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An only child is aggressive with other children at school

by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

See Aletha Solter's books, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, and Attachment Play, for more information about dealing with children's anger and aggression.

Question:

My son is six years old and an only child. We have always taught him to use his words, and that hitting does not solve a problem. Recently his teacher expressed that he was becoming more aggressive towards other children in class. We do not see this at home with us or when he has a friend over. He has always played well with other children. Can you give us some strategies for helping him?

Answer:

Children without siblings sometimes have trouble getting along with other children because they don't have the daily learning experience at home of handling conflicts with their peers. When there are siblings, they learn to share earlier, take turns, and be aware of other people's needs and feelings. You wrote that your son plays nicely with other children at home. I recommend that you keep inviting other children over to play with him, perhaps children from your son's class (one at a time), so he can establish individual relationships with them.

However, when children hit or bite other children, it is usually an indication that they are feeling anxious, insecure, or threatened in some way. It is difficult to change aggressive behavior without addressing the underlying causes. I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions:

School situation:

Is he having some social problems with other children? For example, are they excluding him from their play or teasing him? Has he been hit by other children? Is he having trouble keeping up with the demands of school? Is he feeling pressured to perform beyond his capacities? Is the teacher a harsh disciplinarian? Has there been a substitute teacher? Are the instructional methods a bad "fit" with his particular learning style? Is the school environment overstimulating for him?

Home situation:

Was there a stressful event at home that coincided with the beginning of your son's aggressive behavior (for example, marital problems, loss of a job, illness, mother's pregnancy, death in the family, etc.)? Has there been a change in his life (for example, in his after-school caretaking arrangements)? Has he recently heard about something frightening or seen a frightening or violent film? Have you been spending less time with him than usual? Have you or someone else used harsh discipline with him?

If there is something stressful at home that you suspect contributes to your son's behavior, then you can look for ways to reduce stress or to help him cope with it. If nothing has changed recently at home, I suggest that you talk with your son's teacher to figure out what might be causing him to act aggressively at school. You can also spend a day observing him at school. This will give you first-hand information about the kind of environment he is dealing with there, including the teacher's discipline style.

Consider also talking with your son about this problem. Perhaps he has some insights to share with you about why he hits other children. Maybe it's one particular child who provokes him in some way. Listen to him carefully and non-judgmentally when he talks about what happens at school.

Finally, allow your son to cry at home as much as he needs to. Don't try to stop the flow of tears or angry outbursts, if he needs to have a temper tantrum. Crying is a healthy outlet for pent-up emotions, and it should never be stopped. The more your son is able to cry freely at home, the less aggressive he will be.

Related articles

Understanding tears and tantrums
What causes violence
Breaking the cycle of violence: an interview with Aletha Solter


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Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.

Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.

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This page was last updated on March 5, 2013. Copyright © 1998, 2003 by Aletha Solter. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical (including copying to other web sites, and including translations), without written permission from Aletha Solter.

Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. When babies display emotional, behavioral, or medical problems of any kind, parents are strongly advised to seek competent medical advice and treatment. Some of the suggestions in this article may be inappropriate for babies suffering from certain emotional, behavioral, or physical problems. Aletha Solter, The Aware Parenting Institute, and Shining Star Press shall have neither liability nor responsibility to any person or entity with respect to any damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the information contained in this article.