Aggression is an action or threat of action that is intended to harm another person, either physically or psychologically. Aggression in young people is an important social issue. Children and youth who behave aggressively may harm not only themselves, but also their families, their communities and society at large.
Research shows us children with serious aggression problems are more likely to develop other mental health or problematic substance use issues—and as adults they are more likely to engage in acts of violence.
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.
Types of aggression
The best way to reduce incidents of aggression among children and young people is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Successfully discouraging aggressive behaviour in young people involves building solid and appropriate relationships with them, and creating a structured and secure environment.
The following are a number of tips for preventing aggression:
If you are trying to determine whether or not a young person has a serious problem with aggression, ask yourself the following questions:
There isn’t a simple reason why someone behaves aggressively. However, we do know there are characteristics of children, young people, their families and their environments that can either increase (risk factors) or decrease (protective factors) the likelihood they will display aggressive behaviour. Working to minimize risk factors and enhance protective factors can help reduce or eliminate aggressive behavior.
Family risk factors
Family protective factors
Environmental risk factors
Environmental protective factors
If you interact with children and young people—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 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 young people 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 animals 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.
Adapted from Acting Out: Understanding and Reducing Aggressive Behaviour in Children and Youth (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2007).
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