And those problems persist as the children grow, he said. “Although aggression is normative, some kids do it a lot more than others,” Dr. Lorber said. “The kids who are really high frequency — it’s happening every day, multiple behaviors are happening every day — those are probably the kids who have passed some threshold where that would warrant special additional attention like referrals to parenting intervention services.” They should also be evaluated to make sure that nothing else is going on, from a physical problem causing pain and irritability to an impairment in hearing or speech causing frustration.
Dr. Anderson said that aggressive behavior in children at the extreme can be one symptom of a behavior disorder. The important questions in separating out normal (if unpleasant) behavior from a disorder include the frequency, intensity and duration of the behavior, and whether it is making trouble for the child, getting him kicked out of preschool, or leaving her friendless on the playground.
But while parents may think about this as a dichotomy, he said — does the child have a disorder or not — in fact, clinicians who work with behavior problems believe that there are strategies that every parent could use.
“Our instincts as human beings are often wrong,” Dr. Anderson said.
“We tend to be negative behavior detectors.” When two siblings are playing quietly together, he said, “most parents are thinking, don’t jinx it, or let me go do something on my to-do list.” But when there is conflict, parents respond with anger and threats and punishment.
Those ways of responding to the negative behaviors, he said, are unlikely to work — with small children, with adolescents or with adults. “We don’t tell partners to yell at partners as part of couples therapy; we don’t tell bosses to yell at employees for better productivity.”
Parents should set up clear expectations before a problem develops, he said, thinking about how to manage getting ready for school the next morning, for example, if today did not go well. And they should offer specific positive feedback for positive behaviors, rather than worrying that they will “jinx” those good behaviors.
If a child is having significant behavior problems, parents should be ready to ignore minor misbehavior, he said, such as verbal disrespect or whining. So pick your battles, and don’t give in to the idea that a big punishment is the way to go. “With aggression, lots of parents have a ‘go big or go home’ approach: My child picked a fight, so no play dates, no TV,” privileges rescinded indefinitely, Dr. Anderson said. “The reality is that big punishments do not translate to better behavior.”