A father, in talking about his 2-year-old son described him as aggressive. He was referring to his son’s high energy level, his running around in class when other children were more attentive. He then said he meant “aggressive” in the “good” sense of the word.

A mother expressed her concern that her 2-year-old-plus son had recently become aggressive.

The teacher of the group he was in reported that he slapped her, and the mother had experienced this behavior of his at home. She was worried about his entry into nursery school in the fall and how he would fare with other children.

It seems we feel two ways about aggression. Aggression meaning self-assertion is aggression in the “good” sense of the word. On the other hand, aggression meaning striking out at others physically, is aggression in the “bad” sense of the word. So are there two kinds of aggression – or are the two connected in some way?

The two ideas about aggression can become confusing – particularly when wishing to respond constructively to children’s behavior. In thinking about this, we have to consider children’s age and stage of development and what the behavior we consider aggressive means in that context.

Does a child’s behavior match the meaning we attribute to it?

In the first example, the father was trying to accept his son’s behavior as self-assertive. Why did it feel aggressive to the father? In his eyes his son was not paying attention to the teacher – which seemed aggressive. At the same time, he felt positively about his son asserting his own interests – hence his confusion.

The second example, too, is a familiar one. Apparently, the boy hit the teacher when she tried to prevent him from going to look for his mother. At home, he hit his mother when she was changing his diaper. In both instances the boy’s behavior was clearly his way of saying he didn’t like what was happening. More specifically, it was an expression of his anger at the situation he was in.

In both instances, the adults reacted to the child’s behavior rather than to what he was saying to them. His mother had earlier been in the room and missing her presence he wanted to find her. He was angry about being prevented from going to find her. At home, mom was changing his diaper on a changing table and he was protesting being treated like a baby in that way.

Understanding behavior does not in itself make the behavior acceptable. However, communicating that understanding of his feelings to the child is a step in the direction of connecting his behavior to his feelings. This is what helps him begin to control the impulse to strike out and to use words instead, a difficult task when children’s language is still developing. It also can enable a child to hear you when you say that hitting will not be allowed. In the case of the teacher it would have also helped to explain where his mother went and to reassure him that she would be back for him. In the instance of the mother, understanding that it was her son’s protest about the changing table enabled her to find a more appropriate way to change his diaper.

Aggression is always about self-assertion. It seems positive when used in the service of achieving goals and negative when an expression of anger and protest. The distinction between the two is difficult to determine at times. It helps to think about what the behavior is telling us rather than simply giving it a label.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.