Aggressive and Abusive Behaviour

This problem is posed by Sarah from The Puffin Diaries can you help?


Aggressive language, and abusive behaviour is increasingly becoming part of how my youngest son, aged nine, is expressing himself.

He gets angry very easily at all sorts of things that he perceives as an injustice to him, yet is constantly rude and aggressive to all members of our family for seemingly no reason.

His older brother and daddy get the majority of the abuse even when it is maybe me, mummy, that has made him cross.

The other day he got down at the dinner table, walked around to his brother and punched him really hard in the arm and there seemed to be nothing that had provoked it. He then will not take any discussion over why it happened or understand that this behaviour requires a consequence. He became increasingly aggressive and abusive, lots of swearing and nasty name calling, as we tried to speak to him about it. Admittedly we were not necessarily as calm in our approach as we could have been but it doesn’t seem to make that much difference how you approach it, their is no reasoning with him. He will not accept that his actions were wrong.

I very much understand that the behaviour is a way of controlling family life and the bad language is expected to gain a reaction that then gives him control of the situation.

We are therefore trying our best to ignore the behaviour as much as possible but it’s hard when he then becomes physical as well.

Has anyone experienced similar behaviour in their family and if so how did you deal with it? I’d be especially interested to know if people hand out consequences for such behaviour or any other approach that has worked to minimise the bad language and aggressive behaviour?

It increasingly feels like this little boy is taking charge and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it.

10 thoughts on “Aggressive and Abusive Behaviour

  1. Suddenly Mummy

    I haven’t dealt with this sort of thing at home, but I have in the classroom, to varying degrees. In that context, ignoring simply isn’t practical (and I would worry that not actively dealing with it could lead to escalation and undermine classroom discipline) so I’ve used what I call ‘no-fuss consequences’ in the past. This is where you determine set consequences for the behaviour in question, ensure that all parties know what they are, and then if it happens, just implement them without a discussion. In the classroom, this means that lesson time isn’t being lost to lengthy ‘tellings off’ and other pupils aren’t being disrupted. In the home context, it might help with the feeling you have that your youngest is trying to gain control of the family time. So, for instance, hitting/kicking, etc. leads to Playstation going in a cupboard for a set period of time. When the behaviour occurs, simply put the Playstation away and then carry on with what you were doing before – no need to comment on it or have any sort of conversation about it. If the behaviour escalates, or there is a bad reaction to the consequence, have a something in place for that too. Of course, the consequence needs to be something that is suited to your child and family and, importantly, not be something that is actually a punishment for you! It also needs to be something that can be consistent (so, not missing a friend’s birthday party or something like that). In this way, you send a clear message that the behaviour is unacceptable, but because you already know how you will react, there is less chance of getting worked up in the heat of the moment and losing your cool – you remain in control of the situation. If you’re not keen on the idea of consequences, at least having a strategy for dealing with it will help – with my toddlers’ mealtimes, when they refuse food I simply say “Ok, you don’t have to eat it, but you don’t get down from the table until everyone’s finished.” – same every time. This way, I keep my cool, I still get to eat my meal, and if they try to get down from the table anyway, at least the battle is no longer over that major control area of food! Most of the time, they will eventually have a bit of the meal anyway if I just leave it there without further comment. Hope this helps a bit!

    1. tasocial Post author

      Thank you, this is such great advice and I think we will have a go at it. The problem we often have is that enforcing consequences escalates the behaviour and because it’s so disruptive and upsetting we have been looking for alternative ways of dealing with it. Plus his recent ASD diagnosis means I worry he isn’t understanding of the cause and affect. However I do see that maybe we need to try and just be prepared for things to get worse before they get better. Thank you again for your great advice. x

      1. Suddenly Mummy

        Consequences do tend to escalate behaviours initially, but this often decreases over time with consistent application and a no fuss approach. But, like you say, his diagnosis does complicate matters. I think combining it with a reward system similar to what Lindsay describes might be more constructive then, as it would help to teach the cause and effect from both sides – and like Lindsay says, consistency will be key, so the important thing is that whatever you decide, you come up with a plan that you know you will all be able to implement every single day without losing your cool.

  2. Diane

    It is likely your son does not have cause and effect thinking and therefore you aren’t getting through because he truly doesn’t understand. And/or he may lack empathy for others. I am not a professional, but one thing a therapist had us do was whenever a child hurts another child in any way ( mental or physical) you calmly state the offense and then tell them to do something nice for that person ( give them a hug, a pat, get them a drink, etc.). Let the child decide what it is, unless they truly can’t think of anything, then you can make a suggestion. Then quickly move on. It has helped in our home a lot.

    1. tasocial Post author

      To be honest that is my main worry, that he doesn’t really get it and I like your idea a lot. I will be giving it a go, although when he’s angry he may not be immediately receptive, he may later agree. Thank you for your response and it’s helped me find our website which I’ve not visited before.

  3. Lindsay

    It’s a tricky situation isn’t it? You know the behaviour means something and is coming from somewhere but yet it seems like it isn’t. I have a few thoughts….

    At work when we have children like this where we don’t know the cause of the beahviour we do what is called a Functional Assessment. It’s a systematic way of going through a specific behaviour and determining, or trying to!, the function of a behaviour. If you are interested I could email it to you and give you more details about how to go through it.

    There are several approaches and you’ve probably tried them, or some form of them, but if consequence doesn’t seem to be having an effect, how does he respond to positive attention or rewarding behaviour?
    Try catching him being good and ramp up the positive reinforcement, even for the tiniest things even if it’s unrelated to the behaviour “I really like how your sitting nicely and watching tv” “I really like how quickly you put your shoes on, great job” etc. And I mean constantly and over the top! Like really bad over acting!
    Also, I find visuals a HUGE help with kids with any type of processing or attention challenges. Along the positive reinforcement lines, you could make a chart and for each day (or even divide up the day) and have him earn a check or star etc. Pre-determine the length of time (5 days etc) and how many stars he must earn to obtain a special prize. Don’t expect perfection, or raise the bar too high, but if it’s for 5 days and you know he typically gets aggressive once a day, maybe set the goal to 3 days aggression free. The next week, set it to 4 etc. then extend the time and decrease the prize. Let him pick the prize, but of course within your choices. Go as big as you can within your means to start, something that is really motivating so he buys into it, but quickly decrease it. The idea is to go from something tangible (a new video games) to something less (a new comic book) and the end goal is to have him behave for the sake of pleasing you (and eventually himself) and your positive attention and admiration.

    Another but more punitive approach is what we jokingly call ‘group home-ing” . Basically you take away everything and start at 0. No tv, games, playing in the yard, going to the park, movies, toys etc. EVERYTHING is earned by showing positive and acceptable behaviour. Kids earn privileges by showing positive behaviour and when they act out, lie, steal etc. depending on the severity and the behaviour those privileges are taken away. The expectations around how things are earned and taken away though needs to be very clear and simply and black and white. I would suggest a visual for this too or at least writing down as simply as possible the rules.

    My last idea, which should actually always be first:) is to make sure physically he is ok. Does he have an ear infection etc. something that may be causing him pain and making him agitated in a way that he can’t explain so he acts out? If there is no physiological reasons then trying some other strategies would be the next step.

    I’ll stop blabbing in just a second….

    When you try a new strategy make sure both of you are fully in together and know the rules and expectations before explaining it to your boy. Then, make sure you explain it to your boy! You’d be surprised how many people forget this step!
    Make sure you are willing to put in the time and follow through, follow through follow through. Your words are meaningless and will decrease each time you try something new if you don’t follow through. Every. Single. Time. No. Matter. What!
    Make sure you stick with a new strategy for a good go at it. Don’t try something once and give up if it doesn’t seem to be working, behaviour, 99% of the time, will get worse and peak before you see a decrease. So stick with it for a bit before you decide that it’s not a right fit and move onto a different strategy.

    I hope that’s helpful! Keep us posted!

  4. tasocial Post author

    You always have such creative and well thought out ideas on how to deal with things. The reward approach you’ve suggested I know has worked in school so may very well be a great idea for home. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of these things it’s hard to see the wood for the trees and getting another perspective helps clarify things. Thank you. x

  5. Abbie Foundling

    Gosh it is so hard to say what would help so I am going to only say what we have done in the’hive’.

    First of all please don’t beat yourself up for not being as calm as you might expect yourself to be (I found that one I took away the pressure on myself to handle a situation “perfectly” I actually did manage them better). Beeswax was 9 when he began to aggressive like this (for as long as we have known him he has always been verbally aggressive but physical only started after his ninth birthday) almost always his aggression was directed at me and occasionally Buzzbee (for some reason he never tried it with Bumble).

    Over the years we have tried every kind of thing to manage this behaviour (including intensive therapy sessions) and our problem has been he could not understand ’cause and effect’ and has the empathy of a peanut (his description). I found if I removed his belongings he would either not give a flying fig or it would escalate the situation to the point that I needed to take a trip to A&E or make a phone call to the glazier/plasterer.

    We try to ignore the verbal assaults as much as possible and if I cannot I force myself to say something like ‘thank you for letting me know that you are finding it hard to cope at the moment’ or ‘I am sorry you feel like that, just remember you may be feeling mad at us at the moment but that doesn’t stop us loving you’. For Buzzbee’s swearing (first language he learnt) we have spent a long time helping him replace the words with silly acceptable words instead but words signal to us he needs to let off steam before he regresses back into his first language (fudge cake sandwiches is one of his favourites) this has helped with school to decriminalise the impact his vocabulary can have on others.

    The only form of consequences that has had any impact at home has be the use of ‘Natural Consequences’ (break a window/damage property – extra chores to pay for repairs. Hurt his brother at the dinner table – needs to do brother’s chore of clearing table while brother gets extra playtime until it has been done etc.) and interact repair between Beeswax and whom ever he has hurt (we use this with Buzzbee as well but usually he has already started the reparation before we suggest it).

    Consistency and team work is definitely key in our house. For extreme behaviours we still do remove privileges like games consoles or TV but for no more than 24hours and they are given the opportunity to earn them back through demonstration of good choices.

    Everyone else has given you such wonderful advice, I can’t think what else might help but other than to say “I understand how difficult it is walking that tight rope between managing the behaviour and knowing that your child is in distress and you don’t know why”.

    Honey x

  6. Fran Proctor

    *Decide what the same consequence is for the bad behaviour because you don’t tolerate bad behaviour, regardless of the cause. This could either be by confiscating something the child likes, but for alot of children it’s better if they are removed from the room for x amount of minutes so they are not getting any attention – even negative attention.
    *Remember to be consistent, calm and follow through. Don’t engage in it, just say go and sit (wherever you’ve decided) until someone comes and gets you.
    *When you go and get your child, ask them if they know why you’ve removed them, simply say ‘we don’t tolerate that kind of behaviour in this house’ and ask them to apologise If they don’t apologise then they’ll be sitting on their own for a while. Keep it simple, straight to the point and move on.

    In regards to discussing/understanding the behaviour with your child and your child getting more frustrated, don’t discuss it, ie why did you that, what did you do that for. Most kids if they knew why they did something that wasn’t great probably wouldn’t do it in the first place. Your child probably knows that they don’t deal with things in the best way which is why they get more aggressive but doesn’t have the awareness as of yet to deal with/manage slightly differently. Do make it known that you are always around if they need to talk to you or would like to share something.

    *Make sure you all know what to follow through on and also make sure any other siblings know the consequences are the same for them too.

    *If your child does share any emotions remind your child or slip it into the conversation sentences such as ‘I’m glad you shared that with me today’ or ‘I was feeling a bit sad today too’ so they know emotions are ok.

    Hope this helps!

  7. new pyjama mummy

    Wow – you have such an amazing list of strategies and also such a hard round table time at the moment – my thoughts – he may well not get cause and effect or empathy because of the developing brain and also his ASD diagnosis – because some parts of his asd might well respond to the order and consistency of a clear cut because you did this then this happens, if done instantly, then he might relate well to it and it might help breed more security for him? eg – when my little girl throws food or her plate – she gets a plastic one and together we clear up – simple, instant, practical, time together and then usually she is ready to say sorry – schools often use a sad face as a symbol to help that what was done was unacceptable and hurt – would that help? Continuing to big up the praise for you all as a family will help too – we do pasta in a jar at the end of mealtimes for things done, enjoyed, noticed etc… and then do a pasta bake when the jar is full – usually at the end of the week. Also lots of family games where you can be loud and almost aggressive together – singing loudly and bashing instruments or saucepans and smashing through newspaper with a fist held tightly away from the face by one of the grown ups with more layers added with each success, also help with loud time in to counter act it all. hope this helps to the added list!


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