Aggressive Behavior

Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on December 23, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 23, 2013

What Is Aggressive Behavior?

Aggressive behavior is behavior that causes physical or emotional harm to others, or threatens to. It can range from verbal abuse to the destruction of a victim’s personal property. People with aggressive behavior tend to be irritable, impulsive, and restless.

Aggressive behavior is intentional, meaning it’s done on purpose, violates social norms, and causes a breakdown in a relationship. Emotional problems are the most common cause of aggressive behavior.

Occasional outbursts of aggression are common and even normal. Aggressive behavior is a problem because it occurs frequently or in a pattern. Generally speaking, aggressive behavior stems from an inability to control behavior, or from a misunderstanding of what behaviors are appropriate.

Aggressive behavior can be reactive, or in retaliation. It can also be proactive, as an attempt to provoke a victim. It can be either overt or secretive.

Aggressive behavior can also be self-directed.

The key to handling aggressive behavior is to understand what the cause is.

What Causes Aggressive Behavior?

A variety of factors can influence aggressive behavior, including:

  • family structure
  • relationships with others
  • work or school environment
  • societal or socioeconomic factors
  • individual characteristics
  • health conditions
  • psychiatric issues
  • life experiences


Aggression in children is often a byproduct of poor parenting, biological factors, or a lack of relationship skills. In many cases, the child is exposed to aggression or violence and imitates that behavior. A child might receive attention for it from parents, teachers, or peers. When parents ignore the behavior or unknowingly reward it, they can further encourage it.

In some children, aggressive behavior is a result of the manic stage of bipolar disorder. It can also be caused by irritability due to depression.

Sometimes, children will lash out due to fear or suspicion. This is more common in cases of schizophrenia, paranoia, or other psychotic conditions.

Aggression can also be a byproduct of the inability to deal with emotion, especially frustration. This is common in children who have conditions on the autism spectrum or mental retardation. If they become frustrated, they may be unable to rectify or verbalize the situation effectively. Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other disruptive disorders may show lack of attention, lack of understanding, or impulsiveness. The consequences can be viewed as aggressive behaviors, especially if they disrupt social situations.


In adults, aggression can develop from negative life experiences or mental illness. In some cases, people who suffer from depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) unintentionally exhibit aggressive behaviors as a result of their condition. For those without an underlying medical or emotional disorder, aggressive behavior is usually a response to frustration. It can also occur when someone stops caring about others or the consequences of their behavior.

How Is Aggressive Behavior Treated?

To work through aggressive behavior, a person must identify the primary cause and underlying factors.

The most common way to treat or reduce aggressive behavior is psychotherapy. One method is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which teaches a person how to control his or her behavior. It can also help a person to develop coping mechanisms and the ability to assess behavioral consequences. Talk therapy can help a person understand the causes of aggression and work through those feelings.

These therapies help people regulate emotion, identify triggers, and develop coping skills.

What Is the Outlook For Aggressive Behavior

Unaddressed aggression can lead to more aggression and violent behavior.

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