Children who are aggressive often have parents who are left bewildered and distressed about the repercussions and reputation that their child and family may face. While there may be plenty of reasons why children who experience trauma may demonstrate aggression, other times an aggressive behavior or series of behavior may actually be clues about a child’s internal world that he or she is unable to articulate.
Aggressive behavior, defined as reactionary and impulsive behavior that breaks rules of the home or society, often violent and unpredictable, can be observed in children as young as one year old. As mentioned above, ruling out any current or prior risk of violence or trauma in the child’s home or school is an important first step, as often victims of neglect, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse will demonstrate reactionary and aggressive behavior.
Studies on child development have demonstrated an early propensity for reactionary behavior, developing independently and prior to cooperative behaviors, which are often explicitly taught to children. Some defiance, testing of limits, and rough physical play – as well as outbursts due to age, language, and overall frustration can be expected as a child grows and learns. No child is perfect! Other times, aggressive behavior may be a clue that something else is going on.
Children who have language or learning impairments may demonstrate aggression. This is often due to frustration, where a disconnect or delay in processing leads to social and academic difficulties. Children with developmental delay, such as autism are often found to exhibit aggressive behaviors that decrease as functional language increases and appropriate supports are implemented.
Aggression and irritability are also symptoms of a mood disorder, including depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety. A person experiencing depression has a shorter fuse, and may have both outbursts that include aggression, as well as internalized anger, lashing out and wanting to hurt ones’ self. Aggression may also be a clue into impulsivity, a symptom and sub-type of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Because cooperative responses are often higher level and more time and thought-intensive reaction, the more basic reactionary aggressive impulse is acted upon by a person who has an executive function disorder.
A comprehensive psychological evaluation may be useful in determining the origins and roots of aggression in children when it is observed as an ongoing pattern, or doesn’t seem to be getting any better with intervention. Exploring any patterns of weaknesses can help tailor a treatment plan that supports and addresses mood or developmental deficits. Identifying strengths can help build up self-esteem and self-image that may be compromised by aggressive actions and the fallout that can occur relationally.
Individual therapy services, including play-based therapy and parent involvement and support may also be useful in replacing impulsive aggressive behaviors, and helping children to cope and display more cooperative responses to frustration. Collaboration with a child’s school or other social placements may help with consistent responses and a better understanding of what aggression may be communicating in a child. For more information on aggression in children and what to do, contact us! We can help.