Kids who are aggressive at home (but not at school)

Since our daughter started kindergarten she’s become aggressive at home. When angry, tired, or hungry, she kicks, hits, scratches, and bites. But never at Kindergarten! Even at home, most of the time she’s sweet, kind and funny. Our firm boundaries lead to her yelling “I don't care; I'm going to kick you in the face; I'm mean and stupid and you think so, too.''  A few times we’ve had to physically restrain her to keep her from hurting us, herself, or her 2-year old brother.

With time to cool off, she is back to herself.  Both the negative self-talk and the physical violence worry me. Is it starting kindergarten? Is something(s) in her environment the trigger (I’ve been commuting long hours this year)?  Or is there is something really off that needs professional attention?

                                                                              --  Worried Mom


You’re right to worry about how intensely your daughter reacts to frustration, fatigue, and hunger. I’m sure it’s worst when all three are combined.  Family stress, your frequent absences, and starting Kindergarten are likely all part of why she reaches the boiling point so often, despite her basic sweet temperament.


Often the best way to “diagnose” whether a problem is environmental/situational or developmental/a personality issue, is to alter the situation and see if the problem resolves.  The fact that she behaves well at school tells you that she has the capacity to hold herself together for a pretty long time. The “meltdowns” are triggered by either the end of the day fatigue or coming/being home (or all of those).  Keeping herself together at school may be such a strain that she falls apart at home. If so, I’d expect the tantrums very soon after you pick her up or get home.  Many parents are baffled by the “angel at school; demon at home” syndrome.  Rest assured: 1. It’s common 2. It’s better this way than the other way around.

Here’s how I’d start:

1.Institute “special time” when you pick her up, before you drive home. This should include: a healthy snack, a short walk, reviewing her day, or progressive relaxation (See #3) in the car parked in your driveway (before going inside).  You do it too; you’ll be amazed…

2.Often the trouble is transitioning from structured activities at school to unstructured time at home.  While driving, plan exactly what she’ll do once she’s there.

3.Chart when outbursts occur. Is it mostly in late afternoon? Does she need rest? A snack?  Is it when you and your husband must divide your attention between her, her brother, each other, and preparing dinner?  Make a ”pre-emptive action plan” with a set sequence of snack, rest and activities.

4.Use relaxation techniques.  Kids easily go on “a trip” of imagined soothing landscapes, or learn “progressive relaxation.”  With eyes closed, start from the toes and go up the body all the way to fingers and face, tightening the muscles to the count of 1,2,3 and then releasing.

5.Plan more time alone with you, with no person, no phones and no tasks competing for your attention. Pick 3 weekly “special times.” No big undertakings!  A 20 minutes stroll, doing a puzzle together, playing dress up, or reading a favorite book.

6.Have a heart-to-heart talk when she is cheerful. Say you can see how angry she gets and how upsetting it is for everyone.  Tell her the mean things she says about herself and you are not true.  Then drop it; the more you react to these statements, the more she’ll know they really yank your chain.

7.Make a book together: each page for something that makes her angry.  She can draw it, or how she feels. The more pages you can fill together, the more “containers” you are providing her for her anger.

8.Set an “I’m really mad spot” with punching bag, newspapers to tear, paper and crayons. Encourage and praise her for using it when she’s mad.

9.Read Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No-good, Very Bad Day.  Over and over…  

10. Make it clear verbally, and by physically restraining her if needed, that you won’t let her hurt anyone; neither you, your husband, her brother, other kids, nor herself.


If 3-4 weeks go by with no improvement, definitely seek professional help.


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