Bullying is one of several forms of childhood aggression.

Behavior Modification for Childhood Aggression

by Scott Thompson

Kids with emotional problems are much more likely to behave aggressively than other children. They may be aggressive toward other children at school or on the playground, toward teachers and other authority figures or toward members of their own family, including siblings and parents. Interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy may help them control their aggressive behavior.

Verbal and Physical

Some kids are verbally aggressive, some are physically aggressive and some are both. For instance, a verbally aggressive child might respond to a request by swearing at you or even threatening you. A physically aggressive child may shove, scratch, bite, kick or hit. With children who are verbally aggressive but not physically aggressive, a behavior contract can sometimes help. The contract provides the child with a goal to work toward and a reward for reaching the goal. For example, your contract could state that your child will earn a trip to the beach if he can go one week without name-calling or yelling. According to the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota, contracts can be used for verbally aggressive kids but not for physically aggressive kids. If a child is hitting people or destroying property, you may need to seek professional help.

Cognitive Behavioral Intervention

Cognitive behavioral intervention is based on the idea that people regulate their behaviors by talking to themselves. For instance, if someone cuts you off in traffic, you may notice yourself thinking, "Don't lose your temper, it's not a big deal." CBI assumes that kids with emotional problems don't know how to do this but can be taught how to do so by an adult. The goal of CBI is to give the child a set of tools she can use to keep herself from reacting inappropriately when something upsets her. Research conducted in 2009 on kids in the German social services system concluded that cognitive behavioral interventions could successfully reduce aggressive behaviors.


Kids with behavioral problems don't know how to handle the frustrations of daily life, so they react on impulse instead of trying to reason out their problems, according to a paper on CBI by T. Rowand-Robinson at the University of Wisconsin. The CBI program includes instruction on problem-solving skills and how to spot emotional triggers that tend to promote an explosive outburst. Once the counselor identifies the child's usual triggers, he can teach the child how to respond to those triggers without aggression.


To conduct a CBI, a counselor would start by modeling a situation that tends to be difficult for the child, such as working on homework, while talking out loud. She would say things like, "I'm going to stay calm even if these math problems frustrate me." Then she would have the child do the homework while listening to her instruction. Next, she would have the child do the homework while saying the same instructions out loud to himself. In the next step of the CBI, the child whispers the instructions. Finally, he says them silently in his own head while working. The counselor teaches him to praise himself after getting through a difficult situation without behaving aggressively, and to tell himself "I'll do better next time this happens" when he doesn't. By learning how to use the same emotional self-regulation techniques adult use, the child can learn to get his own aggressive behaviors under control.

About the Author

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.

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