Aggression, according to social psychology, describes any behavior or act aimed at harming a person or animal or damaging physical property.
A few examples of aggressive acts:
- acts of physical violence
- shouting, swearing, and harsh language
- gossiping or spreading rumors about a classmate
- purposely breaking your roommate’s favorite mug
- slashing your co-worker’s tires
You’ll often come across “aggression and violence” sandwiched together as one inseparable term. It’s true that aggression and violence often coincide, but they are, in fact, two different things.
Violence refers to extreme physical aggression intended to cause serious harm. To put it another way, aggression doesn’t always involve violence, but violence always involves aggression.
Say that you get angry with your brother during an argument and throw your book across the room in frustration. You didn’t mean to hit him, but the book smacks his head, leaving a bruise. That would be an act of physical aggression, but not necessarily violence.
On the other hand, if you shove your brother into a wall and then hit him with the goal of hurting him, that would be an act of violence.
Aggressive behavior doesn’t just violate social boundaries. It can also affect relationships and even have professional or legal consequences.
Recognizing the ways aggression shows up in your life can help you take steps toward addressing it, along with anger and any other emotions that might play a part.
Below, we’ll explore the types and potential causes of aggression, plus offer some guidance on when it’s time to get support.
Aggression is usually divided into two categories.
This type of aggression, also known as emotional or affective aggression, tends to stem directly from emotions you experience in the moment. It might instead feel uncontrollable or seem to come from nowhere.
If you can’t access the person or thing upsetting you, then you might redirect this aggression toward something or someone you can access — including yourself.
Examples of impulsive aggression:
- A classmate grabs the exact book you needed for your research from the library cart. When they leave to use the restroom, you go over to grab the book — and hit the power button on their computer so that they lose their work.
- The first time you meet, your date gives you an expensive watch. The gift makes you uncomfortable, so you hand it back with an apology, saying you can’t accept it. They react by throwing it to the ground and stomping on it.
This type of aggression, also known as cognitive aggression, involves planning and intent, typically to achieve a specific desire or goal.
All aggression involves a degree of intent to harm someone that doesn’t want to be harmed. But acts of instrumental aggression generally involve more calculation and purpose, without any loss of control.
Examples of instrumental aggression:
- You’ve just applied for a promotion at work when you overhear your supervisor encouraging another co-worker to apply for the role, saying they’d be a great fit. You want that position, so you tell a few people you’ve noticed that co-worker drinking in their office, hoping the rumor reaches your supervisor.
- Your teenager asks if they can have $40 to buy a video game. You don’t have the money to spare, so you say no. They seem to accept your answer. But the next day, you’re preparing to go grocery shopping when you can’t find your wallet. Eventually, it turns up in the trash — with your cash gone and your cards chopped into bits.
As you may have noticed, aggression can take many forms.
Sometimes it’s more secretive and subtle than obvious and direct. So, you might not even realize certain behaviors count as aggression.
Aggression does often involve physical or verbal harm, but it can also involve coercion or manipulation:
- Physical aggression includes hitting, kicking, punching, slapping, or any acts that cause physical hurt. This doesn’t include accidental harm, like accidentally stepping on your dog’s tail in the dark or knocking your friend off the porch while roughhousing.
- Verbal aggression can include shouting, swearing, insults, and other cruel and unkind remarks intended to cause pain and distress. Hate speech also falls into this category.
- Relational aggression refers to actions aimed at damaging another person’s reputation or relationships. Examples include bullying, gossiping, and playing friends off each other.
- Hostile aggression describes emotional or reactive acts that involve a specific intent to hurt someone or destroy something.
- Passive aggression can include any indirect expression of negative feelings. Common examples include the silent treatment, snide or sarcastic remarks, and redirecting blame.
You might notice aggressive behavior happens when:
- you feel irritable, angry, bored, or restless
- things don’t go your way
- you want to get even with someone who wronged you
- you believe someone has treated you unfairly
- your emotions feel uncontrollable
- a situation feels overwhelming or uncomfortable
Where does anger come in?
Anger refers to an emotion, while aggression refers to behavior.
While anger often plays a role in aggression — fueling outbursts or the urge to get revenge, for example — it’s not harmful in itself. Anger can actually be beneficial when you express it productively.
Signs of aggression in children and teens
Children and teenagers won’t always show aggression in the same ways as adults.
Along with physical actions like kicking, hitting, and pushing, aggression in a child might involve:
- explosive or violent tantrums and outbursts
- taunting or insulting peers to provoke a reaction
- threatening to hurt someone else or themselves
- using toys or other objects as weapons
- hurting animals
- destroying other people’s belongings or damaging property
- lying and stealing
Aggression in teenagers might involve:
- shouting at parents and siblings
- exhibiting extreme irritability, anger, or impulsivity
- destroying belongings or property
- teasing, bullying, or excluding peers
- lying, gossiping, and spreading rumors about peers
- using coercion and manipulation to maintain social status and control
- threatening to harm others or themselves
While there’s a lot of overlap between aggression and abuse, these are two different concepts.
Abuse involves a desire to take and hold power and control. It also:
- occurs within some type of relationship — romantic, family, or professional
- happens in a pattern
- only shows up in certain contexts — abuse often doesn’t happen in public, for example
Aggression generally wouldn’t be considered abusive when the aggressive behavior:
- relates to a specific trigger, like anger, disappointment, or a threat
- happens in different environments and circumstances, instead of only in private
- involves a momentary loss of control
That said, aggressive behavior can certainly count as abuse. Think of it this way: Not all aggression is abuse, but all abuse is aggression.
Aggression usually doesn’t have one single specific cause. Rather,
Brain chemistry and other biological factors that might play a part in aggression include:
- Irregular brain development.
