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Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

Aggression in Early Childhood

Aggression is a good thing. It motivates initiatives – including learning, athletic effort, and healthy competition. Yet, good outcomes depend on the capacity to regulate aggression, and that is always a challenge. Self-regulation, as we have said many times in this blog, is a developmental competency that we keep working on throughout our lives. Self-regulation is a special challenge in early childhood, when it is just getting established, but it is a challenge at any age when we are under stress.

How do young children express aggression? They express it by running joyfully with their friends through the playground, by throwing a basketball or riding a tricycle fast, by shouting out the words of a song when cued, by laughing at a clown or shrieking with excitement at a magician. They also express it by pushing another child, by screaming, biting, or hitting, or by grabbing a toy away from a friend. What is the difference between these two ways of being aggressive? The difference is that the first way is adequately regulated; the aggression is under control. The second way is poorly regulated and out of control.

If children do not have adequate self-regulatory capacity to manage their aggression, they may express it with aggressive outbursts such as noted, but they also may express it by holding themselves tight – holding their bodies tight and holding on tightly to their emotions. That frightened, too-tight holding-on is intended to guard against an unwanted aggressive outburst and can manifest as excessive shyness or fear of speaking, or even as bodily problems such food pickiness or constipation. The reason that children fear the loss of control of aggression so much is that they are afraid of the destructive force of their aggression. Even if it is completely unrealistic that a small child could hurt an adult with an aggressive attack, children (out of their awareness) fear that this could happen. That can lead to nightmares of bad things happening to them or to their parents, whom they love and depend on. I want to stress that it is not the aggression that is bad, but it is the fear of losing control of it and harming someone that is bad for the child.

Why do some children have more difficulty managing aggression than others? Some children are temperamentally more sensitive, more active, or more intense. Some children have developmental difficulties that make it hard for them to “get it altogether” – from the point of view of regulation in various domains – motor, emotional, cognitive. Imagine how hard it would be to feel relaxed and confident if your body “didn’t listen to your mind”- that is what I sometimes say to impulsive children. Other children come from high conflict families in which overt or covert aggression presents a chronic threat. Still other children have histories of trauma – either directed at them or at a parent or even grandparent. Finally, some children have more than one of these reasons to have difficulty with aggression.

How can we help children develop the crucial competency? We can help them in three ways. First, we can create a safe situation in which both child and caregiver are not afraid. That usually means adequate and predictable adult supervision, predictable routines, and secure boundaries. Second, we can communicate tolerance of aggression and model constructive forms of aggression. For example, teachers who play basketball or tag with the children are helping the child experience the high arousal state of aggressive activity without the fear of losing control. At home, a parent’s skillful rough housing with a child can offer the same experience. Third, we can make it possible for children to practice aggressive activities without getting hurt or hurting others. Children cutting play dough with a wooden knife, crashing small cars into magnet tile constructions, and engaging in active playground activities are just a few ways I observed today at the preschool.

Our society has a strange and highly ambivalent relationship to aggression. Some parents in our culture prohibit pretend play with toy guns and soldiers, while others teach their children to shoot real guns. American television, video games, and movies are full of aggression. That puts parents in a difficult position, having to negotiate a reasonable balance between under and over controlling both their children’s aggressive behavior and the aggressive displays they are exposed to. There is no simple solution, but the guidelines as mentioned above are – demonstrate to your children a healthy attitude towards aggression; offer them a safe opportunity to take risks with their aggression and to practice using it; and give extra support to children with special sensitivities and needs so that they too can try out their emotions and test their bodies with exuberance.

Read this blog in Spanish.

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