What are typical rule breaking behaviors and aggression?

It’s typical for children and adolescents to break rules and even be aggressive towards their caregivers and peers at least some of the time. While younger children are pretty rule-driven, older children and adolescents will occasionally break rules at home or in school even though they know that if they are caught there will be a consequence. These types of rule-breaking behaviors are considered typical and are thought of as part of typical development.

There are even typical sides to aggressive behavior. Toddlers may hit when they are upset, but they do not mean to inflict pain or harm. They simply want to gratify an immediate need. It’s also typical for two young children to engage in a scuffle on the playground over something that adults will likely find quite trivial. Importantly, these behaviors are situational and do not carry over into other situations.


When should I be concerned about a child’s rule breaking and aggression?

While all children and adolescents may exhibit these behaviors at one point or another, concern arises when a pattern emerges, and they occur more often and more intensely. Children and adolescents with troubles in these areas may:

  • Be irritable.
  • Lose their temper easily.
  • Argue with adults.
  • Refuse to follow rules.
  • Act in a verbally or physically aggressive manner.
  • Lack remorse after problems occur.

Aggression can be present without rule-breaking behavior as well, and should always be investigated. Children and adolescents may be aggressive for some of the following reasons, all of which are concerning:


Trouble regulating their emotions

Sometimes children and adolescents feel intensely and have a hard time managing their emotions before acting out on how they feel.

Difficulties managing their frustration

When children and adolescents have a hard time dealing with their feeling of frustration, it can lead to intense angry feelings.


Children and adolescents are usually more impulsive than adults. However, some of them may show signs of higher impulsivity levels when they frequently act out on their emotions.

Experience of some kind of stressor

When children and adolescents are going through experiences that require some level of adaptation (such as parental separation, the birth of a sibling, illness or death of loved one, moving houses or school, etc), they may have a hard time dealing with daily or challenging situations.


What can I do to help a rule-breaking and aggressive child?

Caregivers know their children best. If you are a caregiver, it is helpful to first understand that behavior is a form of communication. Children and adolescents who break rules and are aggressive usually lash out—they may not have the skills to manage their feelings in a more appropriate way. They may lack the words, the impulse control, or the problem-solving skills to achieve what they want, so they resort to acting out in these ways. There are a few things you may attempt:

  • Be a model for your child’s good behavior. Take deep breaths and, when interacting with your child, try talking in a regular, soothing tone, and avoid using offensive language and physical interventions.
  • Be supportive. It is important for caregivers to let their child know what they have noticed and that they are there to help. Caregivers can listen and validate without jumping immediately to problem solving unless their child is specifically asking for help with solving a problem.
  • Talk about it. Caregivers can initiate a conversation with their child to see if there is something that is causing distress. It is important to ask simple questions to understand the thoughts the child may be having about themself and if they are feeling distressed in any way.
  • Don’t give in on the rules you have established. Rules are established to maintain safety, routine, and provide expectations for behavior. Permitting a child or adolescent to bend or break the rules sends a message that the rules do not matter and can be broken without consequence.
  • Explain consequences. Permitting rule-breaking or aggression without consequence, being inconsistent with rules or outcomes, and using disproportionate consequences can all exacerbate aggressive and rule-breaking behavior.
  • Praise your child when they behave appropriately. Some children and adolescents break rules or act aggressively as a means of gaining attention–attention gained in negative ways is still attention. However, when they are praised for behaving appropriately, they realize attention can be gained for doing the right things. A little praise for adhering to rules often goes a long way.
  • Help your child practice problem solving. Sometimes children and adolescents engage in aggressive behaviors because they don’t know any other way to solve problems they are going through. Try listening to your child to help him or her to think about different ways they could deal with their difficulties.
  • Help your child avoid triggers. If you and your child have already identified what triggers their rule breaking and aggressive behaviors, try working on avoiding exposure to such triggers.

In general, rule breaking and aggression are tricky behaviors to extinguish at home and many caregivers need help. These behaviors are particularly challenging, and they may be really hard for a caregiver to address on their own. They can result in a lot of familial tension and stress in the home, so caregivers acting as a "team" is really important. Even though caregivers may have differing opinions of how to address these behaviors, disagreements can lead to arguments that never seem to address the problem at hand.

If you have already tried some or most of these suggestions and the problems your child is facing persist, it may be time to seek out professional support.

Rule breaking behavior and aggression that are too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, discrepant from those experienced by children the same age, and that negatively interfere with your child and family’s daily lives, may indicate the possibility of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder.


What kind of professional support can I seek out for help?

It is not unusual that some caregivers feel embarrassed, inadequate, or guilty if their child is struggling with rule breaking behavior and aggression. But, if you are concerned about your child, support and guidance are available now. Communicate concerns during and between visits with your child's doctor.

Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful. These professionals also work with caregivers so that they know how to support their children outside of therapy sessions.

The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).

Where to find more information

Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].

If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.

You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.



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