25 Jan

Hello Heart to Heart Family,

Why does my Child have Aggressive Behaviors?

Children displaying aggressive behaviors frequently have experienced trauma.  When a child is aggressive, it is usually a desperate cry for help.  It would be so much easier if when your child was struggling, he came to you in a calm and quiet manner and said, “Dearest mother, I had a difficult time concentrating at school because the noise level was overwhelming.  I was trying to focus so hard but my body had extra emotional and physical energy that needed to be released.  I did not want to disrupt my other classmates because I did not want my past experiences with trauma to hinder their learning experiences.  So, I am coming to you calmly to tell you I need to go to counseling to work through some of the difficulties I’m dealing with.”  No, instead your child slammed his fist on the desk in class, got into a fight during recess, and kicked his door when he got home from school.  When asked what was wrong, he shouted “leave me alone.” 

So why do our children respond with the physical outbursts instead of clear verbal communication?  The answer is because children’s brains are wired to respond in physical NOT verbal forms of communication, especially after they have experienced trauma.  When trauma happens, the brain instantly goes into survival mode.  During survival mode, the brain becomes hyper alert to perceptions of real or imagined threats.  The brain functions from a state of fear and danger.  Therefore, the survival brain resorts to three primary points of action: fight, flight, or freeze.  In the moment, the decision to fight, flight, or freeze is an unconscious decision – it happens without the person really thinking about it.  When the threat of danger exists, the survival brain takes over and makes the decision that is best able to keep the child alive.  When children experience trauma, they often are helpless and unable to physically fight or flee the dangerous situation.  This leaves them with the freeze option.  When children freeze during trauma experiences, the danger and fear get encoded into their brains with a layer of helplessness.  The child may have desperately wanted to fight the abuser or flee from the scene, but at the time of the trauma, they were unable to.  Consequently, the survival mode in the brain stays on.  The survival brain wants to release the feelings of helplessness and overcome the trauma.  The survival brain also tries to prepare itself to be able to fight or flee dangerous situations in the future.  As a result, the survival mode in the brain often overrides the part of the brain that is calm and able to verbally communicate.  Instead of using words to process the trauma events, the survival brain will frequently resort to aggressive behaviors. 

Dealing with aggressive behaviors that are rooted in trauma can be especially difficult.  A typical response to a child’s aggression is to force them to immediately stop.  While this can sometimes be necessary in the moment to ensure safety, it is important to keep in mind that continual suppression of aggression is only a temporary solution to a much bigger problem.  Aggression that is suppressed, will continue to build and ultimately explode further down the road.  As a result, we must look at aggression related to trauma differently.  Think of a child’s aggressive behaviors as built-up trauma that is looking for an escape.  For some children, the only tool they currently have to release the built-up trauma is to display aggressive behaviors.  As odd as it may sound, aggression can be the body’s way of trying to self-heal with limited resources.  Therefore, we need to give children more tools and resources to safely and healthily release their trauma and disengage the survival mode in the brain for everyday living.

Check out the next blog Helping a Child with Aggressive Behaviors for tips on helping children with aggressive tendencies. 

~Tasha Lehner MA

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