Expertshave linked increased activity in the amygdala and decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex to aggression. Lesions in the brain, which can happen with neurodegenerative conditions, can also lead to aggressive behavior.
- Genetics. Mutations of certain genes, including
monoamine oxidase A, can also contribute.
- Brain chemical and hormone imbalances. Unusually high or low levels of certain neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-amino-butyric acid (GABA), may lead to aggressive behavior. Higher levels of testosterone can also lead to aggression in people of any gender.
- Side effects of prescription medications and other substances. Medications and substances that cause changes in the brain can sometimes lead to aggressive behavior. A few examples include corticosteroids, alcohol, anabolic steroids, and phencyclidine (PCP).
- Medical conditions. Aggressive behavior could happen as a result of certain health conditions that damage your brain, including stroke, dementia, and head injuries.
Aggressive behavior can sometimes happen as a symptom of certain mental health conditions, including:
- conduct disorder
- intermittent explosive disorder
- oppositional and defiant disorder (ODD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- bipolar disorder
- substance use disorders
- chronic stress
- certain personality disorders, including borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders
Of course, aggression doesn’t always mean you have a mental health condition, nor does having a mental health diagnosis automatically mean you’ll behave aggressively toward others.
Circumstances and challenges in your everyday life and environment can also contribute to aggressive behavior.
Aggression can happen as a natural response to stress, fear, or a sense of losing control. You might also respond with aggression when you feel frustrated, mistreated, or unheard — especially if you never learned how to manage your emotions effectively.
You might also be more likely to behave aggressively if your upbringing exposed you to aggression and violence. This could happen if you:
- had abusive parents and caregivers or siblings who bullied you
- grew up in a neighborhood or community where violence and aggression happened frequently
- experienced cruel or unfair treatment from teachers and classmates
What causes aggression in children and teens?
While most of the above causes can also apply to young children and adolescents, other factors can also contribute to childhood aggression.
Children often have trouble expressing emotions in words, for one, so a child who feels afraid, suspicious, or frustrated might lash out aggressively instead of clearly communicating how they feel.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that young children haven’t fully learned to respect boundaries and the rights of others. Children who witness aggression, then, might learn to express themselves through aggression and violence.
Mental health conditions that commonly affect children, including ADHD and autism, can also play a part in aggressive behavior. Children and teens with these conditions might:
- have trouble coping with painful and overwhelming emotions
- find it difficult to express needs and ask for help
- experience lingering frustration and distress that prompts angry and aggressive outbursts
Children and teens with depression also often experience anger and irritability as the main symptoms. You might notice these feelings in their everyday mood, but anger and irritability can also show up as aggressive behavior toward others.
Is teenage anger and aggression typical?
It’s quite common for teenagers to:
- make rude remarks
- behave impulsively
- have emotional outbursts
- show seemingly random and overwhelming shifts in mood
These behaviors relate, in large part, to the hormonal changes taking place during puberty — not to mention the challenges of adjusting to these changes.
Other potential triggers might include:
- school stress
- changing social relationships
- tension with family members and peers
- physical and mental health conditions
Still, it never hurts to have an open conversation with your teen about their aggressive behavior, especially when they:
- yell during arguments
- get into fights
- destroy property
- threaten to hurt themselves and others
Aim to offer compassion and support instead of raising your voice and getting upset. Not sure how to start? A family therapist can offer guidance.
It’s human to become frustrated and upset from time to time, and these emotions could easily lead you to respond with aggressive behavior in certain situations.
Working to develop and practice stronger emotion regulation skills can make a big difference, absolutely. But reaching out to a mental health professional is always a good option when aggressive behavior:
- happens frequently
- causes problems in your personal and professional relationships
- affects your daily life
- feels uncontrollable
Getting help for aggression sooner rather than later is essential because aggressive behavior can easily cause lasting physical or emotional harm to other people, animals, and even you.
The best treatment for aggressive behavior depends on the underlying cause, but a therapist can always offer more guidance with identifying triggers and contributing factors.
Therapy offers a safe, judgment-free space to:
- share experiences that lead to anger and aggressive behavior
- explore childhood trauma that might contribute to aggressive behavior
- develop new methods of coping with difficult or overwhelming emotions
- practice alternate ways to navigate frustrating situations
- learn to replace aggressive communication with assertive communication
Types of therapy for aggression
A therapist might recommend different therapy approaches, depending on any underlying mental health symptoms you experience.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you learn to identify and change unhelpful behavior patterns and practice more helpful coping techniques. This approach doesn’t focus much on past experiences, but it can help improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.
- Psychodynamic therapy can help you address mental health symptoms and emotional distress by tracing their roots to earlier life events.
- Dialectical behavior therapy can help you build and practice skills to tolerate distress, regulate emotions, and navigate interpersonal relationships more effectively.
- Interpersonal therapy can help you explore relational challenges that affect your mood and contribute to depression and other mental health symptoms.
- Parent management training can help address tense family dynamics or unhelpful parenting tactics contributing to or reinforcing aggressive behavior.
In some cases, a therapist might also recommend working with a psychiatrist to explore medication options for aggression. Some psychotropic medications may help ease aggressive thoughts and behaviors that happen with mental health conditions.
If you don’t experience any mental health symptoms, your therapist may suggest connecting with a healthcare professional who can help rule out health concerns and other medical causes of aggression.
In most cases, aggressive behavior happens for a reason. Identifying the main causes of aggression can make it easier to avoid potentially triggering situations, which can certainly make a difference.
Keep in mind, though, that you can’t avoid every possible trigger. That’s why taking steps to directly change your behavior may do more to help prevent aggression in the future. A therapist can teach strategies to better manage your emotions and maintain control, which can lead to more helpful and productive communication.