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Early Childhood Emotional and Social Development: Aggression

Angela Oswalt, MSW

Aggression can also be problematic for some children during the early preschool years, peaking around age 4. Younger preschoolers often engage in "Instrumental Aggression" or behavior involving hitting, kicking, or shouting to obtain a desired object. In contrast, middle preschoolers often use "Hostile Aggression" with peers to retaliate for a perceived hurt or a wrong. Hostile Aggression takes two forms: Overt Aggression, which is harming someone through physical injury or threatening to harm someone with physical injury, and Relational Aggression, which damages another child's peer relationships (e.g., social exclusion or rumor spreading).

angry childWith appropriate direction and guidance, older preschoolers usually learn ways to regulate themselves and compromise with others, and grow out of using Instrumental Aggression to get what they want. However, Hostile forms of aggression often increase between ages 4 and 7. Not surprisingly, Overt Aggression is more common in boys. Preschool and school-age girls are more likely to use Relational Aggression to harm someone else. Most children move beyond aggressive behavior, and learn more effective ways to deal with interpersonal conflicts. However, some children will continue using both physical aggression and verbal aggression, which may create problems at school, daycare, or home.

There are many ways that caregivers can teach young children that violence and aggression, physical or verbal, is unacceptable. First and foremost, caregivers should not model (i.e., demonstrate) physical or verbal aggression and avoid name-calling, yelling, or regular physical punishments in response to negative behaviors. In addition, young children should not be exposed to violent media such as television and video games. More in-depth information about how to discipline children at this age can be found in our Preoperational Stage Parenting article. (This article is not yet complete)

Young children should not see caretakers treat each other in an aggressive or violent way. Parents who find themselves in a violent, dangerous, or abusive relationship can call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) to reach The National Domestic Violence Hotline in the U.S. and Canada or 1800 RESPECT (737732) in Australia, for crisis help, safety planning, or referrals to local resources.

Fear is another strong emotion that many children experience intensely during the early childhood stage. Because children at this age often have very active imaginations and are still learning the difference between reality and make-believe, they are very susceptible to strong fears. In particular, young children often have intense fears of lightening, thunder storms, monsters under the bed, or other scary dangers their minds create. Many children also experience nightmares, or bad dreams during early childhood.

Parents can help young children by offering some extra emotional support in a way that doesn't ignore or minimize the true fear their children are experiencing. For example, caregivers can put a night light in the child's room to help lessen shadows and the monsters that may lurk in the unlit bedroom corners at night. After a nightmare or during a storm, caregivers can offer support and physical comfort such as hugs.

Caregivers can also foster autonomy and confidence by helping their kids think of creative and lighthearted ways to deal with fears. Children can be taught to use a simple prayer or silly song to help them feel safe and in control of the situation. For example, Grandpa can play a game with Jimmy at night to "spook the closet monster" by shining a flashlight into the closet as part of the bedtime ritual in order to exterminate any ghouls, goblins, or sock-eating creatures. Jimmy can laugh, but also feel a sense of pride that he is in charge of the situation.

If a child's fear becomes very intense, persists for a long time, does not respond to a caregiver's attempts to reduce it, and significantly interferes with daily activities, professional treatment may be in order. Phobias (intense, irrational, uncontrollable fears) are a variety of anxiety disorder. If your child seems to be suffering from a phobia, see your pediatrician for a referral to a mental health professional skilled in treating childhood anxiety.

More information on parenting techniques for children in this age stage can be found in the article on Preoperational Parenting.