Aggression in Children

Understanding why children become aggressive is an important step toward helping them cope, heal and learn healthier behaviors. 

Photo Credit: Mikhail Nilov

Aggression in children, no matter the child’s age, can be scary, confusing and overwhelming for parents, the children themselves and for others in the child’s sphere. 


Coercion cycle is the beginning of aggression in kids. 


This post will cover some of the basics on why kids might act out in harmful ways, and what parents can do about it. 


There are many theories and frameworks from which we could (and will) discuss child behavior, and all of the many factors that go into any given set of behaviors displayed by a child. Today we will discuss the Coercion Cycle. 


We will talk about what the Coercion Cycle is, and how it can change your parenting, your child’s responses and ultimately, your child’s behavioral outcomes.



Coercion  Cycle

The Coercion Cycle. Specifically related to parenting, is really easy to slip into, but incredibly difficult to work out of, once it’s an established pattern. 


The cycle is based on an interaction cycle which is motivated by wanting undesirable stimuli to stop (aka your toddler is screaming in the store for a new toy and you just want it to stop). 


Here’s the tricky thing, even if this cycle is normal to take part in, if allowed to become a habitual interaction pattern, it can cause some pretty serious behavioral issues in children. According to the current research, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder and Anti-Social Aggression all find their roots in this one little cycle. 


This root cause is actually very hope-giving. If these serious behavioral concerns all stem from the perpetuated use of the Coercion Cycle, then the halting and repairing from that cycle would be a logical be a path forward to heal and prevent. 


What does halting and repairing from the coercion cycle look like? Great question. First let’s take a minute to really look at the coercion cycle itself and explore what elements add up to its creation. 


What is the cycle? 


A command, if there is compliance, there is no escalation. If there is not compliance as desired, the command will be repeated in a slightly escalated manner. This is the first “loop” in the cycle, which will repeat 1-3 times before another escalation in command type occurs.


This cycle will repeat until compliance is reached. 


As the cycle progresses, it can easily escalate to aggression or violence, at which point typically the non-compliant party gives into the “max” escalation of aggression/violence, creating a new interaction norm. 

The difficulty and concern lies in the escalative nature of the cycle. Each time the response to non-compliance will pick up at the point of previous compliance. 




Two children, Ty and Alex. Typically the cycle persists with the adult-child dynamic, but the example is an accurate illustration of how the cycle works. 


Ty does not want to give Alex the toy.


Alex knows that last time this happened, Ty gave Alex the toy only after Alex screamed and threw something. Alex will jump to screaming and throwing because that is what has worked previously.


If Ty continues in non-compliance even after Alex screams and hurls things, Alex will escalate the behavior in the direction which has been successful in the past; aggression and violence. If this time Alex ends up physically harming Ty, and that is the point of compliance for this cycle, Alex will learn to jump to physical harm the next time non-compliance becomes a problem.


This cycle quickly becomes habitual and just as quickly can spiral out of parental/adult control. 


This is where the risk-factors for serious behavioral changes come into play, which make all the difference in a child’s social and behavioral long-term outcomes. 



How the Cycle Works


There are 5 main social/behavioral and relational changes take place internally for a child, as the coercion cycle increases in habitual severity. 


1.Overinclusive Identification:


When a parent and child are relating to each other from a coercion framework, the child will do something small, or neutral and the adult will see it as aggressive, and will react with inappropriate intensity to the situation.  The child is seen as aggressive in almost any behavior. 



2. Negative Attribution:


When the adult and child are deep into the coercion cycle, the adult will be blinded to any positive qualities within the child.  Every behavior is seen as either aggressive, or if not actively aggressive, as a manipulation tactic. 



3. Punishment Acceleration: 


When the adults involved in the coercion cycle are accustomed to situations escalating out of control, they will likely try to stop any new possible interaction before things are able to escalated by dealing out punishments which would be appropriate for the intense escalations, but not for the initial behavior. This often lends itself to harsh punishments that don’t actually help in the long run. 



4. Non-responsiveness to Social Stimuli: 


Once entrenched in a coercion cycle with one or more adults, children begin to become non-responsive to positive social response. Any positive interactions or responses will be taken as an attempt at manipulation or as generally non-trustworthy or negative. 



5. Emotional Regulation Difficulties:


Once a pair or a family are deeply set in the patterns of the coercion cycle, research shows that the child will display or enact a negative behavior on an average of once each 3 minutes, which leads to negative parental/adult response on an average of every 16 minutes. These interactions build and perpetuate each other, intensifying and continuing the cycle and increasing the child’s risk of developing serious behavioral issues. 


Alright, now we understand a little bit more about what the cycle is, and how it works. Now, Let’s explore available solutions. 






1. Non-contingent positive interactions:


Just like it sounds, children need to be given positive interactions and attention whether or not they’ve “earned” it. We have to remember that care/love, safety and respect are not things to be taken away, as punishments. But should act as guiding staples. Positive interactions regardless of behavior is an imperative part of preventing the cycle and healing from it. Specifically, this means quality time spent together that is directed by the child. An activity of their choice.


Simplified, this proactive relationship building prevents children from becoming non-responsive to positive interactions. 



2. Magic Ratio:


Per Dr. John Gottman, it takes 5 positive interactions for every single negative interaction, to “balance” any person’s “emotional bank account.” Gottman suggests at the very least we keep things balanced, 5:1, if not being proactive and making “deposits” in a 7:1 fashion to build up a backlog of positive emotional experiences to counteract any negative interactions.


This strategy helps protect, prevent and heal the behavioral risk factors associated with an established coercion cycle. 

This looks like pats on the head, hugs, smiles, positive comments, games and activities to counter “no” discipline and coercion escalations. 



3. Decrease Requests to 5 per/hour:


Why? It’s in the numbers. Realistically, the more commands and requests adults give, the likelihood of a coercive cycle emerging at some point is significantly increased. 



“…20 requests per hour is strongly correlated to parent-child violence…”

– Dr. M. Whitehead


In sum, the coercion cycle is part of an adult-child interaction pattern, which if not protected against can rapidly become deeply detrimental to everyone involved, particularly the child.  Positive interactions should not be withheld based on behavior. Requests should be kept at a max of 5 per hour and adults should aim to engage in 5-7 positive interaction for every 1 request or negative interaction. 




Next Steps

Want to your explore therapy options? The highly-qualified team at Aspen Grove Family Therapy is made up of Marriage and Family Therapists, Counselors and Social Workers. We are here to help. If you’d like to connect or have questions, please reach out. We would love to hear from you.


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