Module 4: Promoting Mental Health in Early Childhood


Managing Strong Feelings

Aggressive feelings and behaviors are a normal aspect of development in early childhood, with peaks at 18 months, 21/2 years, and 4 years.

Assertiveness is an important skill that must be distinguished from aggression, which may hurt others. Parents need to provide feedback to children so that they can learn this distinction, but need to do so without shaming or punishing children, which can inhibit assertiveness. Children who are impulsive often have greater difficulty managing their aggressive feelings.

Questions to Ask

  • Does your child have a will of her own? How does she show that?
  • When your child is troublesome, what do you do?
  • How do you discipline your child? How do you reward her?
  • How were strong emotions handled when you were a child? How did that make you feel?
  • Does your child watch TV and videos? If so, what does she watch?

Provider Tips

  • Some parents may need extra assistance in understanding aggression, especially if they have other children who exhibit little aggressive behavior.
  • Recognize that parents who feel that expressing strong emotions is unacceptable or disrespectful may need assistance in determining an acceptable outlet for their child.
  • Ask parents to describe situations that make them angry, how often they get angry, and what they do when they get angry.
  • Consider referring parents who have difficulty modulating their anger to parent groups (Parents Anonymous, Children with Hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Disorder (CHADD), Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon), social service agencies, or a mental health professional.
  • Using the guidance listed below, help parents to find ways to curb their child’s aggressive behaviors.

Guidance for Parents

  • It is normal for your child to sometimes have aggressive feelings, but it is not okay for her to take those feelings out on others in a way that may cause harm. Teach her how to control her hostile impulses:
    • Never allow hitting, biting, or other aggressive behavior
    • Respond to excessive aggression promptly
    • Calmly show your disapproval
    • Tell your child – “No hitting. Hitting hurts and it is not okay.”
    • Take away objects your child uses aggressively
    • Remove your child from the situation
    • Put her in a “time out” so she can calm down
    • Encourage her to express her feelings and talk about negative emotions rather than acting on them
  • Make sure your child has acceptable ways to release her harmless aggressive energy. The following are a few safe suggestions:
    • Pounding and shaping modeling clay or Play-Doh
    • Throwing balls
    • Crashing toy cars
    • Physical activities such as wrestling, running, swimming, or jumping
  • If your child has too much or too little aggressive energy, you might want to enroll her in a preschool karate class or some other physical activity program. These programs can help teach her self-control, help her understand appropriate use of aggression, and help her build self-esteem. If she is shy, she may need a smaller class and a teacher with a nurturing style.
  • Teach your child how to negotiate with others to get what she wants. Encourage her to:
    • Ask for what she wants instead of grabbing it
    • Trade with others and take turns
    • Make a game out of a situation—flip a coin to determine who gets to play with a toy, race to the swing to determine who gets to use it first
  • Model good behavior for your child. Control your own anger. Stay calm and express your feelings with words. Leave the room until you can gain control of your feelings. Never use hitting or yelling as a means of disciplining your child.
  • Your child may be exposed to aggressive behaviors and violence on TV or videotapes. Limit the amount of time she spends in front of the TV. Watch with her and monitor programs for violence.
Resources for Providers and Families

For Providers

Parent Stress Index (PSI)

Area of Concern: Chronically Aggressive Children more information

For chronically aggressive children, assess and address potential contributing factors: life stresses; neglect or abuse at home or in child care or preschool; inadequate sleep; disruptions in routines; exposure to aggression, including domestic violence; skill deficits, especially in expressive language or fine motor areas; hearing loss; and signs of hyperactivity/ impulsivity or depression.

Evaluate families for overt and covert encouragement of aggression. Elicit detailed examples of how parents respond to aggression to determine if they foster it by ignoring it, speak of it as a sign of strength, suggest using it as a problem-solving strategy, or argue openly about it.

Area of Concern: Chronic Biting more information

Most children do not bite people. Some 1- to 2-year-olds do bite, but by ages 3 to 4 biting is not a common behavior. Evaluate chronic biters for stressors such as:

  • Multiple caregivers
  • Hunger or fatigue
  • Sources of pain such as teething, otitis, or headache
  • Inadequate skills for their social group, especially expressive language ability
  • Delays in the development of impulse control
  • Family stress or violence

For children ages 1 to 2, suggest a teething ring as an alternative for biting. For older children, counsel parents to firmly forbid biting (“Biting is not allowed. I don’t want you to bite anyone ever.”) Advise parents to ask other caregivers to reinforce this message.

Emphasize that it is important to prevent biting. Once it occurs, the reactions of others can reinforce the behavior. Help parents identify situations in which the child is most likely to bite, and develop strategies to help the child avoid these situations. Other caregivers can help identify these situations as well and help the child avoid them. Ensure that the child is receiving praise and attention for acceptable behavior in all settings.

If the child does bite, advise parents to reinforce the message “It’s not okay to bite. Ask when you want something.” Recommend that parents or other caregivers remove the child promptly for a brief time out. Caregivers should pay immediate attention to the biting victim. If biting persists, a smaller childcare setting may be helpful. Consider referral to a mental health professional for further evaluation as indicated.

How to Help Families Stop Spanking PDF

Stein MT, Perrin EL. 1998. Guidance for effective discipline. Pediatrics 101(4 pt. 1):723–728.

For Providers and Families

What Parents Can Do Right Now to Reduce Aggressive Behavior in Young Children

Hyman IA. 1997. The Case Against Spanking: How to Discipline Your Child Without Hitting. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Straus MA, Donnelly DA. 2000. Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families and Its Effects on Children (2nd ed.). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

For Families

Fighting and Biting

Aggressive Behavior

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