Aggressive-Abusive Behaviour and Giftedness

by Hanna Vock


Three years ago we published the article „Permanent Frustration because of Being Underchallenged and Facing Incomprehension“ in this manual.

One major point the article makes, among others, is, that children who suffer from permanent frustration, repeatedly encountering incomprehension and too little adequate support, may react by developing a hostile and aggressive attitude, which, in turn, may result in generally aggressive behaviour.

In the three years since the article’s publication, we have received many reports by kindergarten teachers about their having to deal with parents who “excuse” their children’s aggressive-abusive behaviour by their children’s actual or alleged giftedness – referring to our article on permanent frustration.

These may be isolated cases, but maybe there are many such cases. Either way, I would like to respond to them.

… in a nutshell …

Gifted children who face little understanding and are underchallenged may find themselves disgruntled and adopt aggressive behaviour patterns. Does that mean we’re talking about children who habitually beat up their playmates?

Read my attempt of a clarification.

As an example I would like to bring forward the account of one worried mother, who was so kind as to allow me to quote – anonymously – from her detailed e-mail describing the problematic atmosphere at her child’s Kindergarten at the time.

It’s about a four years old boy’s behaviour, who had been tested and found to have an extraordinary mathematical talent.

From the e-mail:

“The boy has been showing this antisocial behaviour for about one and a half years. On the physical level it occurs on the form of kicking, punching and biting, so that many children do not anticipate their day at kindergarten with joy any more – if not even with fear.

To me, particularly the biting does not seem to be among the typical reactions to frustration, not even for a 4-year-old with a normal speech development and who is otherwise of unexceptional developmental state.

The boy’s parents explained that their son “was adopting the level” of the other child (3 years, average development), so that he could make himself understood better.
As I am told by other parents (they report to me in my function as parents’ representative), such biting attacks have occurred frequently and ferociously – and not only directed at smaller and presumably weaker children, but also towards children of the same age. Especially off-key I find the assault, where he grabbed a 2-year-old by the neck and slammed her one meter across the room and into the wall.

On top of this the child is psychologically abusive. When nobody is watching he plays his little mind games with other children, younger or older. A 5-year-old whose mother had just got a new job was told that this occupation would soon be lost anyway, being that her mother had never accomplished anything. Now that the family was understandably happy about the new employment, the mother had to bear her daughter’s nightly anxiety attacks standing by her and developing a bad conscience for going to work.
An almost 4-year-old was talked into believing that his mother (active as a voluntary fire fighter) would die as soon as he turned 4. Consequently the boy suffered severe fears of loss and – with all his might – denied his birthday.

The children have fears, which the parents do not understand without knowledge of these psycho games. The children resist going to kindergarten, they come up with spontaneous fever attacks, spontaneous vomiting and crying fits.”


1. The situation is serious

A child at the age of 4 years has still not learned that biting, kicking and punching are not OK. And that one must not impose heavy fears upon others.
Even though physical confrontations are rather common for pre-school children, this is different. Here the children are scared of that one child, because it keeps attacking wildly, and it does so without recognisable cause, as the author of the e-mail points out to me on the phone. An assailant-victim-field has been established and it bears heavily and sustainably on the atmosphere in kindergarten.

This evokes the suspicion that in the social learning process of this child a lot has already gone wrong.

The situation is bad for the entire group, even for this 4 years old boy himself. It is frightening and frustrating for the other children’s parents, and irritating and frustrating for the kindergarten teachers. I think, the situation is plain intolerable.
More about this later.

2. My Text „Permanent Frustration …“ and how people deal with it:

It turned out that the writer of the e-mail had not received the entire text of the article “Permanent Frustration …”. It had been shortened in various places as for instance by the following excerpt:

“After all, permanent frustration could just as well have its origin in poor child-rearing or the loss of a beloved person (which aside from the sorrow also brings about great frustration – feeling the loss in everyday life.

Lately parents have sometimes been tempted to ascribe their children’s behavioural problems to giftedness – even if there were no signs of giftedness or the child had noticeably serious problems within its family.
This is where we kindergarten teachers have to be careful and also take other causes into consideration, especially if, even upon professional observation, we do not recognise any indicators of giftedness.“
When parents are under pressure because of their child’s behaviour they may easily, so I believe, “overlook” such a passage.
But even parents (and kindergarten teachers) of children who have been tested gifted should ask themselves:

Are there possibly other reasons for the aggressive behaviour of the child?

In this respect the writer of the e-mail does not see any willingness to reconsider in the parents of the boy. She writes:

“The boy’s parents enter each consultation with the fixed preconception that their child needs to be presented with yet more cognitive challenges, while entirely neglecting their child’s destructive behaviour or excusing it.

