How to deal with difficult or aggressive behaviour from your young child

By Laurel L. Johnson, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Clinical Director, Community Mental Health, Chief of Psychology, Kinark Child and Family Services

Many parents deal with such bad behaviour from their young child that they don’t know what to do. As a mother of two young children, I am often in the company of other parents of young children. When it becomes known that I am a child clinical psychologist, the questions start coming about how to manage difficult, sometimes out-of-control, behaviours in children.

I admittedly struggle with those kinds of questions on the fly. The question is vague and there usually isn’t a short answer to such a short question. How old is the child? What kinds of behaviours? In what contexts? In whose presence? How is it affecting the child’s functioning? The family’s functioning? How have the behaviours been managed? Unfortunately, children, and humans in general, are complicated beings. And you certainly don’t want to offend the person with whom you have a social relationship with by eluding that they are likely a big part of the problem.

I usually provide the following, innocuous response – that problem behaviours are usually the result of a lack of skills, both on the part of the child, but also on the part of the caregiver. How to recognize when a skill is needed, is also typically a large part of the problem. Luckily, these skills can be taught.

All young children have moments when their anger or frustration drives them to shout, swear, throw objects, kick or hit. When these kinds of behaviours become pervasive and/or the aggression they show seems frightening or out-of-control, it may be appropriate to seek some professional support.

At Kinark, we offer an evidence-based program designed for children aged 6 to 11 with serious out-of-control, behavioural problems, called Stop Now and Plan, or SNAP. It is a 13-week group skill-building program for the children, but also their caregivers, and is designed to teach how to effectively manage emotions and make better choices in the moment. Topics in the children’s group include dealing with angry thoughts and feelings, self-control, problem-solving, and bulling. The parent’s group meets at the same time as the children’s group and teaches parents/guardians effective child management and how to support their child using their SNAP strategies.

SNAP became a program at Kinark Child and Family Services in Durham Region in 2000, and in Simcoe Region in 2010. Kinark is now expanding the program to include York Region and Peterborough. SNAP is a successful program that offers results to both parents and children. One child who was recently in SNAP said to his parent, “I didn’t think I would like this therapy thing, but I do, it’s fun!”

If you have a child who presents with physically and/or verbally aggressive behaviour, defiant behaviour, lack of self-control and problem-solving skills, difficulty making and keeping healthy relationships, stealing, bullying others, and/or damaging property, then the SNAP program may be appropriate.

Parents/caregivers can refer a child or youth to the SNAP program by calling:

Kinark Central Intake line: 1-888-454-6275

The SNAP program was developed at the Child Development Institute (CDI) in Toronto and is used under license by Kinark as part of the Kinark Partnership Program.