Two mothers expressed different concerns about their children’s aggression. One mother was worried about her son being aggressive toward other children. The other mother was concerned about her daughter not being aggressive enough. Aggression seems to be something we feel two ways about – we admire it in some situations and don’t like it in others.

Aggression sometimes implies hostile behavior, while at other times it means being self-assertive. We want children to be able to assert themselves, to use initiative and imagination. What we don’t want is for them to assert themselves through behavior we don’t like. But we also seem to be concerned if they are not self-assertive enough. Parents may find themselves giving two messages: don’t hit or attack others, but “stand up” to others who take your toys away, and fight back if you are hit.

Part of the strong reaction to aggressive behavior in young children comes from seeing it through an adult lens, the fear that a child who is striking out at others may become a bully. Hitting or pushing another child is transformed into adult behavior and then seems to call for a harsh adult response.

But aggressive behavior can have somewhat different meanings at different stages of development. Toddlers who are not yet speaking often try to make social approaches by grabbing another child’s hair, or face. Young children are not at all clear about “yours” and “mine”. If a toy is lying nearby, you take it to play with. Children who are not yet adept at social approaches sometimes try to join the play of other children in ways that seem aggressive, like knocking down another child’s building, or take a piece of a game someone is playing.

If we understand the meaning of this behavior, it gives us a way to teach children better ways to achieve their goals. Children are often not clear themselves about what went wrong in interactions with others. We can help a child who is being disruptive to the play of others by clarifying for him and even for the others, that he really would like to join them, and then if possible, help accomplish that outcome.

Children striking out at others in anger may need a different kind of learning. Parents often say, “I know he understands, why does he keep doing that?” Controlling the impulse to strike out when one is angry or frustrated is an ongoing struggle in development that continues well beyond acquiring words and understanding the words of others. Sometimes it is a struggle even for adults – think “road rage”.

It is because loss of control seems dangerous that parents have anxiety about children’s aggressive behavior. When children express their anger in primitive ways, it can make us feel angry in turn. Our own anger feels scary because an adult’s loss of control might have serious consequences. But our children are not us. Most of us have developed the ability to control our impulses, and we can help our children while they are developing those controls. That may mean providing the control they lack, being proactive, being alert to situations that we know will cause difficulty for a child. It also may mean removing a child from a situation that is too hard for him to remain in.

In responding to aggressive behavior, it helps to remember that both anger and aggression play an important part in developing independence, in growing up and eventually separating from parents. The challenge for us as parents is to support our children’s developing capacity for self-assertion, while teaching acceptable ways of expressing it.