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Aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents

There are phases in every child’s and youth life where they show some aggressive traits more as usual. After all the body mind and soul of the growing person is at different stages of development and that brings its own problems.

Aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents
Aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents | ©: bramgino - Fotolia

However, if the aggressive behaviour is lasting it should be scrutinized, and appropriate actions need to be taken. Parents and teachers alike are asked to draw on their life and work experience. Sometimes though, professional help will be required, for example from a psychologist to help the young person to regain emotional balance.

The manifestations, as well as the causes of adolescent's aggression, can be very different. Important: In this context, when we talk about aggressive behaviour, we mean if the behavioural problems show over a longer period or exceed a normal acceptable amount.

It can be said: Aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents is always a sign of helplessness and hopelessness. It is, so to speak, the last attempt to make a seemingly hopeless situation known while screaming for help. In recent years, it has become apparent that the aggressiveness among children and adolescents is becoming more common place as well as more distinct. Therefore, the whole issue can be interpreted as a cry for help by an entire generation in a changing society including its parents, teachers and educators.

Aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents
Aggressive behaviour in children | ©: valiza14 - Fotolia

Manifestations of aggressiveness

Aggressiveness in children and adolescents can manifest in various forms; combinations of several forms are not unheard. For example, verbally aggressive children often show a tendency to physical aggression. Nevertheless, you should first put an emphasis on the individual form(s) of aggressiveness at hand.

Verbal aggression

Verbal aggression in children and adolescents may show towards peers, parents, educators and the general public. The child or young person insults or slanders his opponent, often using expletives, which significance they not yet understood in detail.

Physical aggression

Pushing, kicking, biting, hitting or throwing things - there are many forms of physical aggression in children and adolescents. These physical aggressions are often directed against their peers or younger kids, who are supposedly weaker. Compared to adults, physical aggression in youth is rather rare.

Aggression against animals

Although most children love animals and quickly build a special bond with them, it is not uncommon to see aggression towards animals. As a rule of the thumb, the animal is the "placeholder" if the child cannot find another outlet for his aggressions elsewhere.

Aggression towards objects

Even objects serve the young person as a valve to get rid of their aggressions. Either the object in question is thereby vandalized, or misused as a kind of weapon (for example if things are thrown through the air and aimed at another person).

Motivations and causes of aggression in children and adolescents

Aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents
Aggressive behaviour in youth | ©: Monkey Business - Fotolia

We need to make a distinction between motivations and causes of aggression in children and adolescents. While the motivation can be understood as the immediate trigger, the cause is much deeper. Therefore, the young person looks for a reason to escalate. For example, frustration is a common motivation triggering aggressive behaviour. However, this experienced frustration has a deeper cause. This could, just to mention one, be too little attention by their parents or his entire environment.

Before we get to the causes, there are still some other reasons, which trigger aggression in children and adolescents. Such are physical, mental or emotional distress, disorientation, neglect, insults and emotional hurt, fear, insecurity or perceived and experienced injustice.

Causes of aggression in children and adolescents

As varied as the reasons for aggression so are also their causes. Here, we will discuss the most commonly and most encountered reasons for aggression in a summarised form:

The social environment

Children learn through their social environment. This includes parents, friends, relatives, neighbours and more. If aggressiveness prevails in this environment, it can easily be transferred to the child.


It is striking that especially children with developmental disabilities tend to aggressiveness. If the child, for example, has a speech disorder, the frustration of not being able to express them sufficiently can turn into verbal aggression.

Psychological factors

learn to understand children and youth
learn to understand children and youth | ©: Fotozwerge - Fotolia

The psyche has a decisive influence on the degree of the aggressiveness in the child. Children and adolescents with mental health problems, such as depression, ADHD, etc., therefore, tend to more aggression the children without mental health issues.

Biological causes

Hormonal imbalances and a lack of certain neurotransmitters can promote aggressive behaviour in children and adolescents.

Tips for dealing with aggressive youth

It is foremost parents who are asked to step up to the challenge when dealing with aggressive children and adolescents. They are the role model; the place children look first to determine how they are doing. This also means: If parents are not able to resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression and violence, the chances are, the child won’t either. It is paramount for all conflict resolution to find a dialogue and to be prepared to make necessary compromises. Providing a diverse and healthy social environment, for example, joining clubs and interest groups as well as volunteer work is a barrier for aggressiveness to grow. Children and adolescents, who are involved in such activities, are less likely prone to aggressiveness.

Here are some more, some practical tips if your child displays aggressive behaviour:

  • Try to find the right balance in your parenting style – not too strict nor too lax and certainly not too much liberation either.

  • Try to allow your child to break free from an oppressive situation. For example, let him live with another relative if the relationship to your child is severely traumatized. Another method to diffuse the situation would be a distraction. Get your child busy with an exciting activity. Those things can make a big difference.

  • Try to introduce a reward system for appropriate behaviour.

  • Provide your child with rest, opportunities to relax so that it can escape the exposure of external stimuli.

  • Try not to rationalize and discuss the situation with your child (while you both) are angry. Before you start any discussion, both parties should be calm and settled.

