or threatening their peers.

http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/youthviolence/electronicaggression/index.html

Clinical recommendations for Aggressive and Self-Injurious Behaviors in the Context of Developmental Disability in Children and Adolescents.

http://medicaidmentalhealth.org/assets/file/Guidelines/Aggressive and Self-Injurious Behaviors in the Context of Developmental Disability [PDF - 224KB]

References

  1. Mouridsen SE, Rich B, Isager T, and Nedergaard NJ. Pervasive developmental disorders and criminal behavior: a case control study. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol, 2008. 52(2): 196-205
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