How to Deal with Aggressive Behavior (Part One)

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Let's face it. Aggressive behavior is not fun to deal with and especially when you see it in your child. For many parents who have children with ADHD, autism or other related disorders, aggressive behavior may not be so uncommon. But it is something that parents may be reluctant to talk about for fear that they or their child will be judged. I am sure many of you have gotten well meaning advice that all your child needs is more discipline. But it is never that black and white. There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with aggressive behavior. I want to encourage parents who are dealing with your child's aggressive behaviors to be able to find support here. Let's talk about this openly and have an honest discussion without the fear of being judged. You are among friends here.

Our Experience

We have been very fortunate in that we did not see many aggressive behaviors in our son for most of his childhood years. But all that seemed to change when he turned fourteen. That seemed to be the "magical" age when we saw his testosterone kick in and he was just not able to handle it very well without some help. The teen years can be hard for any kid. But you take a kid who has symptoms of ADHD such as the inattention, hyperactivity, and especially the impulsivity and you add some teenage hormones to the mix and there is the potential for some interesting behaviors to develop. What had been silly or attention getting behaviors in the past were turning into aggressive behaviors much to our dismay. It has not been easy and it didn't happen overnight but we have used some strategies which were effective in greatly decreasing my son's acting out behaviors. In this post we will talk about the factors which may contribute to aggressive behavior. In Part Two of this series I will give you some ideas of how to decrease these behaviors.

What is aggressive behavior?

I think we all know what it is but just to make sure I will list some of the behaviors usually considered to be aggressive. Aggressive behavior can include anything from hitting, kicking, biting, scratching, pushing, pinching, throwing objects or any other action which is likely to hurt someone else. Your child may also engage in verbal aggression such as swearing, calling people names, or yelling.

I have written about some of these behaviors in the following articles.

Contributing Factors for Aggressive Behavior

I have said it before and I will say it again. Anytime you are dealing with a behavior problem it is imperative that you take some data about that behavior. The ABC or Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence recording system is an easy way to keep track of the behaviors you are looking at and to also look for patterns. Aggressive behavior doesn't occur in a vacuum.

There may be some underlying causes or conditions which may make aggression more likely and they include:

  • Anxiety

Show me a child who is exhibiting aggressive behaviors and you will probably also be showing me a child who suffers from some sort of anxiety. Anxiety   is a common co-morbid condition to both ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. When one suffers from anxiety the flight-fight response may be operating on a hair trigger. I have found that what would once cause my son to want to run away or shut down, may now cause him to feel agitated and want to lash out. The trick is to figure out what is causing the anxiety in the first place.

  • Sensory Integration Disorder

Many children who have either ADHD or autism may also have what is called sensory integration disorder. I have written about this disorder in a previous post and it is defined as a disorder where the child has a problem with processing incoming stimuli to their senses. For example some kids may be averse to certain types of touch. For others certain sounds may be painful. The world can be potentially full of these frightening or irritating stimuli. Your child may react aggressively in reaction to a sensory experience they cannot handle such as another child tickling them or someone yelling. Another child may feel threatened if someone invades their personal space and may lash out. If a sensory integration disorder is an underlying source of frustration for your child, therapy for this disorder may help to reduce aggressive behaviors.

  • An inability to deal with anger and frustration

Life is always full of disappointments and irritations. Something breaks. Something doesn't work as expected. Someone cuts in line in front of us. We make a mistake. Someone criticizes us. We all have to deal with such events in our daily lives. But for the child who has symptoms of ADHD, feelings of anger and frustration can escalate from zero to a hundred in a heartbeat. They may feel unable to cope with extreme emotion. In addition, children who suffer from the symptom of impulsivity may lack the control to think about their feelings before they act upon them. This is a skill which must be painstakingly taught.

  • Lack of response to consequences This ties in with the symptom of impulsivity that a child may not think through their actions to foresee the possible consequences. In a previous post I wrote about when rewards and punishments don't work. For some kids you can tell them until you are blue in the face about potential consequences or punishments for inappropriate behavior. But they still aren't getting it. The impulsivity can over ride the thought process to stop and think before acting. They may also have trouble with something called theory of mind and which is the ability to predict what other people will think or feel. Empathy is part of theory of mind and means you are able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel what they may be feeling. The child with ADHD may have difficulty to stall their actions in order to think about consequences including how other people may feel.

These contributing factors and conditions are not excuses for aggressive behavior. They merely provide a starting point for you to understand how to decrease such behaviors. I am a firm believer that you stand a much better chance at decreasing negative behaviors if you know which conditions are making it more likely that these behaviors will occur.

I strongly recommend taking data to look for behavioral patterns. Ask yourself what is fueling this behavior? Under which conditions do we see more aggression? Which symptoms of ADHD or a co-morbid disorder may be contributing to the aggression?

Stay tuned for my next post where we talk about ways to prevent and decrease aggressive behavior. If you have any suggestions or tips based upon your experience we want to hear them. Your input is of great value to us.