If you interact with children and youth—for example, as a parent, teacher or front-line worker—you’ll likely face aggressive behaviour. Some strategies described below can help you diffuse a situation or calm a young person. Other strategies are helpful after the incident, when it is important to find out what brought on the behaviour so you can address the cause.
Control your body language and tone of voice. Make sure your body language and tone of voice do not contradict your verbal message.
Stay calm. Focus on letting the person know that you care about him or her, are concerned about what is happening and are there to help. Don’t try to solve the problem or conflict that led to the aggressive behaviour while a young person is acting aggressively toward you.
Offer a way out. Offer a young person a way out of the situation. Give clear choices, with safe limitations. In this way, you allow the young person to retain a feeling of control along with his or her self-esteem.
Discourage bystanders. When a young person is acting out, ask peers who may be watching to leave the setting and continue with their activities.
Don’t make threats. Don’t give warnings about consequences that you are not prepared to follow through on or that are unreasonably severe.
Don’t make generalizations. Saying, “You always do this when . . .” reinforces negative behaviours.
Wait for the right moment. Wait until after an incident involving aggression is over, when everyone has calmed down, to talk to a young person about inappropriate behaviours.
Maintain safety. Make sure that everyone present during an incident involving aggression is safe at all times. If you can’t control the situation, call for help.
Deal appropriately with threats. In most cases, children or youth who make threats don’t carry them out. Your main goal will be to get a young person making threats to focus on the way he or she is feeling, and to keep them away from any target of aggression. Keep in mind that young people who have behaved aggressively, damaged property, set fires, harmed ani?mals or shown other conduct problems in the past are more likely to carry out a threat.
Note: Get help as quickly as possible if a young person threatens to damage or destroy property; or hurt or kill himself or herself or someone else.
When is aggression a concern?
If you are trying to determine whether or not a young person has a serious problem with aggression, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the behaviour occur regularly (that is, every day, every week or every month)?
- Has the young person been behaving aggressively for a long time?
- Are you concerned about the young person’s behaviour for any other reasons besides aggression?
- Does the behaviour persist or appear to be getting worse?
- Does the young person explode at situations that don’t bother other young people—or for no obvious reason?
- Is it difficult to calm the young person down after an outburst?
- Has the young person injured himself or herself or anyone else?
- Does the young person’s behaviour lead to conflicts with parents, siblings, peers or teachers?
- Do all the young person’s friends behave aggressively or anti-socially?
The earlier a young person with an aggression problem is identified and receives help, the greater the chance that the chosen treatment will have lasting benefits.
Adapted from Acting Out: Understanding and Reducing Aggressive Behaviour in Children and Youth (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2007).
Where can I find help, treatment and support for aggression in children and youth?