Web Exclusive - Question and answer session with Tim Shaughnessy, child and family therapist of Applewood Centers, conducted by ideastream's Marie Andrusewicz.
Q: We're learning that girls are not necessarily less aggressive than boys, just a bit more subversive in their tactics. Are the signs more obvious to parents if it's a son who has a problem with aggression?
A: Definitely - if a parent is getting reports from school, about obviously angry behavior such as fighting, pushing, making threats, or any blatant breaking of the rules, the child is out of control and is obviously acting out.
Q: What are the factors that can lead to aggressive behavior in boys?
A: It's multi-factorial - a lot of it is sociological - there's a high visibility of adults acting aggressively in movies, there is violence in video games. They may see kids in the neighborhood fighting or kids at schools acting out toward teachers. Another cause for bullying is that someone has been a victim of trauma or may have been bullied by others. If they don't get help, they may then become bullies themselves. The other factors might include a psychological profile of someone who glorifies the oppressor - they want to be big dog in neighborhood. In society we get a lot of rewards for being aggressive - look at sports. We tend to glorify athletes and look up to them as role models. Unfortunately when athletes act aggressively, they're setting a bad example, because they are glorifying aggression.
Q: Is there ever a physical reason for a child behaving aggressively? If they suffer from hyperactivity, for example?
A: The children with impulse control problems come under that category - that explains, but doesn't necessarily excuse their acting out on it. If you're talking about kids with ADD they do have a lot of difficulty with compliance with rules and completing tasks - they tend to get frustrated and they tend to have more occupational problems because of it. They may act out more. But having a physical condition is not necessarily a causal factor.
Q: What are the warning signs that a parent should be on the lookout for at home?
A: If you see a kid breaking his own property, or exhibiting verbal aggression or taunting - a lot of times behavior that is verbally aggressive is a precursor to physical violence.
Q: So what's the difference between aggressive behavior that is harmful and normal rowdy behavior?
A: In dangerous aggression there will be social consequences. Other kids in the neighborhood may have complaints about the child. A normal child who is aggressive is not going to push it to the limit where they hurt someone else.
Q: How would a parent know if their child is a victim of a bully?
A: If a child is afraid to go to school, is coming home with bruises, is suddenly avoiding certain people or neighborhoods, or showing other anxiety symptoms that hadn't been present before - these are some of the signs. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, this is sometimes another cause for aggressive behavior - sometimes when victims of bullying don't get help, they can become bullies themselves.
Q: What can a parent do when it becomes obvious that aggression is a problem for their son?
A: The first thing they need to do is talk to kid in non-judgmental way - try to corroborate evidence so it's not one person's opinion - it's helpful if you can bring in reports from school, or from a relative, in addition to behaviors that you yourself have observed. Let them know that the behavior is unacceptable and then help them define what is acceptable. It's also important to let a child know that if they go overboard there are consequences. If the child continues to act inappropriately, it's time to get help. I would recommend they go to a therapist and do anger control work, learning the difference between assertive and aggressive behavior. A therapist can also help determine what's causing the anger. Why is this symptom emerging now with the client? The therapist will look at the family environment, the neighborhood, what is called a "bio psycho social" approach - look at all three areas see where the problem might be. Family or individual therapy is a good place to start, and in some extreme cases the child might benefit from medication.