Aggressive 4-year-old

I have a 4-year-old (will be 5 in August) and he hits, pinches, shoves, calls names, and occasionally bites his sister, myself and friends. He seems to get so frustrated and angry and lashes out physically at them. I have tried time out, spanking, etc and nothing has worked. I am at the end of my rope! I don't know what else to do.
Worried Mom

Dear Worried Mom,

It does sound like you have a little one that for whatever reason is running on a somewhat short fuse in the self-control department. He also may have some underlying anger that he is carrying around with him. For example, a child who has just acquired a new sibling, moved to a new house, witnessed excessive tension and fighting of his parents, or suffered a loss or serious illness in the family may act out his feelings with aggressive, angry behavior towards others.

If you feel there is a reason for his behavior, other than just his personality or temperament, please consider seeking professional counseling to help identify and address the problem. Keep in mind that biting is most prevalent in 2 and 3 year olds. This behavior often coincides with the development of language as well as the initial feelings of struggling to be independent. Repeated biting at the age of 4 or 5 needs to be evaluated to determine the cause. It then can be addressed effectively and eliminated.

Here are some general things you can try to improve your son’s behavior. First, realize that the least effective "teachable moment" is when he is very angry and lashing out at you. No one feels like listening at that moment. What you do have to do is stop the undesirable or dangerous behavior. I suggest you restrain the child in a "hug hold" from behind by placing your arms under his arms and securely around his chest. This position allows you to have pretty much control over his body, while minimizing eye contact, and the chances of getting kicked, scratched, and further attacked by the angry child. The hug hold also enables you to get close to his ear and say something helpful (without screaming) directly into his ear. I suggest you say, "Time out for pinching." Then repeat the rule, "No pinching in our house." You might add, "Pinching hurts others." Then say, "Time out is over," as you release the child from the hug hold. Tell him that pinching you was a bad choice and that you will talk about it again, later (when the child is calmer and more receptive to listening and learning).

At bedtime you could talk about what happened earlier. Maybe your son will be able to verbalize what was making him really angry at that time. With his input, you will then be better able to address the situation and keep it from happening again. You might consider "role playing" the incident. Maybe you can switch roles; you become your son and he will pretend to be you, or use stuffed animals to invite your son to show how angry "Mr. Teddy Bear" can talk to you without pinching you. When the child is asked to help solve the problem for next time, in the heat of the moment, he is more likely to stop, or avoid doing the bad behavior. So encourage your son to talk about what he could do the next time he feels so angry.

Some families have acceptable "angry activities" available in the room that their children can use when they become angry. Some suggestions are: using a pillow to pound, drawing angry pictures with a red "angry" crayon (on the floor in the corner of the room), entering the closet (keeping the door open) and yelling a word (repeatedly) as loud as he wants that you have predetermined is okay to use, and hammering the large pegs from one side of a toy workbench to the other (a pre-school toy). These ideas are far more effective if you set the example and resort to using them when YOU are feeling angry. Go over these options many times with your children during quiet moments.

Another technique that is effective is to give your immediate attention to the victim, not the aggressor. This is very difficult to do, because you are so mad at the "bully" and you want to let him know that right away. But, since children want your attention, and if the can’t get positive attention they will resort to negative attention. The aggressor actually welcomes your screaming, scolding, lectures, etc. So try to say to the little sister who has just been bitten, "Ouch! Biting really hurts. Let’s go wash it off together." Later on you can ask your son if he can think of a way to help his little sister feel better. This is a good exercise in teaching empathy. You can help if he can’t think of anything, but he usually can. (For example he might say, "I’ll go get her favorite dolly.")

You also want to take the time to specifically compliment good behavior when you see it. Say things like, "I noticed how kind you were…or how patient you were, or how polite you were with your sister when she took so long to make up her mind." We tend to forget how powerful praise is in getting compliance as well as teaching a lesson. After all, think how you felt when your boss took the time to say something nice to you rather than just tell you everything that you were doing wrong. It probably encouraged you to keep up the good work…right? Remember, that disciplining your child (teaching right from wrong) is a process. Hang in there…this physically aggressive stage shall pass!

Please feel free to call our telephone "warmline" at (847) 675-3555 for more ideas.


Gail Reichlin