What Do We Know About Kids at Risk of Behaving Aggressively?

Not all aggressive behavior is bad. Was Jesus aggressive when He started flipping over the tables used by the merchants and the money changers at the temple in Jerusalem?

Maladaptive aggression is aggressive behavior that occurs outside an acceptable social context. Such aggression may be characterized by an intensity, frequency, duration and severity disproportionate to its causes. The behavior may occur in the absence of antecedent social cues and may not be terminated within the expected time frame, or in response to feedback. Because of the context in which the behavior occurs, aggressive behavior at church will almost always be viewed as maladaptive.

Research has suggested that kids at risk of behaving aggressively

  • Have more school adjustment problems than anticipated
  • Have higher rates of peer rejection and victimization
  • Experience difficulty in ambiguous interpersonal situations, struggle in reading emotion in the facial expressions of others and are more likely to read neutral facial expressions negatively
  • Often experience poor peer relationships and deficits in problem solving by the age of four
  • 21% of children with impulsive aggression are reported to have been victims of physical abuse 
We also know that maladaptive aggression is commonly seen among kids with significant mental health disorders. Among those disorders are…        
ADHD: Kids with ADHD frequently experience difficulties with impulse control and/or emotional self-regulation, resulting in aggressive behavior.                                                          

Bipolar Disorder: The vast preponderance of kids with bipolar disorder will also have ADHD. During mood episodes, their experience of irritability and capacity for self-control may be markedly worse than their typical day to day functioning.

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Kids with spectrum disorders frequently exhibit difficulties similar to those seen in ADHD. They also frequently experience cognitive rigidity, inflexibility and perseveration that can lead to internal distress and aggressive behavior, especially during times of transition.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Kids who have been victims of aggressive behavior are more likely to demonstrate aggression toward others.

Anxiety Disorders: Kids with anxiety may behave aggressively as a result of their predisposition to misinterpret the level of threat or danger in their immediate environment.

Iatrogenic Causes: Not infrequently, the medication used to treat one condition may exacerbate a child’s propensity for aggressive behavior. We occasionally see this in kids with anxiety or autism spectrum disorders being treated with stimulants. Certain anxiety medications can result in disinhibited behavior.

Aggression often co-occurs with specific disorders, but may not be ameliorated by medications used to treat those disorders.

Our job as church isn’t to diagnose, but it’s important to note that many different conditions may predispose kids to aggressive behavior. If church staff/volunteers are aware of a diagnosis (assuming the diagnosis is accurate) or observe patterns of behavior consistent with a diagnosis, one might begin to anticipate situations when the risk of aggressive behavior may be heightened and strategize ways of pre-empting the behavior. More on that later.

The most important take home point is that there’s a pretty good chance kids who struggle with aggressive behavior at church have some condition that predisposes them to act that way or have been victims of such behavior themselves.

They sound like kids who could certainly benefit from the opportunity to experience the love of Christ through a local church, don’t they?

Interested in joining a bunch of folks who are passionate about families of kids with special needs coming to know and love Jesus Christ?  An event in which any church leader, volunteer or parent anywhere in the world who shares the same passion and has access to the Internet through a computer, tablet or smart phone can join in? That’s Inclusion Fusion, Key Ministry’s First Annual Special Needs Ministry Web Summit, featuring this year’s Keynote Speaker, Chuck Swindoll. And it’s all available to you for free! Register here for the Special Needs Ministry Web Summit, coming this November 3rd-5th.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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3 Responses to What Do We Know About Kids at Risk of Behaving Aggressively?

  1. I think that as the Body of Christ that we need to ask ourselves, “What’s different about the way we view kids who have a medical diagnosis and their challenging behaviors?” The medical model makes an assumption that a disorder has a specific etiology, a predictable course, that it will manifest itself in a particular way, and has a predictable outcome that will be modifiable by using specific interventions or strategies.
    In my field, Applied Behavior Analysis, the philosophy is one of determinism and a scientific approach to behavior modification. The view of behaviors, in my field, is consistent with the medical model. But the struggle that I’ve been having lately is, “Should a medical/scientific model determine how I respond to children with maladaptive behaviors or should my theology shape and determine how I respond to children with maladaptive behaviors?”
    My concern is that if the church indiscriminately adopts the definitions, labels, categories, and strategies that secular society uses to classify and “fix” people with maladaptive behaviors, then are we not confirming the values and norms that secular society has constructed for being human or human behavior? If we do, then our assumption of our primary task in caring for children who display maladaptive behaviors will be to find ways to enable them to develop the necessary skills to function as close as possible to the expected norms.
    Said another way, the Body of Christ will not see its task to change or rethink its theology or practices towards those with medical labels (i.e., ADHD, autism, etc.) but simply discover ways in which we can make them fit within our church programs. But what happens if the community of faith is not able to modify maladaptive behaviors so that the child can fit into its programs? At that point many churches feel justified in excluding these children from the worshipping community and all other church functions. There are too many examples of communities of faith who have excluded children with maladaptive behaviors because they could not “fix” them with the strategies set forth by medical and scientific approaches. Often, when this occurs, the word “special” then becomes a euphemism for “separate.”


  2. drgrcevich says:

    Thanks for your comments, Mike!

    When I was making reference to specific diagnoses here, my thinking was probably more in line with the approach you’d take in applied behavior analysis. I think it’s helpful to systematically collect observations and data looking for patterns that help to inform us as to how to help. That’s really what physicians do when they’re making a diagnosis and at some level church staff and volunteers are capable of observing patterns of antecedents and behaviors that can help them to address potential problem situations before they escalate.

    Obviously, our approach to kids with issues and their families is shaped by our theology. Our job as church is to make disciples. My motive in writing this blog post was to prompt our readers to take another look at kids they view as disruptive or aggressive so they might see them in a different light. Here’s a concrete example…

    I was up at the church Sunday night for an orientation meeting for parents of kids served by our middle school ministry. The director of the ministry was making a plea for more male volunteers because there were seven boys in one grade last year who struggled greatly with self-control during Sunday evening programming. One leader commented that we should send kids home who “didn’t have a heart for the Lord.” I know about the circumstances of a couple of kids in question and their behavior has absolutely nothing to do with their “heart for the Lord.” I’m very troubled by the propensity of so many in the church to assume kids with challenges in self-regulation and their parents have spiritual problems. And even if they did, aren’t those the folks the church is supposed to be helping?

    After the meeting, I went up to one of our middle school small group leaders currently serving with me on our Elder Board and explained that this is exactly the type of situation our Key Ministry team helps churches to address. Maybe the environment when they first arrive on Sunday night is overstimulating? Maybe they’d do better having their group discussion while loading boxes on a truck at the food bank then sitting around in a circle in stackable chairs? Maybe they’re better able to process for briefer periods of time in more mentoring-type relationships? The light bulb went on and he totally “got it.”

    Ever notice how Jesus tailored his ministry approaches to the specific needs of the people He came in contact with as opposed to making them fit into some standardized program?

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement. I just didn’t communicate as well as I could have in this post.


    • Steve,
      Sorry. I wasn’t responding to your post in a way where your intentions were suspect or miscommunicated because I’ve had an opportunity to get to know you, and the staff at Key Ministry, to know that our kids are not labels or a diagnosis to you but children who reflect the image of God. I have always admired they way that you all approach ministry towards all children regardless of their ability!

      I simply wanted to encourage readers to begin to think about the how the way in which we talk/think about our children and their behaviors influence our approach to what we do (or don’t do?) to include our kiddos. What predispositions or causes of maladaptive behaviors does Scripture identify and how does this influence our approach to addressing these behaviors…


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