"My 8-year-old son is very aggressive sometimes - both verbally and physically. This aggression is most often directed toward his older sister, but I have been on the receiving end of it as well. What is the best method to prevent this behavior from happening?"
The best way to prevent aggressive behavior is to give your son a stable, secure home life with firm, loving discipline and full-time supervision. Everyone who cares for your youngster should be a good role model and agree on the rules he’s expected to observe as well as the response to use if he disobeys. Whenever your son breaks an important rule, he should be reprimanded immediately with a consequence that "ties-in" to the infraction so that he understands exactly what he’s done wrong. Kids don’t know the rules of the house until they’re taught them, so that is one of your important parenting responsibilities.
For discipline to be most effective, it should take place on an ongoing basis, not just when your son misbehaves. In fact, it begins with moms and dads smiling at their children, and it continues with praise and genuine affection for all positive and appropriate behaviors. If your son feels encouraged and respected, rather than demeaned and embarrassed, he is more likely to listen, learn, and change when necessary. It is always more effective to positively reinforce desired behaviors and to teach kids alternative behaviors rather than just say, “Stop it or else!”
While teaching him other ways to respond, there’s also nothing wrong with distracting him at times, or trying another approach. As long as you’re not “bribing” him to behave differently by offering him sweet snacks, for example, there’s nothing wrong with intentionally changing his focus.
Remember, your son has little natural self-control. He needs you to teach him not to yell, kick, or hit when he is angry, but instead to express his feelings through words. It’s important for him to learn the difference between real and imagined insults and between appropriately standing up for his rights and attacking out of anger. The best way to teach these lessons is to supervise him carefully when he’s involved in disputes with his siblings or playmates. As long as a disagreement is minor, you can keep your distance and let the kids solve it on their own.
However, you must intervene when kids get into a physical fight that continues even after they’re told to stop, or when one youngster seems to be in an uncontrollable rage and is assaulting or biting the other. Pull the kids apart and keep them separate until they have calmed down. If the fight is extremely violent, you may have to end the play session. Make it clear that it doesn’t matter who “started it.” There is no excuse for trying to hurt each other.
To avoid or minimize “high-risk” situations, teach your son ways to deal with his anger without resorting to aggressive behavior. Teach him to say “no” in a firm tone of voice, to turn his back, or to find compromises instead of fighting with his body. Through example, teach him that settling differences with words is more effective—and more civilized—than with physical violence. Praise him on his appropriate behavior and help explain to him how “grown-up” he is acting whenever he uses these tactics instead of screaming, hitting, or kicking. And always reinforce and praise his behavior when he is demonstrating kindness and gentleness.
There’s also nothing wrong with using a time-out when his behavior is inappropriate. These time-outs should be a last resort, however. Have him sit in a chair or go to a “boring” place where there are no distractions; in essence, you’re separating him from his misbehavior, and giving him time to cool off. Briefly explain to your son what you’re doing and why—but no long lectures. Initially, when kids are young, time-out is over as soon as they have calmed down and are “quiet and still.” Ending time-out once they are quiet reinforces this behavior, so your son learns that time out means "quiet and still." A good rule of thumb is one minute of a timeout for each year in your youngster’s age. Thus, an 8-year-old should have an 8-minute time-out. When the time-out is over, there needs to be a "time-in" while giving him plenty of positive attention when doing the right thing.
Always watch your own behavior around your son. One of the best ways to teach him appropriate behavior is to control your own temper. If you express your anger in quiet, peaceful ways, your son probably will follow your example. If you must discipline him, do not feel guilty about it and certainly don’t apologize. If your son senses your mixed feelings, he may convince himself that he was in the right all along and you are the “bad” one. Although disciplining your youngster is never pleasant, it is a necessary part of parenthood, and there is no reason to feel guilty about it. Your youngster needs to understand when he is in the wrong so that he will take responsibility for his actions and be willing to accept the consequences.
Here are some additional points to keep in mind when dealing with aggression in children:
1. Aggression in a young child is usually a temporary behavior that can easily be corrected. Aggressive behavior in kids between the ages of five and eight is usually more stable and leads to lower prosocial behaviors in early adolescence. Aggressive behavior up to age 8 correlates with alienation from peers and conflict with teachers in adolescence.
2. Aggression in kids negatively correlates with prosocial behavior. Kids who have more social skills and are able to successfully relate in social situations are less likely to be aggressive.
3. Aggressive behavior in kids falls into two categories. Proactive aggression is when a youngster deliberately acts aggressively in order to obtain a goal, such as a youngster who hurts other kids in his efforts to win a game. Reactive aggression is when a youngster acts aggressively without planning, in reaction to a situation, such as a youngster who hits another youngster because she took his toy.
4. Involve law enforcement if needed. Unchecked aggression puts the violent youngster, the family, peers and the community at risk. Some communities have programs to assist youths at risk of aggressive and violent behavior. If a parent or other member of the family is under duress from an aggressive youngster, call 911 for immediate help.
5. Involve professionals if needed. If a youngster has had more than one or two incidents of aggression, or the aggression is not age-appropriate, parents should seek the advice of their pediatrician or a mental health provider. Causes of aggression are numerous and may involve biological, emotional or mental health issues. A professional will determine the cause or causes and create a treatment plan.
6. Moms and dads faced with aggressive kids sometimes find themselves responding in a similar way, perhaps believing that if the youngster experiences how it feels to have aggression directed against him, he will be more likely to stop the behavior. But modeling aggression doesn't stop it; it encourages it. Modeling prosocial, positive behaviors will teach a youngster to stop his aggressive behavior.
7. Prosocial behaviors may cause decreased aggression in kids. Teaching and modeling positive prosocial behaviors and ways of interacting with peers is one way to decrease aggressive behavior. Moms and dads can stop aggressive behavior by paying attention to triggers, such as tiredness, hunger or reaction to specific behaviors by other kids, and try to avoid situations with those triggers. Parents can also respond by teaching kids skills for handling frustration and anger such as walking away and using deep breathing. Mother/fathers can encourage empathy by talking about how a youngster's behaviors make other kids feel. They can encourage sharing and taking turns by mediating these actions and making sure that each youngster gets a fair turn.
8. Provide a consequence after the aggressive incident. In the midst of a meltdown, a youngster is unable or unwilling to follow directions. After he is calm, later in the day, or even the next day, remind him that his behavior was unacceptable and that he has earned himself a consequence. Provide a consequence that rebuilds trust with the family or that reinforces the negative nature of his behavior. Trust-building consequences might be preparing dinner for the family or doing chores for family members. Negative reinforcement consequences could include a writing assignment about appropriate ways to show anger and frustration or doing extra chores around the house.
9. Remove the youngster to a separate area. If a verbal prompt does not work, put him in his bedroom, the den, the basement, the garage or in the yard. Let him vent his anger in a space away from the rest of the family. This protects the rest of the family from being hurt or attacked. Tell him he is welcome to join the family when he is calm and after he has cleaned up anything he may have thrown or broken.
10. Take of yourself. Stressed-out, burned-out parents are not usually very patient or understanding.
11. Use verbal prompts. With some kids, potential aggression comes with noticeable signs: agitation, clenching of hands, tears, yelling or pushing into another individual's personal space. A verbal prompt, provided early enough in an aggression cycle, might thwart the aggression. Use a statement acknowledging increased anger or frustration, followed with a suggestion to take deep breaths or sit quietly and count. Ask a question as to which of two solutions might help the youngster calm down.
12. Walk away. If an aggressive youngster continues to escalate, in spite of verbal prompts or removal to another room, disengage and walk outside or to another room in the house. Aggression is fueled by the interaction of argument, continued engagement and an audience. Remove yourself from the scene of the aggression and the aggressive activity often stops. Stay away long enough for the youngster to calm herself.
If your son seems to be unusually aggressive for longer than a few weeks, and you cannot cope with his behavior on your own, consult your doctor. Other warning signs include:
- Attacks on you or other adults
- Being sent home or barred from play by neighbors or school
- Physical injury to himself or others (teeth marks, bruises, head injuries)
- Your own fear for the safety of those around him
The most important warning sign is the frequency of outbursts. Sometimes kids with conduct disorders will go for several days or a week or two without incident, and may even act quite charming during this time, but few can go an entire month without getting into trouble at least once.
Your doctor can suggest ways to discipline your youngster and will help you determine if he has a true conduct disorder. If this is the problem, you probably will not be able to resolve it on your own, and your doctor will advise appropriate mental health intervention.
The doctor or other mental health specialist will interview both you and your son and may observe your youngster in different situations (home, preschool, with adults and other kids). A behavior-management program will be outlined. Not all methods work on all kids, so there will be a certain amount of trial and reassessment.
Once several effective ways are found to reward good behavior and discourage bad, they can be used in establishing an approach that works both at home and away. The progress may be slow, but such programs usually are successful if started when the disorder is just beginning to develop.
==> Parenting Strategies for Children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder