“I want that!” Tommy demanded, reaching for a toy truck that Freddy was wheeling around the playroom. Wanting to keep playing with the vehicle, Freddy turned away from Tommy and kept making the roaring sound that he imagined would come from a big truck with a full load of dirt. Angered that Freddy would not let him play with the truck, Tommy hit Freddy with a plastic bat. Freddy’s loud scream reverberated throughout the house. Hearing it, Tommy’s mother came running.

This was not the first time that Tommy Burke hit one of his friends. Tommy is so aggressive that most children in the neighborhood no longer come to his house to play. And, it has been a long time since Tommy was invited to other children’s houses.

Due to his aggression, Tommy is starting to miss the experiences he needs to develop essential relationship-building skills. If his rejection from playmates continues, Tommy will soon be isolated from his peers and become lonely. As a teenager, he will be at risk for developing depression. As an adult, he may need psychiatric treatment. If Tommy is to avoid these outcomes, Mr. and Mrs. Burke must act immediately.

One knee-jerk response is to give Tommy a good spanking. At the very least, we are tempted to keep Tommy in his room for the rest of the day. But punishment is not the answer. When we punish children, we model the very aggression that we tell our children is unacceptable.

Because actions speak louder than words, punishing a child for being aggressive teaches him or her that big people can use aggression to control little people. Instead, parents should do five things to help their child overcome his or her aggressive tendencies.

Establish rules.

Households function best when the people in the home follow a short set of rules. To curb aggression, focus on only one rule: We do not hurt people. Ergo, hitting is not acceptable. It is not acceptable for one child to hit another child, and it is also unacceptable for parents to hit children.

Teach social skills.

Children are aggressive because aggression works. In Tommy’s case, he wanted to play with a toy truck. Therefore, he hit Freddy with a plastic bat in order to obtain and play with the truck. Hitting would have worked if Mrs. Burke had not come running.

Children like Tommy must be taught how to get their needs met without resorting to aggression. Tommy’s parents need to teach him socially-appropriate ways to get what he wants. There are two social skills that Tommy needs to learn.

The first skill is asking. Tommy needs to learn how to say, “Freddy, could we switch? You can drive the tractor and put dirt in the truck, and I will drive the truck.”

The other social skill that Tommy needs to learn is negotiating. If asking to play with the truck does not work, Tommy needs be able to suggest a plan that probably will, in time, allow him to play with the truck. Tommy needs to be able to involve Freddy in the solution. He must learn how to say, “Freddy, when will you be ready to switch and play with the tractor?”

Social skills are not taught by telling young children what they should do. Rather, as children learn social skills by doing, one or both of Tommy’s parents need to get down on the carpet with him and create a similar play situation. While playing, Mom says: “Tommy, when you want to play with the truck, just say, ‘Mom, let’s switch. You play with the tractor and I’ll play with the truck.’” Soon Tommy will say just that: “Mom, let’s switch. . .”

When Tommy displays the new social skill, Mom should affirm him. “Tommy,” she exclaims, “you did an excellent job of asking to play with the truck. Awesome!”

Structure the child’s play.

The first thing to structure is time. Children with aggression problems generally play appropriately with other children for only a limited amount of time. For children ages 5 to 10, the playtime should be limited to no more than one hour.

There also has to be variety in the play, meaning schedule different activities. Young children can productively engage in an activity for up to 15 minutes. This schedule should be written out and reviewed with aggressive children at the beginning of playtime. A typical schedule might read:

9:00-9:15am, sandbox
9:15-9:30am, game of catch
9:30-9:45am, swings
9:45-10:00am, snack

Notice that three of the four activities are parallel play, demanding little cooperative interaction.

Practice positive play experiences.

After Tommy had practiced his two new social skills several times with his parents, Mrs. Burke called Freddy’s parents, telling them that she and her husband had taught Tommy two social skills— asking and negotiating. Mrs. Burke also revealed that when Tommy plays with Freddy again, their playtime will be structured and limited to one hour, and the children will be continuously supervised.

When Freddy came to Tommy’s to play the following Saturday, Mrs. Burke showed the children the play schedule. She also reviewed the social skills she wanted to them to use, conducting a quick role play. Mrs. Burke had Tommy and Freddy pretend to play with the toys. After ten seconds of play, she said, “Tommy, what are you going to say to Freddy when you want to play with the truck?”

Given the structure and the pre-teaching, the playtime on this particular day went smoothly. But once does not make perfect. For the next few weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Burke needed to practice each of these social skills with Tommy just prior to a child coming over to play. They also needed to structure and supervise each of the children’s play sessions. But, even this is not enough to avoid aggression. When Tommy progresses to other types of peer interactions, the Burkes will need to teach the necessary social skills and structure the interactions. A child’s tendency to be aggressive is not an easily changed trait.

Reduce exposure to violence.

Finally, the Burkes must reduce Tommy’s exposure to violence. This also is no easy feat. Turn on the TV at anytime and chances are someone is being killed, beaten or tormented. Violence is so prevalent on television that by the age of 14, the average child has witnessed 11,000 murders. Though the affect of television violence on children was once debated, that discussion is over. Watching violence promotes aggression. Parents who are concerned about their child’s aggressive behaviors need to reduce their child’s exposure to violence.

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