My child is so aggressive. Why? What can I do?

To this day – four years after being diagnosed at the age of six – Cameron’s parents still expect that he’ll express his distress or discomfort through aggressive means. This means self-harm, like banging his head against the wall, or hurting others, like biting his older sister, Carissa.


“For the most part, Cam turns to hurting himself first,” says mom Kathy. “As he’s gotten older, he’s learned to contain his violent behavior toward other people… it was really tough for a while, especially at school. But, you know, we recognize that emotions are hard, even for neurotypical people.


“For Cam, when it all gets to be too much, despite all our best intentions for him and guidance and therapy and all that, he goes to head banging. It’s still really hard to watch.”


Many autistic children, like Cameron, participate in self-injurious or aggressive behavior, due to a number of factors. They may be stressed. They might be anxious. They might feel sensitive to certain noises, textures, or tastes. They might even be looking for some kind of stimulation. They may not know how else to communicate what they want, what they need, and know no other way to share it.


While it’s not always possible to understand why your child has taken to hitting or other harmful behaviors, you can certainly look for the main triggers and reasons, as well as the responses to those triggers. By keeping a journal of when and why your child participates in such behavior, you can watch out for the triggers in the future, perhaps avoiding them altogether, or helping your child learn how to navigate through them without needing to hurt themselves or others.


If and when your child does get aggressive, there are a few things you can do to help.


The first and most important tip is to always remain calm. When you see your child hurting themselves, it’s natural to panic and get upset yourself. But by understanding that the reason your child is having an outburst in the first place is because they’re feeling chaotic and overwhelmed, you’ll be more likely to stay calm so you can be a strong, safe presence for them.


Removing your child from the overwhelming environment, whenever possible, is also key. This is especially important if you’re in a room where more damage can be done – for example, if you’re in the kitchen and your child takes to using utensils to express their anger, take them to another room. If it’s in a space where there are a lot of people and it’s just far too noisy for your child, take them somewhere quiet and close the door.


Say little during aggressive outbursts; anything you say, no matter how well-intentioned, may add to your child’s stress. It’s important for them to know their feelings aren’t wrong, but because so many autistic children have a hard time understanding language and even tone, it’s best to keep your words to a minimum. Instead, use your gentle, supportive actions to assure them that it’s all okay.


Having said this all, when your child is frustrated, it can be tempting to give in to them – almost enabling the behavior. In therapy, you will learn how to help prevent the behavior by avoiding triggering circumstances, as well as how to teach your child to express and share what they want and need in more positive ways. Instead of punishing your child, reward them when they learn how to behave positively – and that will continue to encourage the good behavior.

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