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Preschool children can become physically aggressive to other children, and an aggressive child will often graduate to verbal aggression and relational aggression.
There are several forms of aggression children exhibit with their peers: Physical Aggression, Verbal Aggression, and Relational Aggression. Aggressive children usually start with physical aggression as that is their only tool, and graduate to verbal aggression as they grow older and develop a better vocabulary. Around the age of 4 they will then move on to relational aggression, inflicting emotional harm on their target with lower risk of consequences. There is evidence that all forms of aggression are linked to certain inherited genes, plus aggression has been linked with harsh and overly controlling parenting and a lack of parental warmth. There is also strong evidence that these aggressive children tend to attribute hostile intent to others and have a lack of empathy.
What can you do? Don’t be that harsh or over-controlling authoritative parent. Show warmth, but be firm that aggression is not OK. Flexible and warm authoritative parenting is the most beneficial style for the child’s social, intellectual, emotional, and moral growth into adolescence and adulthood. Be wary of exhibiting aggression yourself by yelling and spanking. There are two sides to the spanking story: (1) If you hit them, they are only modeling you when they hit someone else, and the message they learned from you is that the bigger and stronger person wins; (2) hitting someone else takes on a whole different meaning when you get hit and understand how it hurts. Most modern psychologists advise that you can raise your children better without physical punishment – it takes a little more patience but is more effective in the long run. Children of my generation got frequent spankings and most turned out OK. My opinion (without any professional research to back it up) is that IF you are going to administer physical punishment, the time is when they are too young to understand your explanations, and the punishment fits the crime (you hit someone else, you get hit.) By the time they are 4 years old, they should understand your explanations, and you should probably move away from physical punishment.
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