What is the difference between proactive aggression and reactive aggression?
When children exhibit proactive aggression, they are very calm. Everything is planned and reason dominates. These children are not very emotional. The aggressor is in control and the action is completely designed to achieve a goal. With proactive aggression, the child may appear to be staring, or smiling/smirking. They are very deliberate and methodical in their actions. They are impassive, often not showing any feeling or emotion. They remain firm, calm and menacing. These children are very much in control of their actions.
Here is an example of proactive aggression. A child approached a boy and stole one of his toys. The boy, whose toy was stolen, did not react at that time. Rather, the next day he purposely sat next to his peer and attacked him. It was a pattern for this boy to hold a grudge if someone wrongs him. He doesn’t react in the moment because they are expecting it. He waits a day or two and then targets the person. That is a very proactive type of aggression.
When working with children with proactive aggression, the first goal is to make sure that they're not risking the safety of other people or themselves. We need to contain the situation. Since these children have cognitive control and they know what they're doing, you can try to engage and reason with them. Reasoning strategies might be the most effective since they are aware of what they are doing.
When children are using reactive aggression, it's more fear-induced. Emotions take over. It can trigger a fight or flight response. These children have no control over their emotions, there's no rhyme or reason to the behaviors that they're doing. It's very emotion-based.
When a child is engaging in reactive aggression, they might look wide-eyed, red-faced, or pale. They might be disorganized and impulsive, use angry and shrill voices, and they might be highly aroused. When a child is engaging in more reactive aggression, we want to try to remove that stressor, whether it's a person or an object that's causing them stress. Since the child is in a heightened state of emotion, we want them to be able to drain their emotion. Also, we want to address any valid concerns, regarding their emotions, and remove any targets toward which they might turn their aggression.