In all instances, informal talks or formal consultations they attribute their child’s behaviour to giftedness (on the grounds of your text – which I was directed to for this very reason in the first place).”

3. Is the child not being challenged and understood well enough at the kindergarten?

This question is just as important as the inquiry into other reasons for aggressive behaviour. The given case is hard to judge from a distance.
The writer of the e-mail says:

“Your text explains that ‘all gifted children depend on adequate and practical support by the kindergarten teacher’.

For more than a year our team has been providing extra activities to the boy to nurture his abilities. This “exclusive treatment” has not been provided to other children at the same rate and this has caused the resentment of some other parents.
Personally, I totally agree with you on the point that it will not work without the kindergarten teacher’s contribution. However, the colleagues in question have come to their limits (even with regard to their personal health) and cannot do more (as I think).”


In a telephone conversation following the e-mail correspondence the writer of the e-mail said: The child’s kindergarten teachers had long before the testing recognised the boy’s extraordinary mathematical talent and had given him maths problems from the 2nd and 3rd form, which he was reported to solve with great joy.

Upon my enquiry she did, however, report that the aggressive/ abusive behaviour had not changed to the better, it had actually become worse, if anything.

Unfortunately – again – I cannot judge from a distance whether the boy had been provided with the extra challenges and activities on a steady basis over a prolonged period of time. But if so, it would be rather untypical for the aggressive behaviour to remain unchanged or even worsen.

Gifted children whose giftedness has been noticed, who feel recognised in their special playing and learning needs by their kindergarten teacher and receive extra attention (in the way that their kindergarten teachers show interest in their questions and opinions or in the form of special activities or by including them in the activities for older children) – these children almost always readopt socially acceptable behaviour …
… unless they have entirely different problems …, the problematic behaviour of the child strongly points to origins of a quite different nature.

4. What is to be made of the child’s behaviour as described?

The writer of the e-mail asks with regard to the boy’s behaviour:

“Is this really normal for gifted children?”

And she also asks:

“Are such psycho games common by-products of gifted children’s permanent frustration?”

From my experience of many years I can answer these questions with a clear “no”.
Because 1st:
If a young (!) gifted child is seriously annoyed and develops aggressive behaviour, this behaviour will most probably cease as soon as its giftedness is recognised and attended to. This does not even require comprehensive individual attention, which cannot be provided in a kindergarten in the first place.

A well-reared gifted child of 4 years is well aware of agreeable social conduct and will try to abide by it. If it is permanently frustrated it will “freak out” sometimes, but this will not be the general nature of its behaviour.

The well-reared gifted child will show remorse, immediately or at least after some time after it has behaved aggressively. Shame and chagrin are not uncommonly shown. In addition many gifted children (even boys!) show mainly the more “less harmful” types of aggressive behaviour, such as disturbing, fooling around, screaming, defiance and refusal …
(See: What Is Child Rearing? And Where Does it Begin?)

5. The other parents’ resentment

The resentment – as well as the concern and worry – I can understand, yet, I wonder what the main reason for the irritation is.
As the writer of the e-mail says above:

“For more than a year our team has been providing extra activities to the boy to nurture his abilities. This “exclusive treatment” has not been provided to other children at the same rate and this has caused the resentment of some other parents.”

It might be worthwhile pondering whether the other parents would have disapproved just as much of the extra attention the boy had received if the measures taken had lead to a noticeably easing effect on the situation. Maybe it was not so much the extra attention the boy had been getting but the continuing concern about the boy‘s behaviour, which the parents experienced as downright dangerous.

There are plenty of examples for how the interests of gifted children can be tied in with activities in the way that other children can profit from them as well.
Such examples can be found here in chapter 4.

6. When have child-rearing efforts failed?

I have used the term “well reared gifted children”. When would a 4-year-old be considered well reared? The author of the e-mail tells me on the phone that the child in question keeps kicking children that are already on the ground – and that it is unwilling to apologise for such conduct. The same goes for biting assaults.

The parents – so I am told – encourage the child in its attitude (no need to apologise).
If this is really true, this means that the child has not learned and in all probability will not learn any time soon that such behaviour is intolerable.
With regard to this question I recommend the article What Is Child Rearing? And Where Does it Begin? In short, it states that at ages 2 and 3 the parents and the kindergarten should see to it that the child experiences rules and limitations and learns to abide by them. For this clear responses by the adults are necessary.

All the while and especially at ages 4 and 5 the child learns about the rules of social conduct and the codes behind them.
If this is neglected or only poorly done, that is when a maladjusted – I should like to say a disturbed – child will be the result.

In this case we have a child before us who uses its superior intellect to scare other children (psycho games). And the child apparently does not yet dispose of a conscience that strikes alarm.

