Aggressive or Self-Assertive?

Recently I heard two different concerns from two mothers about two different children.  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.

Of course aggression can have two different meanings.  Sometimes it implies hostile behavior, while at other times we use it to mean 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.  Mothers sometimes 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 looking at it through an adult lens.  Mothers have often expressed to me the fear that a child who seems to be striking out at others may become a bully, or who knows what else by the time he is older.   In their minds, hitting or pushing another child is transformed into adult behavior, and seems to call for a harsh adult response.

In fact, in young children, much of this behavior is simply part of social learning.  For aggressive behavior can have somewhat different meanings at different stages of development.  Toddlers who are not yet speaking often make social approaches by holding onto another child’s hair, or grabbing at a face.  They are interested in making contact and haven’t yet learned that their friendly intent won’t be interpreted that way.

Young children are not at all clear about “yours” and “mine”.  If a toy is lying nearby,  you just take it to play with.  Even if another child is holding something that you want to use, a struggle may ensue to take it.  Children who are not yet adept at social approaches sometimes try to enter the play of other children in ways that seem aggressive.  A child may knock 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 help children become more successful in getting along with others.  Just reprimanding children doesn’t solve the problem.  We need to teach them better ways to achieve their goals.

Children are often not at all clear themselves about what went wrong in interactions with others.  For example, 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.

In the same way, if we want to teach children about sharing, we really have to help to bring it about.  If two children want to play with the same toy, we need to make sure they each get their turn.  If we want to teach our children to respect the rights of others, we have to be clear about protecting their rights as well.  On the other hand, when children take things from each other, that may offer us an opportunity to help children learn the added benefit that can come from playing with something together.

Children striking out at others in anger may need a different kind of learning.  Mothers often say to me, “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 of development that continues well beyond acquiring words and understanding the words of others. Sometimes it is a struggle even for adults – think “road rage”.

Of course it is because loss of control seems dangerous that mothers have anxiety about children’s aggressive behavior.  When children express their anger in direct and 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.  Mothers have told me they at times have even worried about hurting their own children when they are so angry they feel out of control themselves.

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.  In some situations, that may mean actually providing the control they lack.  It may mean 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.  When possible, what can be most helpful is addressing the situation that prompted the angry response to begin with. 

In responding to aggressive behavior, it may help 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.