Is Your Child Too Aggressive?

Ages 3-4 How They Grow column, Parents Magazine“Why did you punch Michael?” I had come to pick up my 4-year-old son, Willie, at pre-K and found him wrangling with a boy who had recently joined his class. “Because he’s the new kid,” he replied.

“Did he take something of yours or hit you first?” I asked.

“No, Mommy,” Willie said, shrugging. “He’s new, so I just don’t like him.”

Visions of Willie clad in leg-irons and one of those orange jumpsuits so favored by penitentiaries danced in my head. Recent news reports of violent teens, even 7- and 8-year-olds, came to mind. It was no comfort that Willie had recently lost all interest in cozy stories about Pooh in favor of books about guns and swords. He’d use any surrogate weapon, from a spoon to the cordless phone, to slay imaginary bad guys. Both my husband and my father reassured me that this was perfectly normal for a preschool boy, but Willie’s behavior still bothered me-and I wanted ways to halt the hitting.

The fact is that aggression often increases when children grow from toddlers to preschoolers, and it’s an expression of their desire to be in control, says Claire B. Kopp, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, California. “Boys, especially, are fascinated with games and toys that make them feel powerful.” In addition, a clearer sense of who they are and what belongs to them can precipitate more clashes over turf, whether it concerns a toy that two kids want or a new child’s incursion into the classroom.

“A lot of aggression at this age is only symbolic,” says Jay Belsky, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, in State College. Kids don’t usually try to hurt each other when they’re pretending to be Power Rangers; acting out the fighting without really touching is a way to vent negative feelings. It’s counterproductive (and probably impossible) to prohibit such play, but you should separate children anytime the attacks become real.

When 3- and 4-year-olds actually hit each other, it’s usually because they still have trouble controlling their impulses. Dr. Kopp’s research has found that one of the toughest tasks for kids this age is handling their anger. They may know that they’re supposed to “use their words,” but it’s hard to do when they’re very upset. In addition, preschoolers are just beginning to develop a sense of empathy, so they don’t automatically think about whether kicking a playmate would hurt him, notes Dr. Belsky.

Preschoolers are also learning that words can wound just like weapons can, notes Lisa Altshuler, Ph.D., chief of behavioral pediatrics at Maimonides Medical Center, in Brooklyn. “This is when ‘You’re stupid’ and ‘I’m not your friend’ start,” she says. Generally, girls are more likely than boys to channel their aggression into verbal displays of power. My daughter Elisabeth, for instance, often scolds her dolls and gives them time-outs.

Boys, on the other hand, focus on fantasy play involving good guys versus bad guys-and mothers in particular tend to worry about sanctioning super- heroes. “My fear is that they will see violence as something fun,” says Laura Stavoe Harm, of Boise, Idaho, about her 3-year-old twins, Dylan and Gabe.

One way to help prevent these play patterns from becoming ingrained is to limit TV time to one to two hours of quality programming a day, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Other than public-television programs, many kids’ shows contain violence, and studies have found that regularly watching such programs leads to an increase in aggressive behavior.

It’s rare that a pre-schooler’s aggression signals a serious emotional problem. However, consult your pediatrician if your child frequently hurts other children, harms animals, or can’t calm down within a few minutes. For most children this age, however, occasional aggressiveness is a sign of a normal need to feel powerful, competent, and in charge of their world. Here’s how you can help your preschooler learn what types of behaviors are appropriate:

Distinguish fantasy play from violence. When Zorro Jr. doesn’t just brandish his sword but starts bopping friends over the head with it as well, take it away and explain why (“Toys are to pretend with, not for really hurting people”). Encourage your child to tell a grown-up rather than hit back if another child hits him first.

Emphasize the difference between feelings and actions. (“It’s okay for you to be angry, but you can’t hurt another person or throw toys.”) If the aggression comes out as teasing or bossiness, explain that words can hurt people’s feelings.

Anticipate wildness. Preschoolers need to be reminded to control their impulses. Play wrestling may be okay, but if you know from experience that it tends to spiral out of control, separate the kids and ask, “Why am I stopping you?” If they don’t know, tell them it’s because they’re getting too wound up and might get hurt. Have a discussion after your child has calmed down. If a fight breaks out, separate the children but wait until you’re alone with your child later to talk about it. Then ask, “What else could you do when you and Nick both want to play with the same thing?” Help him think about ways they might compromise and take turns.

Finally, when your child gets that wild glint in his eye, remember that with guidance, most preschoolers learn that it’s unacceptable to physically dominate others. Willie quickly gave up his turf battle with Michael, the “new kid.” Today, they’re great friends- a dynamic duo who spend afternoons fighting imaginary bad guys together instead of each other.