What Are the Causes of Aggressive Behavior in Children?

Aggressive or violent behavior in children can manifest as disobedience, fighting, destroying property, harming pets, setting fires and other forms of acting out angrily 1. Parents, teachers and other adults who care for children should always take these types of destructive behaviors seriously. Understanding the various causes behind such abnormal, compulsive behavior is the first step toward finding a solution for the child.

Environmental Causes

Various factors in a child’s environment can increase his susceptibility toward aggressive behavior. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, any combination of stress-inducing family and socioeconomic factors can cause a child to react strongly toward others. These include poverty, deprivation or neglect, single parenting or divorce situations.

Sometimes, children act out violently due to imitating the behavior of others. This exposure can occur in the home as a result of child or spousal abuse, particularly in homes where drug or alcohol use commonly occurs and weapons are easily available. Children also mimic aggression they witness while watching TV or movies.

Physical Causes

Even if a child doesn’t outright mimic the aggressive behavior of others, severely punished or abused children may act hostile toward others as a result of being abused. Victims of physical and sexual abuse exhibit more violent behaviors than children who aren’t abused, as do children who experience severe emotional trauma, such as abandonment into foster care.

Genetics can contribute to aggression when a family has a strong history of mental illness or antisocial behavior. Children who suffer brain injuries also tend to exhibit aggressive behavior.

Emotional Causes

Children who aren’t victims of abuse can also exhibit violent behaviors as the result of unresolved emotional conflict, particularly when these emotions are deliberately suppressed. At some point, the tension escalates into an angry release. The child may act out when feeling helpless, frustrated or angry, and when she is avoiding a task or seeking attention. Outbursts are likely to occur when emotionally charged kids have to face situations that they fear, particularly those causing pain, such as visits to doctors or dentists.

Psychological Causes

Aggressive behavior is a common symptom of many psychiatric disorders that manifest in children 1. Explosive and unruly behavior often accompanies bipolar disorder, ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, oppositional defiant disorder, and depression. Speak with a physician to identify the cause of aggression and to determine whether the child needs a thorough psychiatric evaluation.