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Violent Behaviour in Children by Dr Richard C Woolfson


The chances are that your child is well behaved and cooperative for much of the time. But when his temper does start to flare, and his hands begin to fly, it may be quite a challenge to manage his aggression.

Violence during childhood can be expressed in many different ways. The most obvious forms are deliberate and direct physical violence (punching, kicking, biting), insidious physical violence (hair pulling, spitting, pinching) or “accidental” physical violence (tripping, nudging). But there are other more subtle forms of aggression, such as verbal violence (threats, insults), body language (threatening facial expressions, close body proximity), social rejection (excluding, whispering), and spiteful behaviour (ignoring, revenge). Virtually all children are aggressive sometimes.

Prevention is better than cure

If you know that your child is prone to violent outbursts, try to prevent them happening. The best time to talk to him is when he is settled and relaxed, not when he is in the middle of an aggressive episode. If you wait until he has erupted, he won’t listen to a reasoned argument and will react purely in terms of his anger.

Instead, sit down and have a quiet chat with him. Your child will enjoy your attention, even though he might not fully understand what you have to say to him. Explain that you don’t like it when he hits and screams and that other people dislike it as well. Tell him that his friends will soon stop playing with him. Make your explanation very clear and direct, for instance, "Your friend won’t play with you again if you hit him." Be prepared to repeat this message again and again over a period of months.

Point out also that you will be upset with him if he shouts, hits, bites or screams at others; make it quite clear that this sort of behaviour is totally unacceptable. Let him know that he will be punished for such actions (though never punish his violence with violence of your own), and spell out these punishments; for instance, he will be sent to bed early, or he won't be allowed sweets that day, or he won't be allowed to watch his favourite television programme.

When he is violent

Despite your best efforts to thwart his aggression, there will be times when your child loses control. Here are some suggestions for helping him manage his violence once he is in the middle of an outburst:

  • Remain calm - Stay calm, and carry him firmly away from the person (whether child or adult) on the receiving end of his violence. Hold him steady until he starts to calm down, and at that point, gently release him from your arms.
  • Reassure him - While he is still in a temper, talk to him in a soothing voice, reassuring him that he is fine, that he is safe, and that he will soon calm down. Keep doing this until you think he has regained control.
  • Be positive - It’s always effective to praise your child when you notice that he has played with other children without being violent, even though he lost his temper. Praise his good behaviour.
  • Don't match aggression with aggression - There are few sights more absurd than a parent biting a child because the child bit the parent. And it sets a dreadful example for a child.

Gender differences

The notion that boys are more violent than girls is not supported by psychological research - it’s just that boys favour physical violence, while girls favour verbal and social violence. One of the consequences of boys’ overt aggression is that adults, such as parents and teachers, usually pounce it on immediately. This means that incidents are easy to detect, and it also means that boys’ violence is tackled almost the moment it appears. Compare that with the subtle violence of girls, which, by its covert nature, can continue for lengthy periods without every being spotted by an adult.

Perhaps that’s why the impact of aggression has gender differences too. Girls who have experienced teasing, insults or wilful social rejection during the childhood years tend to retain the emotional bruises from those experiences well into adulthood, whereas boys’ memories of physical fights tend to grow less vivid with time.

Assertiveness rather than violence

Despite your disapproval of violence, you still want your child to stand up for himself in the nursery, in the school playground and at home with his brothers and sisters. Quite rightly, you want him to be assertive so that he isn’t pushed around by anyone. But there is a big difference between an assertive child and a violent or aggressive child.

Assertiveness means being able to express a point of view firmly, without generating violence. It is your child’s ability to speak up for himself, to express his views confidently and clearly, but without threatening the listener. An assertive child, for instance, says “No, I’m playing with this toy right now, but I’ll definitely give it to you when I’ve finished”, and if he can say this with a smile and a calm voice then so much the better. Assertiveness enables him to achieve his goal without creating hostility.

Assertiveness will help your child find a non-violent solution to conflict. It is a combination of self-belief, clear thinking, independent thought and a sensitive personality. These are personal qualities you probably wish to encourage in your growing child anyway, so teaching him to be assertive shouldn’t be too difficult.

Top tips for developing assertiveness


Empathy - Ask your child to think how he would feel if someone was violent towards him. Try to focus his attention on the feelings of the victim.

Explanation - Tell your child about the negative effects of his violent behaviour. Explain, for instance, that others would play with him more if wasn’t so aggressive.

Caring - Talk about the importance of helping others. The more caring he is towards other children and adults, the less likely he is to be violent towards them.

Suggestion - Offer ways that he could react to others without aggression. For instance, he could use a lighter tone in his voice, or he could say it with a natural smile.

Speech - Teach him to speak in a less confrontational way. For instance, "If you tidy the crayons, I could put my game there" is better than "Clear up that terrible mess!"


Other non-violent strategies

Help your child develop a range of conflict-resolution skills. For a start, encourage him to verbalise his feelings and to emphasise resolution. He could say, for instance, “I wish we weren’t angry with each other, so we should try to get this sorted.” Your child will find his own words to express this feeling, especially if you practice this with him at home.

Show how to listen to the other person. Genuine listening means giving the other person a chance to speak, whereas children typically like to speak over anyone they don’t want to hear. Explain that your child should give the other person time to say what they want. Listening also involves making eye contact and giving feedback (for instance, nodding at an appropriate moment). Again, these are skills you can practice with him at home.

Encourage your child to think of possible solutions to the conflict. For instance, if he and his pal fight over a toy, they could agree for one of them to play with it for a couple of minutes and then the other can have a turn playing with it. Or if they argue over which video to watch, they could watch one video and then watch the other. It doesn’t take much to find a suitable solution; all it needs is a bit of creative thinking.

Violence between siblings

Sibling rivalry is so common that most psychologists regard it as normal. So your children are not the only ones to fight violently with each other! Although the reason for their heated disagreement often appears to be trivial, it may be that the real explanation for their aggression to each other is deeper. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  • They don’t feel special enough - Each of your children needs to feel loved and valued, and to feel that they are special to you. All it takes for fights to break out is for one of your children to feel insecure about his relationship with you.
  • They think you compare them - If your children think that one is being measured against the other, that’s a recipe for frequent fights. Value each child for who he is, and not for how well he compares to his brother or sister.
  • They don’t have privacy - Your house becomes more crowded as the number of your children increases. This means there is less physical space for each of your children, and therefore less privacy; consequently, tempers can be on a short fuse.
  • They haven’t been taught to value each other - Make a specific point of reminding each of your children about his own good points and his sibling’s good points. By doing so, you set a good example.
  • They are not involved in decisions - A child can be asked for an opinion about, say, what toys he should take to the park. You’ll notice that your children are more irritable with each other when they feel excluded from even minor decisions in their lives.

Think about these possibilities in relation to your children. Could one or more of these reasons account for the violent arguments between your children? If so, think about where you might make changes in order to make the situation better.

Read Dr Richard Woolfson's other articles

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