Emotion Regulation and Aggression in Early Childhood

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  • 0:04 Development
  • 1:09 Aggression
  • 3:00 Self-Regulation
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What happens when a sweet kid suddenly starts hitting, kicking, and doing other aggressive things? In this lesson, we'll explore aggression in early childhood, including the main types of aggression and how to increase self-regulation.


Ilsa is worried about her son, Christian. He is four years old and can be very mean. When he doesn't get what he wants, he yells and sometimes throws things, and he's been known to kick or bite other children. He used to be such a sweet child, but now he acts really aggressively. Ilsa doesn't know what's going on, but she knows it's not good.

All humans go through development, or growth and change across their lives. A baby learns to sit up and then crawl and then walk. A kid goes from counting to adding to doing algebra. And some kids experience changes in their behaviors as they grow, just as Christian has gone from being a sweet kid to being an aggressive one.

So, does that mean that Christian is just a bad kid and nothing can be done? Not at all! Just as Christian has developed from sweetness to aggression, he can be taught how to handle his aggression, which could lead to him developing into a calmer person. Let's look closer at common types of aggression and how kids can learn to handle their emotions.


Christian is showing a darker side; he's been acting out whenever he doesn't get his way. For example, the other day at preschool, another boy was playing with the toy that Christian wanted. He snatched the toy away from the boy, and when the boy tried to take it back, Christian pushed him down. To understand Christian's actions a little better, let's look at the three main types of aggression.

  1. Instrumental aggression is all about getting something. For example, Christian wanted the toy, so he took it from the other kid. Instrumental aggression is not about hurting someone else; any harm that comes to the other person is incidental. Instead, it is about doing whatever is necessary to get what you want. This is common in people of all ages, but is particularly prevalent in children, who don't always understand that their actions can hurt others.
  2. Hostile aggression is aimed at hurting another person. Many classic examples of physical bullying fall into the category of hostile aggression: kicking, hitting, shoving, and other forms of physical violence. In addition, hostile aggression could involve destruction of property. For example, when Christian got mad at a kid at the park, he threw the kid's backpack in the mud. His goal was to hurt the kid.
  3. Relational aggression is focused on hurting the social makeup of the person. This usually is seen in older kids, like middle schoolers. Examples of relational aggression include social exclusion and spreading rumors. For example, a middle school bully might convince the other kids at the school to ignore one kid in particular. The goal of that action would be to hurt the person's social life and leave them feeling isolated and alone.


So now we know the three types of aggression, and as we've seen, they are all three relatively common. Is there anything that can be done to stop aggressive kids?

Self-regulation is about being able to control your behaviors. This might seem like a simple task. Even if you get angry, don't take a swing at your boss. Pretty straightforward, right?

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