But please, do read the entire article
… and see whether it illuminates the situation of this child or of other children you know.

7. Seemingly a contradiction

So, children should be taught which behaviour is socially desirable, which behaviour may in individual cases be acceptable, and which behaviour is definitely intolerable. Children – this goes for gifted children just the same – must be told again and again when their behaviour is off limits. And this should be communicated by tone of voice and mimics as well.

Then the family again argued by referring to my article on “permanent frustration …”, in which I had written:
“Gifted children at pre-school age will mostly realise and recognise the problems with their behaviour themselves. That is why it rarely helps to keep pointing out the destructiveness of their behaviour to them; they are often quite aware of it.“

This appears contradictory and needs explanation.
Children need to be advised repeatedly for as long as they do not yet have a (reliable) understanding of pertinent rules and codes and have not internalised them. This is necessary help in the learning process and this goes for gifted children just the same.

But this must be done at the right time.

As soon as the child is aware of what it is doing and the resulting effects, such explanations are merely useless “sermons”. Such cases are no longer about giving the child orientation in the social realm. Then the violation of rules of social conduct are not due to lack of understanding but happen for different reasons, as there are: strongly negative feelings, insufficient impulse control, or it is an acquired (though socially irreconcilable) strategy.

However, gifted children are quick learners. And there are children who are not gifted yet dispose of a high sensitivity when it comes to social behaviour, for whom the following is true: Kindergarten teachers in our classes often report, that gifted children learn the rules of their kindergarten rather quickly and make a point of “doing everything right”. Oftentimes they are reported to dispose of a strong sense of justice and to suffer from injustice done to them – or that they feel an urge to stand by other children who have been attacked or treated unjustly.
These children often show embarrassment when having crossed a line themselves. They often realise their transgression immediately. Then – as has been explained above – it is no use to reprimand them, let alone in front of everybody else.
It is then more appropriate to ask them what they think they can do (apologise, make up for it).

The boy in question, however, is not anywhere near this state of development. That is why the parents must change their ways and begin to help him learn the rules of social conduct. And the kindergarten does not only have the right but it has the educational obligation to take a clear stance on the conduct of the child (towards the parents as well, and always with respect to specific situations).

Since the boy is presumably heavily disoriented about the rules of social conduct the boy must first be helped to understand the nature of his misbehaviour before the request for an apology makes any sense.
But it is always the question to what extent the parents are willing to cooperate and accept the rules of the kindergarten. If no consensus can be reached, I think, the contractual foundation between kindergarten and parents erodes.

8. The situation is not tolerable

Neither for the kindergarten teachers nor for the children at the kindergarten the situation described above is tolerable any longer. Since it is the fundamental conviction of the kindergarten that children with behavioural disorders should be taken care of too and therefore an expulsion is not an option I recommended a speedy transfer to a different group. Then the hardship and endangerment should be shared equally among all.

The kindergarten teachers who have had to carry the burden so far are being relieved and the children in this group can take a breath and restore a normal sense of security.

However, the problem on the whole is not resolved satisfactorily at all by this measure; I would therefore recommend in similar cases to bind the continuation of the contract to specific terms. This could be, for instance, the requirement for the parents to seek professional advice within a specified term and that a change in the child’s behaviour and the attitude of the parents must be noticeable at least to some extent.

9. What could help offered to the parents and the child look like?

Maybe further consultation with the parents might lead to a better understanding of what the kindergarten’s expectations with regard to social conduct are.

I would like to make a proposal here, which is based on the way I used to deal with issues of social conduct at my own kindergarten:

All children should be told that:

    • There is a life beyond the realms of “assailant and victim”, even though there is still a great deal of violence in our society.
    • It is important that one can defend oneself in case of emergency.
    • Unless it is an emergency, there are ways of defence other than beating, biting, kicking and the like. For instance: Another child has taken away the crayon I had just taken. That is no reason to beat that child.
    • Intentionally scaring a child (by threats, threatening gestures or “stories”) does represent an assault, which cannot be tolerated.
    • All parents should be told:
      We understand that adults who have themselves experienced violence without being intimidated may sometimes be tempted to convey to their children that it is better to be the assailant than to be the victim. But we do by no means support this belief.
    • We encourage the children to stand up to aggressive behaviour directed against them and report it to us. (This has absolutely nothing to do with snitching, on the contrary it is mindfulness!)
    • At the kindergarten we want neither assailants nor victims, the children are to feel safe and not be intimidated by adults or other children. This is how all children may have the experience that a living together without violence is possible – and how good that feels.
    • If this fails even within the family, it might be that the family needs therapeutic help.


Date of Publication in German: 2014, December
Translation: Arno Zucknick
Copyright © Hanna Vock