How to Stop Toddler Aggression

toddler-aggression
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The toddler years mark a period of rapid development. During this time, toddlers become aware that they are separate individuals from their parents and other important caregivers. They enjoy discovering the world around them, and they like to do everything independently!

Though my kids are older now, I still see that little girl declaring, “Myself!” when I watch my daughter attempt to conquer a difficult task.

Toddlers are also eager to assert themselves, communicate their likes and dislikes, and do everything without an ounce of help. 

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The problem, of course, is that toddlers have limited self-regulation skills. From a developmental perspective, they haven’t yet learned to regulate their emotions. Though they do begin to learn new words and phrases at a fast pace, they are still working on communication skills. They rely heavily on actions to communicate their needs.

Pointing and gestures are common forms of communication for toddlers, but when needs are not met these gestures can turn to pulling, yanking, and even hitting and pushing. As with most things child development, there is a wide variation in behaviors during this stage. While some toddlers almost never hit, some use physical communication frequently.

Hitting, pushing, and biting are common concerns among parents of toddlers. These behaviors tend to trigger big emotions in parents.

Though these behaviors are rooted in poor impulse control, they cause emotional reactions. Added to that, it’s hard to the parent of the hitter on the tot lot. Rest assured, toddler aggression is not a precursor to a lifetime of aggression. Try these steps to help determine the needs beneath the behaviors and help your toddler learn to communicate without using aggression:

Observe patterns.

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There is always an underlying issue when it comes to toddler aggression. I tell parents that the aggressive behavior is a manifestation of the feelings that rise to the top. The best thing to do is to figure out what triggered those feelings (often frustration and anger) in the first place and start there.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Where does the behavior most often occur?
  • When does the behavior most often occur?
  • Is it only happening in one setting or during one specific time period?
  • What happened right before the aggressive act?
  • When did your child last eat, rest, or play?
  • Any big changes that might contribute to big feelings in a toddler? New room, new baby, new home, new daycare, new job for mom or dad?

Establishing patterns helps parents consider what triggers the behavior and what they can do to prevent it.

Prevention strategies.

It’s important to consider your child’s temperament when forming prevention plans. Toddlers can’t meet their own emotional needs – they rely on the supportive adults in their lives for everything. They need their parents to consider their personalities, developmental level, and physical and emotional needs.

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  • Give warnings for transitions. Toddlers often struggle with transitions. This is why preschools post schedules with visuals and provide plenty of warnings.
  • Know what your toddler is capable of. Pushing an introverted toddler to attend a giant party with tons of noise and external input is a setup for failure.
  • Prepare for outings. Use play at home to practice for things like parties and even trips to the park. Kids learn through play. Practicing how to communicate needs out in the world helps kids know what to do when they feel compromised.
  • Offer choices. Toddlers have very few choices in life. Whenever possible, offer them choices to help them work on emerging independence.
  • Pay attention to the big three: Sleep, eat, play. If your toddler is lacking in any of these areas, aggressive behavior can emerge.

How to respond to aggression.

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Aggressive behavior can send even the calmest parent running for cover. It feels like a parenting failure (it’s not) and it triggers emotional reactions. Overreacting to aggressive behavior only intensifies the behavior.

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  • Stay calm. Your toddler is in a compromised state and needs you to remain calm.
  • Offer alternatives. Your toddler doesn’t know what to do with those big feelings, so he does what comes naturally. If you interrupt the behavior without a replacement, your toddler doesn’t learn how to channel the energy. If your child hits, take him outside and have him throw a ball against the wall.
  • Offer distractions. Sometimes aggressive behavior escalates and the toddler doesn’t know how to stop the cycle. Break the cycle by asking the toddler to join you in a game of tag or give you a giant bear hug. When he’s calm, remind him that hitting isn’t acceptable but jumping up and down or ripping up paper is okay.
  • Take a break together. Sending your child off to time out leaves your child feeling abandoned in his time of need, but taking a break together helps him calm down. Create a cozy spot where parents and kids can relax together. Resist the urge to address the behavior until your child is calm.

Aggressive behavior can be difficult for parents to manage, but using positive parenting techniques helps kids learn that they are loved and supported even when they’re overwhelmed with emotion. It also encourages them to seek help in times of need.

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How to Stop Toddler Aggression

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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