Aggression in Adolescents: Strategies for Parents and Educators
By Tammy D. Barry, PhD, Texas A&M University &
John E. Lochman, PhD, The University of Alabama
Childhood aggression is an important
focus for educators and parents owing to its relative stability over time
and consistent link to a variety of negative outcomes later in adolescence,
including delinquency, substance use, conduct problems, poor adjustment,
and academic difficulties (poor grades, suspension, expulsion, and dropping
out of school). In addition, verbal and physical aggression often are the
first signs, as well as later defining symptoms, of several childhood psychiatric
disorders. These include Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder,
both of which have prevalence rates ranging from 6 to 10% in the general
population and even higher among males, according to the American Psychiatric
Association. This further highlights the need to recognize and treat aggressive
Aggressive behaviors can vary
from problems with emotional regulation to severe and manipulative behaviors.
There are various characteristics of aggression, which can include behaviors
such as starting rumors; excluding others; arguing; bullying, both verbally
(name-calling) and physically (pushing); threatening; striking back in anger;
use of strong-arm tactics (to get something they want); and engaging in physical
Notably, aggressive behaviors
do not always involve physical contact with another person. Verbal aggression
in elementary school years, such as starting rumors, excluding others, and
arguing, can be part of a developmental trajectory leading to adolescent
delinquency and Conduct Disorder.
Adolescents with a childhood onset
of aggression, rather than an adolescent onset, are more likely to display
the most persistent, severe, and violent antisocial behavior. Indeed, childhood
aggression is often viewed as an indication of a broader syndrome, frequently
involving oppositional and defiant behavior toward adults and covert rule-breaking
behaviors. These behaviors could lead to more serious and recurrent violations
in adolescence, such as stealing, vandalism, assault, and substance abuse.
Family and personal factors. The development
of adolescent antisocial behavior is often considered to be the result of
a set of family and personal factors, with the child’s aggressive behavior
representing a substantial part of that developmental pattern. For example,
children with difficult temperaments and early behavioral problems are at
greater risk for later adolescent aggression and conduct problems. This developmental
course is also set within the child’s social
environment. For example, poor parenting practices, such as poor parental
monitoring and supervision and high rates of harsh and inconsistent discipline,
have been shown to contribute to children’s aggressive
Early social interactions. In early to middle
childhood, children who show high levels of oppositional behavior and aggression
may experience negative reactions from teachers and peers. This may also
lead to problematic ways of processing social information, such as relying
on aggressive solutions in problem solving when presented with social conflicts,
expecting that aggressive solutions will work, and having difficulties interpreting
social information accurately (such as attributing neutral behaviors by others
as hostile). Aggressive children are at risk for many academic problems and,
as their academic progress and social bond to school weakens (owing to problematic
exchanges with teachers and peers), they become more vulnerable to influences
from deviant peer groups.
Risks in adolescence. By adolescence, this
developmental course results in a heightened risk of substance use, delinquent
acts, and school failure. Likewise, certain environmental risk factors can
play a role in moving an adolescent along this developmental pathway. For
example, family dysfunction may be sufficient to initiate the sequence of
escalating aggressive behavior. Living in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods
also adds to the environmental risk factors leading to seriously aggressive,
Effective strategies. In response to recent serious
school violence (including incidents of schoolyard shootings), techniques
to prevent violence and to intervene with at-risk aggressive youth have received
significant attention from education policymakers. Recent research has identified
effective treatments for aggressive youth. Group intervention programs, which
are efficient in both time and cost, are often as effective as individual
therapy in treating aggressive youth. Structured group programs can be used
not only with youth presenting with aggressive behaviors, but also with those
identified as at risk for aggressive behavior problems in an effort to prevent
negative outcomes. Treatment strategies aimed at parents (such as improving
parental monitoring and consistency in discipline), as well as treatments
directly targeting children and adolescents (including cognitive behavioral
treatments, such as problem solving and anger management training), have
helped reduce behavioral problems and aggression in children and adolescents.
Treatment outcome research indicates that a combination of interventions
for both parents and youth may be the most effective.
Parent involvement. Even with adolescents, parents should participate in intervention
programs when their teenager displays significant aggressive behavior.
For example, the Adolescent Transitions Program is a parent training program
developed by Tom Dishion and colleagues. It includes
a parent-focused curriculum that teaches family management skills, limit
setting and supervision, problem solving, and improved family relationships
and communication patterns. The goals of the program are to prevent the
development of antisocial behaviors among aggressive teenagers.
