Factors Contributing to Aggressive Behavior in Young Children

by Beth Greenwood
Toddlers may argue over and snatch toys such as blocks.

Toddlers may argue over and snatch toys such as blocks.

Aggressive behavior in young children is a normal aspect of development, according to Zero to Three, a child development website. The North Carolina State University Extension Service, however, reports that aggression is learned behavior and children are not naturally aggressive. With such diametrically opposite viewpoints, it’s pretty clear there must be more to the story.

Self-Control and Language

Very young children, especially before they have much of a vocabulary, may bite, swat at things and cry when they are frustrated. Toddlers are learning to assert their independence, but they are limited when it comes to self-control. They also lack the language skills to express complicated emotions and are more likely to communicate their likes and dislikes with gestures, such as pushing a toy away, grabbing something from another child or even shoving a playmate who won’t share. A toddler who feels crowded may hit or slap at you. It is also typical, however, for two toddlers who were arguing one minute to be best friends the next.

Other Factors

Aggressive behavior is a signal that the child is out of control, according to the Zero to Three site. She may be over-excited, angry or jealous. Although an older toddler or child can tell you the rule is “No hitting,” she does not yet have enough self-control to follow the rule consistently. Parents who respond calmly can help her calm down. Her aggressive response may be due to a variety of factors, such as being tired, hungry, overwhelmed or stressed. Young children can’t always express how they feel; a child who is afraid or angry, for example, may hit or kick.

Personality and Social Skills

Each child has her own personality style. She may be very calm and easygoing or rambunctious and easily excited. An activity that the calm child can tolerate, such as a friend’s birthday party, may make the rambunctious child act out. A child who feels insecure at the arrival of a new sibling may express her anxiety by aggressive behavior. Some children may have difficulty reading behavioral clues or have an exaggerated sense of personal space. Children with this sort of temperament may react with hostility if they feel another child is “intruding.”

Violence and Other Considerations

In a few cases, aggressive behavior is the result of life situations that can cause children to react with not only aggression, such as yelling and name calling, but outright violence. Sexual and physical abuse, brain damage from a head injury, parents or caregivers who abuse drugs or alcohol and exposure to violence can all contribute to aggressive behavior in children, according to the website of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. A child who displays intense anger, is extremely irritable, becomes easily frustrated, acts impulsively or frequently loses her temper may need more help than a parent can give. If you are concerned about your child’s behavior, consult her pediatrician or your family physician.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is a registered nurse and writer. She served as a columnist for the Tides Foundation's Community Clinic Voice on quality improvement and now contributes to various websites. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College and is a graduate of the California HealthCare Foundation Health Care Leadership Program.

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