Early Signs of Aggression and Antisocial Behavior in Children

Bullying, hitting, biting and issuing demands are aggressive behaviors that elicit attention and concern from parents and caregivers. Although toddlers and preschool children may demonstrate aggressive or antisocial behavior in response to frustration, anger and threats, most school-age children replace aggression with socially appropriate behavior. After you have learned to recognize the early signs of aggression and antisocial behavior, you can involve your pediatrician in assisting in identifying problems and treating your child.

Child pouting in a corner. (Image: Ayesha Wilson/Hemera/Getty Images)

Behavior Disorders

A pattern of aggressive, antisocial or disruptive behaviors exhibited for more than six months distinguishes behavior disorders from other behavior management challenges. These disorders, which include oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD, and conduct disorder, may exert a negative influence upon your child's school achievement, family dynamics and peer relationships. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the problems associated with the disorders typically increase in severity and frequency without specific treatment interventions. Consistent defiance of authority, threatening or hurting people or pets, tantrums, lying, stealing and destroying property comprise some of the warning signs of child behavior disorders.

Symptoms of ODD

Although ODD is a separate disorder, approximately one-third of all children with attention- deficit hyperactivity disorder also have the additional diagnosis of ODD. Symptoms of ODD include instigating conflict, blaming others for problems, arguing with adults or authority figures, anger management problems and ignoring rules. A child with ODD may appear belligerent, resentful and vindictive. Early diagnosis provides the child with learning opportunities to manage and replace the inappropriate behaviors. Without early diagnosis and intervention, the behaviors typical of ODD may increase in severity and lead to conduct disorder.

Symptoms of Conduct Disorder

Children infrequently exhibit the serious antisocial behaviors associated with conduct disorder. Approximately one-fourth of children with conduct disorder have a separate diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Symptoms of conduct disorder include setting fires, abusing or torturing animals, running away from home, skipping school and making deliberate attempts to physically or emotionally harm people. Early diagnosis and treatment decreases the child's risk for developing a negative self-image and aligning with peers who demonstrate similar problems.

Implications for Parents

Most children learn to replace aggressive, antisocial behavior with socially appropriate behavior before age 5. The American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that learning to manage feelings of anger and coping with frustration are crucial tasks of early childhood. However, if your child exhibits a pattern of aggressive, antisocial or disruptive behaviors that present a threat to herself, you or others, consult her pediatrician or a mental health professional who specializes in children's behavior problems.

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