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What Is Aggressive Behavior?
Aggressive behavior can cause physical or emotional harm to others. It may range from verbal abuse to physical abuse. It can also involve harming personal property.
Aggressive behavior violates social boundaries. It can lead to breakdowns in your relationships. It can be obvious or secretive. Occasional aggressive outbursts are common and even normal in the right circumstances. However, you should speak to your doctor if you experience aggressive behavior frequently or in patterns.
When you engage in aggressive behavior, you may feel irritable and restless. You may feel impulsive. You may find it hard to control your behavior. You might not know which behaviors are socially appropriate. In other cases, you might act aggressively on purpose. For example, you may use aggressive behavior to get revenge or provoke someone. You may also direct aggressive behavior towards yourself.
It’s important to understand the causes of your aggressive behavior. This can help you address it.
What Causes Aggressive Behavior?
Many things can shape your behavior. These can include your:
- physical health
- mental health
- family structure
- relationships with others
- work or school environment
- societal or socioeconomic factors
- individual traits
- life experiences
As an adult, you might act aggressively in response to negative experiences. For example, you might get aggressive when you feel frustrated. Your aggressive behavior may also be linked to depression, anxiety, PTSD, or other mental health conditions.
Health Causes of Aggressive Behavior
Many mental health conditions can contribute to aggressive behavior. For example, these conditions include:
- autism spectrum disorder
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- bipolar disorder
- conduct disorder
- intermittent explosive disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Brain damage can also limit your ability to control aggression. You may experience brain damage as the result of:
- head injury
- certain infections
- certain illnesses
Different health conditions contribute to aggression in different ways. For example, if you have autism or bipolar disorder, you might act aggressively when you feel frustrated or unable to speak about your feelings. If you have conduct disorder, you will act aggressively on purpose.
Aggression in children can be caused by several factors. These can include:
- poor relationship skills
- underlying health conditions
- stress or frustration
Your child might imitate aggressive or violent behavior that they see in their daily life. They may receive attention for it from family members, teachers, or peers. You can accidentally encourage it by ignoring or rewarding their aggressive behavior.
Sometimes, children lash out due to fear or suspicion. This is more common if your child has schizophrenia, paranoia, or other forms of psychoses. If they have bipolar disorder, they might act aggressively during the manic phase of their condition. If they have depression, they might act aggressively when they feel irritated.
Your child might also act aggressively when they have trouble coping with their emotions. They might find it especially hard to deal with frustration. This is common in children who have autism spectrum disorder or cognitive impairments. If they become frustrated, they may be unable to fix or describe the situation causing their frustration. This can lead them to act out.
Children with ADHD or other disruptive disorders may show a lack of attention or understanding. They may also appear impulsive. In some cases, these behaviors may be considered aggressive. This is especially true in situations when their behaviors are socially unacceptable.
Causes in Teens
Aggressive behavior in teenagers is common. For example, many teens act rudely or get into arguments sometimes. However, your teen might have a problem with aggressive behavior if they regularly:
- yell during arguments
- get into fights
- bully others
In some cases, they may act aggressively in response to:
- peer pressure
- substance abuse
- unhealthy relationships with family members or others
Puberty can also be a stressful time for many teens. If they don’t understand or know how to cope with changes during puberty, your teen may act aggressively. If they have a mental health condition, it can also contribute to aggressive behavior.
To work through aggressive behavior, you need to identify its underlying causes.
It may help to talk to someone about experiences that make you feel aggressive. In some cases, you can learn how to avoid frustrating situations by making changes to your lifestyle or career. You can also develop strategies for coping with frustrating situations. For example, you can learn how to communicate more openly and honestly, without becoming aggressive.
Your doctor may recommend psychotherapy to help treat aggressive behavior. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you learn how to control your behavior. It can help you develop coping mechanisms. It can also help you understand the consequences of your actions. Talk therapy is another option. It can help you understand the causes of your aggression. It can also help you work through negative feelings.
In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications to treat your aggressive behavior. For example, they may prescribe antiepileptic drugs (AEDs), such as phenytoin and carbamazepine. If you have schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, or bipolar disorder, they may prescribe mood stabilizers. They may also encourage you to take omega-3 fatty acid supplements.
Your treatment plan will vary, depending on the underlying causes of your aggressive behavior. Speak with your doctor to learn more about your condition and treatment options.
If you don’t deal with your aggression, it can lead to more aggressive and violent behavior. However, there are treatment options available for aggressive behavior. Following your doctor’s recommended treatment plan may help you gain control, before you cause harm to yourself or others.
Aggressive behavior rarely happens without a reason. Identifying the root causes of aggressive behavior can help you avoid situations that trigger it. Speak with your doctor to learn how to identify and treat the underlying causes of your aggressive behavior.
What’s the best way to determine when a loved one’s aggressive behavior is abusive, rather than a normal emotional reaction?
Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer to this one. In the cycle of abuse, the abuser often states “I didn’t mean it” or asks for forgiveness, apologizes, etc. Generally, abusive behaviors occur with little to no provocation. However, if aggressiveness is seen within the confines of what one would expect in a situation where aggression may be normal, that can be an excellent indicator. For instance, if somebody is being physically threatened by someone else, it makes sense that the individual would respond aggressively. Also, the frequency of the aggressive behavior needs to be considered. If aggression is consistently and frequently being displayed toward an intimate partner with minimal to no provocation, then it is most likely abuse, as opposed to a normal emotional reaction.
Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC