​Young children and aggression

Very young children often use pushing, shoving or yelling to get what they want. They have not learned yet about sharing, joining in, taking turns, etc. This type of behaviour isn't bullying.

However, bullying behaviour can start at this age, including targeted verbal and physical aggression, social exclusion, and rumour spreading.

Promoting positive behaviour and reducing aggression and early bullying is most likely to be effective when children are young.

Intervening early stops early bullying-like behaviours becoming established patterns of interaction. Read about what to do if you see aggression or bullying in young children.

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Aggressive behaviour is normal in young children

Most young children use some form of aggression to get and keep belongings and food they want and to respond to actions of others that upsets them.

Aggressive behaviour tends to peak between 1 to 3 years of age, after which it declines as children start to develop spoken language, emotional and social skills. Children tend to dislike other children who continue to use high levels of physical and verbal aggression after 3 years.

If you see aggressive behaviour, talk sensitively with the child to see if you can identify and then deal with the reason for the behaviour.

For example, the child might be:​

  • be upset about something at home, like the death of a pet, and be lashing out at other children
  • exploring her potential and power to push others around — a normal thing to explore
  • hurt about always being left out by a group of children he wants to play with, and is reacting by damaging their activities.

Help the child understand and deal with their feelings and then work out other ways to behave.

Be alert to two types of aggressive behaviour in children from 4 years of age.

Reactive aggression

Reactive aggression is pushing, yelling or biting in response to someone else's action that is upsetting.

A child of 4 years or older who shows frequent reactive aggression needs your support to avoid over-reacting to events, develop emotional control, and get a sense of control of some things in the world.

Over-reactive children are more likely to be targeted in bullying.

You have a critical role to help young children learn how to deal with difficult or frustrating situations. Help children identify and manage their feelings, and show them more appropriate ways to behave. For example, you could say, 'I'd like you to use your words when you are upset'.

Proactive aggression

Proactive aggression is using aggression to get what you want or to dominate others. Proactive aggression can be used by children with good social skills to dominate others and to assert their social power. It can also be used by children with limited social skills and who struggle to make friends.

Proactive aggression can turn into early bullying.

Children who bully others view aggression positively as a way to solve problems or get what they want. You have a critical role in stopping aggression becoming an established pattern of behaviour. Teach alternative ways to solve problems and achieve success.

Single events of aggression are different from bullying. In bullying, children use proactive aggression against younger or weaker children in deliberate and repeated attempts to dominate and hurt the other child. Bullying behaviours have been observed in young children from as young as 4 years old.