Why do kids become aggressive?

shutterstock_343101839There’s been an ongoing debate in child mental health research circles for at least fifteen years about the nature of aggressive behavior and the best way to treat kids who exhibit such behavior.

The research suggests that two distinct subtypes of aggressive behaviors occur…impulsive aggression and planned (or predatory) aggression. See the summary slide below for a comparison of the two patterns of aggressive behavior seen in kids:

Allow me to make some observations…

Kids with maladaptive, impulsive aggression are very likely to have some brain-based condition that contributes to their difficulties with behavioral inhibition and emotional self-regulation. They tend to experience high levels of physiologic arousal. Kids with planned aggression have been demonstrated to experience decreased levels of physiologic arousal and have been hypothesized to respond preferentially to behavioral interventions.

There’s not one single underlying cause for aggressive behavior in kids. While aggressive behavior is far more frequent in kids with specific emotional and behavioral disorders than in the general population (ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, intellectual disabilities, anxiety, depression, some anxiety disorders), aggression is not a defining feature of any specific disorder. The determinants of aggressive behavior in any individual child are likely to involve the expression of hundreds of specific genes, the child’s lifetime of experiences, the child’s subjective interpretations of their experiences and the qualities of the environment they’re in at any given point in time.

f77fc902f0ffff8a9dc080bff842bdddKids with impulsive aggression are more likely to struggle with behavioral inhibition and emotional self-regulation. Their high levels of arousal are known to negatively impact upon their cognitive functioning. Experiences that induce arousal…loud noises, bright lights, aggressive play etc. may not cause a child to behave aggressively, but may impede their ability to demonstrate age-appropriate self-control if their capacity for self-control has already been compromised by some other condition.

Kids who lack the capacity of their peers for emotional self-regulation and behavioral inhibition are going to be more susceptible to negative influences in their environment (peers, adults who make poor decisions, media, availability of substances).

We’ll continue to examine the topic of aggressive behavior in great depth over the course of this series, but here are two take home points for church leaders and volunteers to ponder:

Kids with an identified “special need” or hidden disability are at greater risk of experiencing aggressive behavior at church, but this problem is not confined to kids with known conditions. You probably won’t know in most instances whether the child has an identified condition contributing to their risk of aggressive behavior because of the reluctance of parents to self-report, and what you do to address the risk won’t be contingent upon having to know the child’s specific condition. The challenge is not confined to kids served by your special needs or disability ministry.

As a ministry leader, you have some control over the environments where your kids worship, learn and serve at church. Consider how you might create environments that help all kids to maximize their capacity to use all of their cognitive resources for the best possible experience at church.

Most recently updated June 5, 2014


Key Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

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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2 Responses to Why do kids become aggressive?

  1. Daniel says:

    Thank you for this article. I wrestle with the tension between creating engaging spaces for kids vs not overstimulating and losing some of the kids in our ministry. How do you balance engaging kids and parents with the themes of ministry space against over-stimulation for kids? Do you have suggestions or guidelines for churches?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. drgrcevich says:

    Daniel…thanks for your response. Shortly after I received your message, I came across this article that raises issues relevant for all kids at church, not just those with ADHD or some sort of sensory processing issue…


    A prominent children’s ministry leader contacted us the other day in search of more resources on this topic…here are some links that may help to answer your question:

    Harmony Hensley did a couple of blog posts for us on designing ministry environments for kids with disabilities:





    I’ve written a couple of articles on this:



    Here’s a video Harmony shot on the topic of ministry environments for Inclusion Fusion 2011…

    Here’s an article on Katie Wetherbee’s blog…



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