Demystifying Aggression

Let’s Change the Dialogue Around Children and Revisit Development


Aggressive behavior at any age is challenging and distressing for parents, teachers, clinicians, and others, as well as for children themselves.

Sometimes we see it coming, sometimes not. Sometimes it is physical, and sometimes it is a threat or disparaging remarks. But we all know it is dangerous and damaging. Of course, our first step is to stop aggressive behavior and secure safety. But what we do next will depend on how we understand its meaning?

All behavior has meaning, and aggressive behavior is complex.

Thinking about it requires a multifaceted approach. All children experience anger, fear, anxiety and frustration, and vary in their capacities to regulate these big emotions, impulses and negative feelings. But not all children resort to aggressive behavior. Start by examining the development of self-regulation. Each child is born with individual differences in sensory motor processing, and have different physiological patterns of under, over or mixed reactivity to sensation, emotions, and stress in the environment.  The availability of caring relationships to support both emotional and physiological regulation in the face of environmental stress or trauma is essential.

Many external and internal emotional and physiological processes contribute to a child’s dysregulation.

Some are more evident than others and can be ascertained by examining the world the child lives in. Others require us we take a deeper look at the underlying causes or hidden triggers. High levels of arousal and perceptions of threat related to changes or transitions may be triggers. Here the meaning of threat to the child must be understood if we are to lower the anxiety and fear that propel the child into the behavior. The behavior may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Given the complexity, it is important to find one lens or perspective that is universal to anchor our understanding of aggressive behavior and ability to help.

And that is development. Not the silos of cognition, language, motor, social, etc., but the integration of all these aspects as they function simultaneously and are synthesized in the DIR ® Model (Developmental, Individual Difference, Relationship Model) created by Stanley Greenspan, MD and Serena Wieder, PhD.  Evaluating the child’s functional emotional developmental capacities, the “D” of the DIR® Model, allows us to identify the gaps that get in the way of regulation and shared attention. From the start of life regulation is embedded in the infant’s relations with parents as they connect around the need for regulation of feeding, sleeping, crying, temperature and self-soothing.  As the child develops, regulation of self-control, impulses, anxiety and the expanding range of emotions continue to be embedded in relational and physiological, as well as environmental and trauma factors.

To develop therapeutic strategies, look for the gaps in all functional emotional developmental capacities.

Has he not learned to relate or engage warmly to other people or others have not related to him to build trust and security?  Perhaps he has not developed the continuous flow of interaction with others that support communication of feelings and problem solving. Or, he has not entered the world of symbolic function for the safe expression of big emotions and has not developed adequate understanding of what is real or not. If he has not learned to regulate or control aggressive impulses, he may lack the capacity to see his behavior has consequences for others and has not learned to empathize with someone else’s perspective. Targeting these gaps can guide therapeutic interventions to support the foundation necessary for mental health and behavioral regulation.

Learn effective short- and long-term strategies promoting safety and regulation at Profectum’s Annual NY Conference on February 2, 2020.

Attend in person or virtually from anywhere and hear multidisciplinary experts “Demystify Aggression.” Visit the conference website for details.

Presentations and Presenters

Reframing Aggression: Safety, Regulation, and Relationships
Arietta Slade, PhD
; Professor of Clinical Child Psychology at the Yale Child Study Center, and Professor Emerita, Clinical Psychology, The City University of New York

What’s Between Aggression, Threat, and Anxiety; When is Aggression Really Aggression: Hidden Triggers and Latent Meanings
Tal Baz, MS, OTR/L and Gilbert Foley, EdD; Profectum Senior Faculty

From “Boys to Teens”- An Already Difficult Developmental Transition Made More Challenging When Fraught with Aggression: What it Communicates; What it Means, and What to Do
Panel Presentation with Lori Jeanne Peloquin, PhD, Clinical Psychologist, Profectum Senior Faculty; Ruby Salazar, LCSW, BCD, Founder and Director of Pennsylvania Lifespan Services, Profectum Senior Faculty; Stacy Sue Rosello, MA, OTR/L, Director/Founder of Embrace the Child, Ltd, Profectum Assistant Faculty;  Lauren Blaszak, BA, Co-founder/Executive Director, Celebrate the Children School

Aggression: The Failure of Symbolization – Understanding the emotional hierarchy of early symbolic development and reality testing  promotes the safe expression of aggressive threats and impulses.
Serena Wieder, PhD; Clinical Director, Profectum Foundation

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