You're at the park with your 4-year-old when, to your horror, he suddenly reaches out and slugs the little boy playing next to him. Sound familiar? If so, don’t worry. You’re not the first parent to be stunned by your child’s aggressive behavior. It is common at this age and, fortunately, there are ways to help your child deal with his feelings of anger in a more constructive manner.
Remove your child from the situation right away. Do so in a calm manner -- it's important not to lose your cool. Reacting to aggression with aggression will just reinforce the behavior. Immediate removal from the situation provides you with the opportunity to enforce consequences and discuss the problem, while also allowing your child the opportunity to calm down.
Place your child in a calm, quiet place for a timeout. Children this young generally do not benefit from a lengthy trip to their room. A timeout should only last about one minute for each year of age. For example, a 4-year-old shouldn’t be in a timeout much longer than four minutes. This amount of time allows him to calm down and understand that you are not satisfied with the behavior.
Talk to your child as soon as the timeout is complete. Use terms he can understand. Explain that his actions were not appropriate and that they inflicted pain on another child or adult. Link the pain to something he can understand so he can make the connection between his actions and the pain he inflicted. For example, "I know that Johnny made you angry when he took your toy, but when you hit him in the arm it hurt him, just like it hurt you when you fell off your bike the other day." All of a sudden it may click, “Oh! I didn’t know I hurt him like that.”
Provide alternate means for your 4-year-old to seek help and express his emotions. Encourage him to use words when he is angry; if that is not effective, instruct him to seek out another adult to help resolve the problem.
Utilize positive reinforcement to reduce and eliminate aggressive behavior. Every time your child acts in an appropriate manner, comes to you with a problem or calms down on his own, offer praise for his good behavior. It is not effective to only discipline negative behavior. It is important to incorporate as much reinforcement for positive behavior as possible. Let him know you are proud of him and offer hugs and kisses -- he is still at an age where he won’t pull away from your mushy affection!
- If the aggressive behavior persists despite your calm, swift discipline and positive reinforcement, talk to a medical professional for other means of effectively managing the aggression.
- If your child exhibits levels of aggression that are dangerous to himself or others, seek professional help to address the issue.
- Healthychildren.org: Aggressive Behavior
- Healthychildren.org: Changing Your Child's Behavior
- Child Psychopathology, 2nd ed.; Eric J. Mash, et al
- Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images