Cognitive-behavioral programs. Aggressive adolescents
can also benefit greatly from cognitive-behavioral programs that provide
new coping techniques for anger management and that teach them alternative
ways of dealing with social conflict. For example, the Anger Control Program
(developed by Eva Feindler and colleagues) focuses on teaching the adolescent
how to modify his or her own aggressive and impulsive behavior when faced
with aversive or stressful situations. This program has been shown to lead
to significant changes in problem-solving ability and self-control among
aggressive adolescents. Problem-Solving Skills Training (PPST) was developed
by Kazdin and colleagues to treat Oppositional Defiant Disorder
or Conduct Disorder in youth of varying ages. PPST involves 12 or more
sessions designed to teach problem-solving steps; introduce effective ways
to apply the steps, including application to real-life situations; and
provide opportunity to role-play use of the steps, including with the parent.
Kazdin and colleagues have also developed a Parent Management Training (PMT)
program, consisting of 13 sessions focusing on observing behavior; positive
reinforcement and attending; school intervention; holding family meetings;
negotiating, contracting, and compromising; and dealing with low-rate, serious
behaviors (such as fire setting). Kazdin notes that ideally both
the youth and parent would be involved in each of the respective treatment
programs. Outcome research shows that combined PSST and PMT are more effective
than either program alone.
Anger Coping. Intensive, comprehensive prevention
programs have been developed and evaluated with high risk youth. Results
indicate that aggressive behavior and other disruptive behavior symptoms
can be reduced through early intervention. Follow-up studies suggest
that adolescents who participated in these programs when younger have
more positive outcomes. One such prevention program is Anger Coping,
which was developed to reduce aggressive youth’s
anger and behavior problems. This cognitive-behavioral program focuses
on at-risk aggressive children and early adolescents age 9–13 and is designed
to provide coping and problem-solving skills to deal with anger and resulting
aggressive behavior. Based on promising findings for the Anger Coping Program,
a more recent version, the Coping Power Program, has been developed. The
Coping Power Program is designed to bring about change in the family system
by working with both the youth and the parent separately.
The Anger Coping Program and the child component of the Coping Power
Program aim to improve youth’s ability to regulate aggressive behavior, to
function well in a variety of settings, and to better manage their anger.
The programs are typically provided in a school-based group format. The Anger
Coping Program includes 18 weekly sessions. The Coping Power Program includes
34 weekly sessions. The child component sessions cover material
such as goal setting, organizational skills, perspective taking, emotional
awareness, use of coping statements to deal with anger, relaxation training,
social problem solving, making friends and negotiating with peers, developing
positive peer relationships and avoiding deviant peer groups, and resisting
The Coping Power parent component is also based on cognitive-behavioral
principles, and is designed to address caregiver and parenting risk factors
for child aggression. Parents learn additional strategies that support
the skills that their children learn in the child component, as well as
some techniques for dealing with parenting stress. Parents learn how to
create a positive home environment and to end the coercive cycle that may
exist between them and their aggressive child.
Typically, parents meet during
16 meetings approximately once every 2 weeks in the late afternoon or evening
hours at their children’s school. Sessions include academic support
in the home, tracking and attending to their child’s behaviors, praise
and rewards for positive behaviors, ignoring minor disruptive behaviors,
giving effective instructions, establishing rules and expectations, use
of consequences for defiant or disruptive behaviors, handling their child’s
behavior during the summer months, family cohesion building, family problem
solving, and family communication.
There are many developmental implications
for this treatment, and the main targets of intervention will change with
the youth’s age. For example, parents of younger children may be taught
to focus more on timeout procedures for inappropriate or defiant behavior,
whereas a focus on monitoring and supervision should be primary for parents
of aggressive adolescents. The benefits of the Anger Coping and Coping
Power programs with aggressive youth have been established in studies that
included random assignment to either participate in a group or to be in
an untreated control condition (receiving care as usual).
Tips for Dealing With an
When dealing with an aggressive
adolescent, teachers, and parents may use the following guidelines:
No child is always
bad. Catch the adolescent behaving
well and attend to and praise these positive behaviors. Provide additional
opportunities to act appropriately and give positive feedback. If you
only notice inappropriate and aggressive behavior, these behaviors
may be used as a way to get your attention.
let the adolescent know that you care and respect him or her. Remind
the adolescent that it is the inappropriate behaviors (not
the individual) that you do not like.
Don’t ignore. Although ignoring minor disruptive behaviors
(complaining) can be an effective way to decrease those behaviors, do not
ignore inappropriate aggression.
Be positive. Remain calm and model positive problem solving
for the adolescent. Do not become angry in response to his or her anger.
Don’t rationalize. Do not try to rationalize about the aggressive
behavior or why you are invoking consequences; avoid a power struggle.
