Dear Dr. Michelle:
My 4-year-old is really aggressive, and it seems to be getting worse. Other parents do not want him around their children, and before we were all staying at home because of the pandemic, I was getting complaints from daycare. What should I do?
It’s great that you are seeking help for your son now while he is young. At this age, you can really make progress in helping him learn better skills. It must be heartbreaking to see your son being excluded from playing with others; he is lucky to have your support and determination to help him.
When a young child is aggressive, it is either because they are observing the behavior and repeating it, they have a brain trauma/injury, or it is the only way they know how to express complex feelings.
If your son does have a brain injury, you most likely already know about it, or you should seek a medical assessment if you think this is a possibility. More often, when a very young child is aggressive, it usually means that something else is going on in the child’s life. Are there other adults or older children in the home that are highly aggressive? If so, your 4-year-old will model what he sees others doing. If this is occurring, you need to address the other aggressive behavior in the home as the first step. If this is not the case, you will want to investigate if there are things happening to your child that they do not understand. Is there possible abuse that has or is occurring? Who is around your child and what is happening in those relationships? If you are concerned and just do not know, this is a good time to seek professional counseling for further assessment. Play therapy is an excellent intervention for assessing a child’s feelings and possible trauma or abuse.
Regardless of the reason, in order to change aggressive behavior, you need to intentionally intervene. Every time your son is aggressive, address it with him directly without using any form of physical punishment (i.e. no grabbing, pulling, spanking, slapping, yanking, etc.). Provide some type of consequence (removal of the toy or activity, time out, etc.). Use words to explain specifically what your son did wrong and how he should have handled it differently. For example, “You are taking a time out because you hit the dog when he tried to take your food. Instead, you should have picked up your food and walked away.” In addition to a consequence, role play with your son and act out the right way to solve the problem so he can experience the positive behavior.
Finally, make sure you praise your son every time you see him solve a problem without being aggressive. Focus on what he did right, rather than praising him for not being aggressive. Let me explain:
Correct Response – “That was great that you got your toy back by asking for it; great job.”
Avoid this Response – “Look, you got your toy back without hitting.”
You will have to continuously practice this with your son in order to change aggressive behavior, so do not give up even if it feels like it is not working. This will take a lot of repetition and you will feel exhausted, but it will pay off in the long run.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
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