Should we worry about aggressive behaviour?

The seriousness and frequency of aggressive acts is what differentiates a child that acts “normally” from a child with a chronic behavioural problem. Should we be worried about it?

What do we know?
  • A mother’s stress, the use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco during pregnancy, and problems at birth of the baby can lead to antisocial behaviours.
  • Both the environment and a child’s parents play a crucial role in reducing the frequency of aggressive behaviours after the age of 3.
  • Persistent aggressiveness in early childhood (after 3-4 years) can mean chronic adjustment problems in adolescence.
  • Aggressive behaviours are a chronic problem for a small number of children who use such behaviours (5 to 10%).
  • The seriousness and frequency of aggression are what set apart children who behave normally from children with a chronic behaviour problem.
  • Characteristics that you inherit from your parents can explain a lot about why certain children use more or less physical aggression in early childhood.
  • Extreme or inconsistent punishment encourages aggressive behaviours as much as any lack of discipline.
  • Friends’ rejection and problems with language contribute to the persistence of aggressive behaviours in children.
  • Regrouping children who have problems only makes their behaviour worse.
Paying attention to...
  • the frequency of aggressive behaviours.
  • the disciplinary approach adopted.
  • the continuity of interventions made by different adults.
  • the supervision provided by adults.
  • the reactions of adults.
  • the reactions of other children.
  • the organization of the living environment.
  • other problems presented by the child.
What can be done?
  • Check whether the frequency of the aggressive behaviours is normal given the age of the child (see Understanding aggressive behaviours).
  • Avoid authoritarian and excessive punishments (see Understanding aggressive behaviours).
  • Develop the child’s sensitivity to others and his/her ability to control anger.
  • Work with other adults to have the same expectations and use consistent discipline.
  • Make sure there is enough supervision.
  • Check to see if the use of aggression is encouraged, excused or tolerated in the child’s environment.
  • Avoid putting children with behaviour problems in the same group.
  • Check that the living environment is adapted to the child.
  • See a professional in cases of language problems or rejection by friends or adults.

This article is a publication from the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development.

The Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development identifies and summarizes the best scientific work on the social and emotional development of young children. It disseminates this knowledge to a variety of audiences in formats and languages adapted to their needs.

For a more in-depth understanding of aggression in early childhood, consult our experts’ articles in the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.

Aggressive behaviours (2): When should we be worried? In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, Boivin M, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development; 2007. Available here. Accessed September 2010.

Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development (CEECD)

The mandate of the CEECD is to foster the dissemination of scientific knowledge on the development of young children with an emphasis, but not exclusively, on the social and emotional development and on the services and policies that influence this development.

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