  • Equally never tell your child to stay calm in the midst of a meltdown it would only aggravate the situation.

  • Children and adolescents who use their aggressive behaviour to attract attention it might be the best to ignore such tantrums. At least to some degree.

  • Games such as the good old parchesi-you-not can help to ensure that children and young people can better deal with defeat and frustration.

  • Sometimes it will pay to change the school or kindergarten when you suspect aggressiveness in either environment of your child.

Professional solutions and other options to support your child

If all solving approaches fail, you need to consider professional help for your aggressive child or teen. These can take place in from of a psychotherapist who tailors a suitable behavioural therapy for each client. Another option could be in the form of prescription drugs for hormonal mood swings and other ailments. This means that most likely a general practitioner or paediatrician has to be consulted as well.


No child or adolescent is aggressive for no reason. There are always motives and causes underneath the surface. Once you have found those causes, you can look for the solution. If parents, teachers and the entire community work closely together and pursue a sensible strategy, usually you can get a good grip on this problem.

Dealing with aggressive youth - what does it mean for the youth worker?

Whoever is involved in youth work will inevitably be confronted with young people who, compared to others, show very aggressive behaviour. And a quite a few of them will be feared by others because one wrong word could mean a black eye.

However, whoever tries to listen to those young people and makes the effort to find a dialogue, builds trusting relationships will find that there is a lot be learned from young people. He will learn about their innermost fears and needs. Even, on the surface they may appear cool and powerful – inside they are soft, hurt and are looking for help.

Once, I was dealing with a young person who was, so to speak, a permanent guest at the local police station. The responsible officer certified, that if I didn’t show such intensive and caring interest in this young man he most certainly would have come off the rails.

And really, it was that simple: The outwardly shown aggressiveness only hid his inner insecurity.

  • These young people seek help. - They are looking for people who understand them rather than leaving them - out of fear - behind.

  • A youth leader who can see "behind the facade" and reaches out to those young people will not be fooled.

  • Trust, active listening and being a helping friend - without a moralizing attitude are what is needed here.

  • However, consistency is also necessary. Clear rules and guidelines, which are fair and easy to understand and are consistently implemented will help to give the young person direction.

  • Giving the above mentioned young person responsibility and putting the necessary confidence him to succeed was another way to help him. If his parents have no confidence in their youngsters and only criticise them, how can they ever find confidence within themselves? How can they ever proof to him what he is capable? Inevitably, he must feel like the eternal loser.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is not uncommon that those aggressive youths are labelled as troublemakers and attempts are made to dismiss him from the youth group. That’s definitely the easier way and last, but not least maybe the youth worker even has learned that the one who does not fit in has to leave. Maybe even a hasty judgment is passed and the young person in labelled with ADHD.

My thinking is a little different. We cannot allow ourselves to judge. Do we really know the teen? Do we know his family? The circumstances in which he grew up? What did he have experienced as a young child? Why did he develop this particular way and did not find another way to defend him? There are a thousand questions I cannot answer here. How quickly are we to pass judgments and label this person? The one thing, which most people not even see is, that our value judgments and the way we treat those young people are closely related to the way we grew up. – Fitting in, ducking, making yourself small and try to function in any way possible.

My experience taught me that getting to know those supposedly difficult young people and lending them a helping hand in the form of trusting dialogue, then often this aggressive behaviour was not longer necessary.

In one of those in-depth conversations a boy once mentioned, that he would not need any friends anyway. I answered him that I think that he might need friends and certainly wishes to have some friends. As a response, he burst into tears and admitted, that he didn’t want to act the way he did. All he wanted was to have friends. That brought it all to the point. As mentioned at the beginning: aggressiveness in young people is a cry for help. Based on their history they have learned the only way to get attention is through their aggressive behaviour and a super-cool demeanour. All that those young people want is to be accepted, being taken seriously while looking for reliable friends. Youth work gives us plenty of options to support those young people and offer our help. We just have to engage with them, which is not always easy and we have to be prepared for the odd setback.

I received this feedback from a site visitor:

“What if a child does not behave and even more so, does not respond according to the textbook? What do you do with such a child that only assaults staff and other young people in the house sets car and house on fire ...... the list with her is endless. You try to reach out to her in the best possible way, and she spits at you – the best. More likely she throws something at you, grabs your hair and bangs your head against the wall as long as she can. Then you call the police; she gets a slap on the wrist – and in a few hours we do it all again. What is the solution then? Not easy – teen or staff!”

Indeed, this is a difficult question where every person meets his limits, particular if you are working as a volunteer. In a situation like the one above all that can be done, and this with the emphasis on self-protection, would be to ban the child from coming any longer. Violent youth as such should receive specialized therapy, accompanied by professional staff. Unfortunately, youth welfare is lacking the needed funds to commit extreme violent youth to an appropriate psychiatric- or youth institution. Doing nothing is much cheaper or leave the young person in parental care. The chances are that the parents are overwhelmed by the behaviour of their offspring as well. Once again, the young person is left to his own devices. A vicious circle has begun.

[ © | 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work ] - 2000 Games and Ideas for Youth Work
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