It sounds like your son is an only child, so I’ll treat it as such, please let me know if I’m wrong in this. It’s rather an important point as in large families I feel aggression can come from not feeling fairly treated or from not feeling heard by other people, so they force their own will physically. For only children who don’t have to worry about getting a fair helping, or making sure they get the same as their brothers and sisters, it comes from a different place. Now that your son is 4, he’s ready to start dipping into a deeper understanding of human relationships. Since he’s been aggressive for so long, then it may be a hard habit to break, but usually once the concept clicks within him, he’ll see how it all works.
I’ve noticed that often children can’t grasp the concept that people and children around them are actually PEOPLE. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that how we feel matters, but other people don’t feel at all. They become walking shadows, or walking trees as my mother use to say. We see them, we hear them, but imagining them having a life outside of their interactions with us is difficult. Therefore, your son doesn’t seem to understand that his actions hurt other people, they are simply ways of getting what he needs , when he needs it. It makes sense and it has worked up to this point to a degree, although as you pointed out, its lead to being socially excluded. It’s time for some pragmatic solutions to help your boy find a deeper connection with those around him.
First a little craft to do on a rainy day for you to do together. It will open up the conversation a bit and get him thinking. Its called a Golden Book, and its the start of introducing the golden rule. Make a small book, just stapled pieces of paper, or a notebook, unless you want to give it a cardboard cover and get him to decorate it. Within the book on the left hand pages write on the top “How I like to be treated when I’m playing.” “How I like to be treated when I have a headache.” “How I like to be treated when I have something to say.” “How I like to be treated when I’m playing with my favorite toy.” “How I like to be treated when I’m mad.” “How I like to be treated when I’m sad.” Adding any you feel suit him better. On the opposite page to each one, ask the opposite, i.e. “How I DON’T like to be treated when I’m playing.” Etc. Then, sitting with him and doing it until he gets fed up, get him to draw a picture of each example. As this starts him thinking about how he likes to be treated, then you throw in the next step. You teach him the simple phrase “You Get What You Give.”
How we treat others, the feeling we make them feel, is how we feel later. Other people will treat us the way we’ve treated others. He is a powerful little boy and what he does matters. So often we want our children to behave because of other people, but it creates a different element when we tell them we want them to treat others better because of what it does to them themselves. Once the information is passed on, and you’ve told him about this concept, then it goes into example giving.
If he’s about to hurt someone, or grab something, ask him simply “Do you want people to do that to you?” You can ask further by saying “Should Dad and I act like that? What would happen if we all did it? We’d have an awful house, wouldn’t we? I can’t imagine we’d have much fun.” The Law of Attraction is the universal law which states that like unto itself is drawn, so what we put out there, feeling wise, we get the more of the same. Now 4’s a little young to start teaching about that, but not in principle. If he’s acting aggressively, keep an eye out for things that upset him, or frustrate him afterwards. Notice when he’s not happy, dancing about, playing, after he’s been mad at his friends, and simply draw his attention to it, asking if he thinks it’s possible that he’s feeling that way because he wasn’t being very nice to others.
You can then make it a game. Ask him to try it out. To see if when you both go out, you treat people really, really well. You smile, you talk to them, play at making people feel good, see how many people you can make smile, then make it a lot of fun doing it, and go out for ice cream after and talk about how good it feels. Go over the top at making it a lovely afternoon, so that he can really feel the difference within himself: When he’s nice and fair, when he’s interacting with people on a positive level, he feels good. When he’s aggressive and only self focused, he feels bad.
If he started his aggression at 18 months, he’s been in this feeling space/perspective for a really long time. It might take some time to really get him to FEEL the difference, but once he does it will become harder for him to go back to the way it was.
Saying that, make sure that your house is ringing out the way you want it to feel. Holidays are always stressful, so this year try to keep the stress at bay, and relax and laugh. Try to keep the other members of the house mindful of their expression of frustration and aggravation, asking them to back up how they feel like “Oh I feel so upset, I better go for a run.” Or “I feel so awful inside, I hurt someone’s feelings.” Or on the positive “I feel great, I helped someone.” It’s all about drawing awareness to how your son is feeling within himself, rather than improving his outward behaviour to others.
We all like to feel powerful, and although aggression can make us feel powerful at the moment, becoming aware of being in charge of how we feel, learning how to do things to make ourselves feel better, and claiming our own emotions is far more empowering and then you don’t have to worry about self esteem.
Another thing that may help. Sometimes children are so scared of "tattling" when they are feeling upset that they forget they can go to adults for help. It can be empowering for a child to know that even if they don't know why they feel upset, they can go and sit with adults for a minute "just to calm down". If your son starts to learn the feeling just before doing something rash, then he can stop it before it happens. If he doesn't want to go to adults for a break, offer him the bathroom trick and tell him to say he has to go the bathroom. Then he can go in there, sit for a few minutes, count to ten, maybe think about things he loves and appreciates and then go back to playing.
One last thing, and it’s a hard one, with it having gone on for so long. Try not to expect bad behaviour from him when he’s around other people. Try not to talk about it as the normal thing for him to do, such as warning him not to do it. Start to imagine him not doing it, imagine him playing with friends with consideration, and giggling with you about what fun he had. By doing this it gives him room to shift and grow into the newer version of himself. Try to introduce him to new friends, as older ones will see him as the way he was and he will return to the old feeling space (not unlike all of us when we go to a reunion.) Start him off with one child, for a half an hour, and then praise him after for what a good friend he was if and when he does well. Use baby steps, expecting the best.