Behavior contracts. Set up a behavioral contract
to help the adolescent take control of his or her own behavior. The contract
should list target positive behaviors that are expected and a reward that
can be earned for meeting a criterion number of these target behaviors. Rewards
can be naturally occurring consequences, such as going to a movie with friends
or a homework “pass.” The
target behaviors should be stated as positive behaviors (the “Dos” rather
than the “Do nots”). They should communicate
your expectations. Therefore, if the adolescent often argues, the target
behavior might be to discuss things calmly.
Effective commands. Use effective instructions and commands. Commands should be concise,
direct, positively stated, and given one at a time. Avoid question commands
(“Would you like to help me clean out the garage?”) because they provide
an opportunity to say, “No.” Avoid “Let’s” commands, unless you actually
plan to help with the task. Avoid commands that are vague, include multiple
requests chained together, or that give too much explanation.
House rules. Set up house rules or classroom rules that must always be followed.
These rules can focus on decreasing aggressive behavior. If the adolescent
breaks a rule, then he or she is given an immediate consequence (that is,
Negative consequences. When the adolescent
does not follow instructions or other established expectations, breaks rules,
or engages in aggressive behavior, provide prompt negative consequences.
These can include extra work chores or loss of a privilege.
Communication. Increase ongoing communication
and cohesion between yourself and the adolescent. The adolescent then will
be more likely to come to you when a problem arises.
Problem solving. Model effective problem solving:
identification of the problem; generating multiple potential responses, both
positive and negative; evaluating alternative responses; and planning for
implementation of the response. Help the adolescent to see problem solving
in action and use opportunities to assist him or her in applying these principles
to his or her own problems.
Relaxation. Teach quick but effective relaxation techniques (deep breathing,
counting to 10) that can be used to calm down when he or she gets very
Coping statements. Help the adolescent to develop a list of coping statements to deal
with anger. Practice these statements in advance, so that he or she will
be more readily able to use these statements when in provoking social situations.
Perspective taking. Aid the adolescent in understanding
others’ perspectives, including
what others may be thinking and feeling. Again, practice perspective taking
in advance during non-provoking situations so that he or she will be better
prepared to do so when provoked.
Negotiating. Teach the adolescent skills for
negotiating needs with peers, parents, and teachers, so that the teen will
be less likely to use aggression or defiance as a means of getting what he
or she wants.
Autonomy. Help the adolescent develop autonomy by valuing his or her positive
ideas and encouraging positive independent thinking and decision making.
As experience with these positive experiences develops, the adolescent
is less likely to respond in negative, aggressive ways.
Monitoring. For parents of adolescents, monitoring is crucial. This monitoring
should be presented in a caring way, rather than as a violation of privacy.
When parents take a genuine interest in their adolescent, the adolescent
is less likely to engage in disruptive behavior. Ask who his or her friends
are and what he or she does in his or her free time. Whenever your child
is going out, know who is going, where he or she is going, how he or she will get there, what he
or she will be doing, and when he or she will return home.
Techniques. Provide the adolescent with techniques for joining new, positive
peer groups and avoiding deviant peer groups and negative peer pressure.
Evaluation. Whenever a teacher or parent is
very concerned about ongoing inappropriate behavior, a comprehensive evaluation
by a qualified mental health professional should be arranged to determine
if more intensive treatment, such as therapy, is needed.
Kazdin, A. E., & Weisz,
J. R. (2003). Evidence-based psychotherapies for children and adolescents. New York: Guilford. ISBN: 1572306831.
Larson, J., & Lochman,
J. E. (2002). Helping school children
cope with anger: A cognitive-behavioral intervention. New
York: Guilford. ISBN: 1572307285.
Lochman, J. E., & Wells, K. C. (2002). The Coping Power Program at the middle school transition:
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Reid, J. B.,
Patterson, G. R., & Snyder, J. (2002). Antisocial behavior in
children and adolescents: A developmental analysis and
model for intervention. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
van de Weil, N. M. H., Matthys, W., Cohen-Kettenis,
P., & van Engeland, H. (2003). Application
of the Utrecht Coping Power Program and care as usual to children with
disruptive behavior disorders in outpatient clinics: A comparative study
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Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention: Youth Violence in the United States— www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/youth/newfacts.htm
The National Institute of Mental Health: Children and Violence (booklets,
fact sheets, and summaries)— www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/violencemenu.cfm
Tammy D. Barry, PhD, is
an Assistant Professor at Texas A&M University. John E. Lochman,
PhD, is Professor and Saxon Chair in Clinical Psychology at The University of Alabama.
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