Understanding aggressive behaviour

Early childhood is a critical period for learning how to control aggressive behaviours. And it is possible to intervene at the right time to channel these behaviours

What do we know?
  • The brain’s ability to control aggressive behaviours depends on the quality of prenatal care and on care the child receives in early childhood (0 to 5 years).
  • Early childhood is a critical period for learning to control aggressive behaviours.
  • From the age of 2 months, infants display bad temper. Most babies will bite, hit or pull hair as soon as they are able to.
  • Before the age of 3 most boys and girls will use physical aggression.
  • These behaviours are most frequent between the ages of 2 and 3.
  • Children use physical aggression when they have strong emotions (such as anger) or simply as a way to get what they want.
  • Little girls stop using physical aggression sooner than do boys.
  • Little girls use indirect aggression (for example, say bad things about a friend) sooner and more frequently than boys.
  • Once children have developed language and social skills, most of them will no longer use physical aggression by the time they enter school.
Paying attention to...
  • the quality of lifestyle during pregnancy.
  • the quality of care that helps the baby’s brain to develop normally.
  • how others react to the child’s aggression (for example, laughing, tolerance, etc.).
  • what form the aggression takes – physical, verbal, or indirect.
  • the emotions that trigger the young child’s aggressive behaviours.
  • the disciplinary approach adopted.
  • what the child receives as a result of aggressive behaviours.
What can be done?
  • Avoid stress and stay away from smoking, alcohol and other toxic substances during pregnancy.
  • Choose a child-care environment that provides effective care and stimulation for infants.
  • Make sure that interactions between small children are closely supervised.
  • Explain clear rules to discourage aggressive behaviours.
  • Encourage the child to express emotions verbally and to develop sensitivity to others.
  • Apply age-appropriate punishments that promote learning (for example, consoling the victim, repairing any damage done, saying sorry to each other, etc.).
  • Help the child find other ways besides aggression to get what he or she wants.
  • Make sure that the child does not benefit from the aggressive behaviour in any way.

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 (1): Better management through understanding. In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, Boivin M, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. 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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