Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/8/2006 5:56:03 PM ET 2006-07-08T21:56:03

How should parents respond when their kids act out aggressively? And what does such behavior mean for the future? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries.

Q1: My 4-year-old daughter is having biting episodes at preschool. She’ll bite once almost every day. There doesn’t seem to be a specific reason or specific child who she targets. I’m worried for her and her classmates and I’m concerned about what this says about her personality and future. What can I do?

Q2: My 3-year-old nephew is extremely aggressive and shows no remorse for harming people or animals. He yells, kicks, hits and takes toys from other children. He laughs about hurting others. His parents dismiss the problem as him being a baby but I’m appalled. I think he’s a meanie. What should be done? Is this kid likely to become a violent, destructive bully — or worse?

A: With so much attention in recent years about violent kids and adolescents, it makes sense that parents, relatives and caregivers are concerned when they see aggressive tendencies in toddlers. But it’s actually normal for toddlers to bite, hit, grab or otherwise act out aggressively. And, no, this doesn’t mean your toddler will become a teen who saves his allowance for the gun show.

Developmental psychologist Kurt Fischer, director of Harvard University’s Mind, Brain and Education program, and colleagues published a study two years ago that tracked 440 children and adolescents over seven years to determine what causes children to become aggressive and violent. They found that violence in the home, including physical punishment such as spanking, was the strongest predictor of aggression in children. Inhibited temperament — the reserved kids who "fly under the radar" — was the second strongest predictor of aggression and violence.

That’s not to say if you have a mild-mannered child, he’s headed for problems either. It’s just to point out that you shouldn’t necessarily be concerned for a rambunctious toddler’s future.

“Toddlers are looking at the world and trying out many of their newfound abilities. One of these abilities happens to be aggression,” says Dr. Robert Sege, chief of pediatrics at The Floating Hospital for Children at New England Medical Center and associate professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

Even though biting and other aggressive moves are developmentally appropriate, the behavior, of course, isn’t pretty — or acceptable. “When you see this behavior it just means it’s the perfect time for grown-ups to start teaching children important lessons about aggression,” says Sege, who helped develop Connected Kids: Safe, Strong, Secure, the American Academy of Pediatrics violence prevention program.

Sege says all children have a peak of aggression around the age of 2 and it’s our job to help them make the transition from aggressive toddlerhood to socially acceptable kindergartener. But how?

Parents and caregivers can start by trouble-shooting. If you’re going to preschool or on a playdate, lay down the rules for your child each time beforehand. “Tell your child here are things you can do and here are the things you can’t do. Give him the rules. Be concrete,” says Sege.

Toddlers don’t really understand that grown-ups create rules, and this can work to our advantage. They believe rules come from an almighty, powerful source and, thus, when preferred behavior is explained as “the rules” toddlers are more likely to obey.

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When kids are successful at getting along, pay attention! “Give them a nod, wink or kiss on the head. Tell the child, ‘I love it when you play so nice with your cousin,’” recommends Sege. It’s crucial not to just pay attention when it’s bad behavior.

Attention to a toddler is like money to an adult; they can’t get enough of it. “Toddlers will go to extremes for attention even if it’s the negative type,” warns Sege.  “So make sure they’re getting plenty of positive attention.”

When there is a slip-up, though, correct the behavior right then and there. “Just tell them ‘no biting’ and do a short time out — one minute per year of age. Afterwards, make it simple. Tell them, ‘I don’t want to see you biting again, now go back to playing,’” says Sege. Again, you want to correct but not give them too much attention for unwanted behavior.

As far as the 3-year-old in Q2 having remorse, it's natural that as an aunt you'd be concerned. But your nephew's parents are not incorrect per se. Their child is still a baby — at least in very important emotional ways. Developmentally abstract concepts such as empathy and remorse don't start until around kindergarten age.

What you can do right now, though, is to help your nephew build a vocabulary for emotions (you might also speak to his parents about doing this). Many children — even older kids — don’t have the words to express what they’re feeling and so they act out. Talk to your nephew and give him books — “C is for Curious: An ABC of Feelings” is one example — that teach him how to identify and express complex emotions such as disappointment, confusion or frustration.

Even if you only see your nephew once a week, you can do your part by pointing out emotions and his impact on other people.

“If children hurt another child, show them the child crying and ask them, ‘how do you think you made Suzy feel?’ Get them to see and start to think about how their actions impact other people. That’s the beginning of empathy,” says Sege.

For older children any adult can help them learn how to resolve difficulties in civil ways. Elementary age children can be shown how to flip a coin, play "rock, paper, scissors" or use any number of basic tricks to decide who gets the first turn or who gets the red truck, etc. “It used to be that kids traveled in packs and played with a wide age range of neighbor kids. The older kids taught them how to resolve difficulties. That doesn’t happen so much anymore so adults need to step in and teach these things,” says Sege.

Furthermore, if parents, aunts, uncles and teachers really want to make a dent in violence or ensure that young kids don’t turn into violent teens, they’ll not only pay attention to the noisy, in-your-face children, they’ll also look for the quiet, withdrawn and inhibited kids — the ones Harvard’s Fischer found to be more likely to be violent in the long run.

“Inhibited kids don’t connect with people or make friends easily,” says Fischer. “But with these kids one peer or one adult connection can often make a huge difference.”

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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