Preschoolers: Dealing with Agression

by Michele Borba, Ed.D

I have a 4-year-old that is starting to show more aggression than I like. Whenever we talk to him about what he's done wrong, he'll shake his fist at me and pull horrible faces. I have no idea how to respond other than giving him a smack on his behind. That doesn't seem right to me though, just perpetuates violence. I'd like to know what to do when it happens again and how to stop him from doing it in the first place.

First things first -- congratulations. You have a typical four-year-old. This is about the time we begin to see (especially with boys) more aggression and copying behavior. It's also exactly the age to call a cease and pronto. Here are a few suggestions -- and then you play detective and figure out what will work best.

  1. Behavior is learned. So where could your child be learning this? Any chance he's copying your expression or dad's? What about another sibling? Day care? Nursery school? Just tune in a little closer. A sudden change in behavior is a clue -- and also one for you to just watch yourself a little closer.
  2. Right on spanking -- don't. It's the wrong response especially for aggressive behavior. It will only increase it. Your BEST response is always these things:
    • Stay CALM yourself. I know. I know. But if your child is copying behavior you have to stay calm. Take a breath. Walk away. Then come back.
    • Tell him ASAP ... that is not how we act. You need to (tell him what you want instead).
    • Watch him a little closer -- you will almost always FORESEE the build up -- right before the meltdown or the temper or the hitting or the biting. Your best response is to divert -- distract -- and tell him so. "It looks like you're getting upset; let's take a break."
  3. Time out is your better option but ONLY if you do it every single time and everywhere. You'll then gradually see a decrease in the behavior once your child knows you mean business -- every time. Time out has these parts:
    • Find a quiet, nondistracting place -- even a chair off to the side. NO TV or toys.
    • You must not talk to him or interfere in the process -- kids will try to get your attention. Don't.
    • Time out is one minute per age of the child, so your child's total time out is 4 minutes -- from the time he is calm.
    • Get an oven timer to help you. Set it so he knows it will be over once it starts.
    • Forgive and forget once he comes out.
  4. But you still have one more thing to do. Time Out stops the behavior and lets your child know it's not appropriate. But he needs to know what to do instead. He needs a replacer behavior. And that will take a lot of rehearsing and practicing (with his teddy bear - with you -- with his trucks). Everytime you feel you're really getting mad -- really mad -- then:
    • Take a deep breath and say how you're feeling. I'M MAD.
    • Or go walk away and come back.

    Whatever you choose - do it as a family again and again and again. New behaviors usually take 21 days. Really! So keep practicing whatever calm down strategy you choose to use with your child (there are lots - the trick is to just find one that works and keep consistently using the same strategy).

Hang in there. The trick is CONSISTENCY and CALMNESS.

Michele Borba, Ed.D, is an internationally renowned educational consultant and recipient of the National Educator Award. She is a frequent guest expert on TV and NPR talk shows including Fox & Friends, The View, The Today Show, and serves on the honorary board to Parents Magazine.

She is the award-winning author of nineteen books including:
• No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them
• Building Moral Intelligence
• Parents Do Make A Difference
• Don't Give Me that Attitude!: 24 Selfish, Rude Behaviors and How to Stop Them. Dr. Borba is a former teacher and partner in a private practice for troubled youth. She lives in Palm Springs, Ca with her husband and three sons.

Copyrighted © Michele Borba. Permission to publish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.