There you are, watching your little angel through the window at preschool, thinking how blessed you are to have her. All of a sudden, she draws back her little hand — and whacks another child squarely on the nose.
Shocking as it may be to you (and to the other parents who witness it), aggression is a normal part of a preschooler's development. Indeed, lots of children this age grab toys from classmates, hit, kick, or scream themselves blue in the face from time to time. Sometimes the cause is a simple case of fear: Your child might lash out if she feels cornered by another youngster, for instance. Other triggers have less to do with instinct and more to do with circumstances. After all, your preschooler's learning a host of new skills, from using scissors to speaking in complex sentences. She can easily become frustrated with everything she's trying to accomplish and end up pouncing on a playmate. If she's attending daycare or preschool for the first time, she's also getting used to being away from home. If she feels resentful or neglected on top of everything else, she might just retaliate by shoving the kid who won't get out of her face. And sometimes, your youngster is simply tired and hungry. She doesn't quite know what to do about it, so she responds by biting, hitting, or throwing a tantrum.
The good news is, your preschooler will eventually outgrow her aggressive behavior as she discovers how to use words instead of fists and feet to solve her problems. The key is helping her realize — sooner rather than later — that she'll get better results from talking out a dispute than she will from yanking a friend's hair.
What you can do about aggression
Respond quickly. Try to respond immediately when you see your preschooler getting aggressive. It's tempting to wait until she's hit her brother for the third time before saying, "That's enough!" (especially when you've already reprimanded her a dozen times in the last hour). Even so, it's best to let her know instantly when she's done something wrong. Remove her from the situation for a brief time-out — for a preschooler, three or four minutes is plenty. The idea is for her to connect her behavior with the consequence and figure out that if she hits or bites, she'll miss out on the fun. No matter how angry you are with her, try not to yell, hit, or tell your preschooler she's bad. Rather than getting her to change her behavior, this simply teaches her that verbal and physical aggression are the way to go when she's mad. Instead, set a good example by controlling your temper and calmly pulling her out of the action.
Stick to the plan. As much as possible, respond to aggressive acts the same way every time. The more predictable you are ("Okay, you shoved Tina again — that means another time-out"), the sooner you'll set up a pattern that your preschooler comes to recognize and expect. Eventually it'll sink in that if she misbehaves, she gets booted out of the fun — the first step in controlling her own behavior. Even if she does something to mortify you in public, stick to the game plan. Most parents understand your situation — after all, we've all been there before. If people stare, toss off a wry comment like "Don't you just love this age?" and then handle the episode the way you see fit.
Talk it out. Let your preschooler cool down, then calmly discuss what happened. The best time to do this is after she's settled down but before she forgets the whole thing — ideally, 30 minutes to an hour later. Ask if she can explain what triggered her outburst ("Jenny, why do you think you got so mad at Tina?"). Explain that it's perfectly natural to get angry sometimes, but it's not okay to shove, hit, kick, or bite. Suggest better ways of showing how mad she is: by kicking a ball, pounding her fist into a , finding an adult to mediate the dispute, or simply voicing her feelings: "Tina, I feel really mad because you took the purple crayon."
Now is also a good time to teach her to walk away from infuriating situations and people until she can think of a better way to respond than letting her fists fly. You can help your youngster deal with her anger by reading books together on the topic. Try Mr. Rogers's Let's Talk About Feeling Angry, Aliki's Feelings, or Jane Martin's Now Everybody Really Hates Me.
Reinforce responsibility. If your preschooler's aggression damages someone's property or makes a mess, she should help make it right again. She can glue a broken toy back together, for instance, or clean up the crackers or blocks she hurled in anger. Don't frame this action as a punishment, but rather the natural consequence of a belligerent act — something that anyone would need to do if he or she broke something.
Also make sure your preschooler understands that she needs to say "I'm sorry" when she oversteps her bounds — even if you have to lead her by the hand to the offended party and say it for her. Her apologies might seem insincere at first, but the lesson will eventually sink in.
Reward good behavior. Rather than paying attention to your preschooler only when she misbehaves, try to catch her being good — when she asks for a turn at the computer game instead of snatching the mouse away, for instance, or gives up her to another child who's been waiting. Tell her how proud of her you are. Show her that self-control and conflict resolution are more satisfying — and get better results — than shoving other kids into the next century. Keep a special calendar on the refrigerator or on her bedroom bulletin board, and reward her with a colorful sticker when she manages to keep her temper in check.
Limit TV time. Innocent-looking cartoons and other so-called children's shows are often rife with shouting, threats, shoving, and hitting. So try to the programs your preschooler sees by watching them with her — particularly if she's prone to aggression. If something happens on a show that you don't approve of, talk to her about it: "Did you see how that girl pushed her friend to get what she wanted? That wasn't a very good thing to do, was it?" (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids this age see no more than an hour or two of "quality" television a day — yet another reason to skip that show in the future.)
Don't be afraid to seek help. Some kids have more trouble with aggression than others do. If your preschooler's behavior is frequent and severe, interferes with school or other organized activities, and results in physical attacks on children or adults, consult her pediatrician. Together you can try to get to the root of the problem and decide if a child psychologist or psychiatrist is needed. Sometimes an undiagnosed learning or behavior disorder is behind the frustration and anger; sometimes the problem is related to family or emotional difficulties. Whatever its source, a counselor can help your youngster work through the emotions that tend to lead to aggression, and learn to control them in the future. More than likely, professional help won't be necessary — but if your preschooler does need some counseling, it'll be a relief to know that you don't have to deal with the problem on your own.
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
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Reprinted with the permission of Babycenter LLC. © 1997-2008 BabyCenter LLC. All rights reserved.