I’m starting to get a little worried about my son’s outbursts. He has always had a bit of a temper and has struggled with getting along with his sister.
But now, as he starts to be involved with other kids I worry that his outbursts are going to cause him difficulty. At home he will yell, hit and throw things when he gets upset.
He often blames it on his sister and she does not help by telling him she is going to tell others about his tantrums, but his physical response seems over the top and I worry that if he starts to respond that way to other kids when he is at school we will have bigger problem on our hands.
How worried should I be and what can I be doing about it?
Thank you for your letter. You raise some important questions and ones that many parents find themselves struggling with.
You do not say how old your son and daughter are in this situation and while aggression, regardless of age, is something that we need to pay attention to, how we understand it and how we respond to it will be a bit different depending on the age and context.
It is often a surprise for many to hear that the incidents of aggression and the frequency of its display peaks around the age of two.
In general we are most aggressive as toddlers and both the displays and frequency of aggressive behaviours decreases with age. Often when we think of aggression we think of the dramatic accounts we see on the news that are often occurring between youth and/or adults.
Certainly such incidents are frightening and the consequences are very serious but they are also far less common than the less-dramatic incidents that happen between between younger children.
In young children, aggression is often a response to frustration, yet-to-develop self-regulation skills, and unsophisticated coping strategies. It is often defensive and used to protect against a real or perceived threat.
Not wanting to share a toy, feeling unfairly treated by another child or sibling, worried that one may not get what one wants, trying to control the situation or interaction are all examples of such situations.
Overt physical aggression is only one form of aggression.
Equally important is another form of aggression that is receiving increasing attention and recognition called relational aggression. Relational aggression is defined as a type of aggression that is directed at harming others through the manipulation of social standing or relationships.
Like physical aggression, the threats of that behaviour are also seen as aggression. Research is showing that both boys and girls use relational aggression although it is more commonly seen in girls just as physical aggression is more commonly seen in boys. What the research is also showing is that such relational aggression is equally as damaging and problematic as physical acts of aggression are.
We need to be concerned with all physical and relational acts of aggression. Children need parents to help them understand the impacts of their behaviour on others and they need their parents to set limits and boundaries around what is acceptable.
Aggression becomes more problematic when, as children age, its frequency does not diminish, it does not respond to adult direction and it appears across multiple contexts (home, school and the community).
If it is primarily occurring at home with his sister then continuing to work with your son on developing some stronger skills for managing his frustration and developing some alternative strategies for coping in situations that upset him is a great place to focus.
Continue letting him know that what he is doing is not OK and when he is calm help him find other ways to cope.
Some common strategies are taking some space, letting others know how he feeling in an appropriate voice, asking the other person to stop or do something different, ignoring the other person’s behaviour(if possible), and getting some help from adults.
It is also important to pay attention to what he is saying about how he is experiencing his sister and her behaviour. From your letter it appears that he is experiencing her response to him as a form of relational aggression and she may need some guidance and direction around this issue as well.
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