Most reasonable parents will understand that some form of hitting, biting, scratching and kicking is to be expected with toddlers – but what is normal and when does toddler aggression become a problem?
But keep in mind that before the age of about 3 years children do not have the cognitive ability to fully understand their own feelings, never mind those of others. They have not yet developed the capacity for empathy and so cannot comprehend how the other person feels when they are hurting them – in a sense, it is thus clear that an aggressive toddler’s behaviour is largely unintentional.
So, how should you deal with your aggressive toddler?
- Don’t let your child hit or bite you. If you tolerate your little one hurting you, he will be lead to believe that it is okay for him to hurt others as well. Look your toddler squarely in the eyes and say in a calm, but firm voice: “No hitting”. Let her know that you are upset: “That is not allowed! I am angry at your for hitting me because it hurts” and then help her to verbalise her feelings “I can see you are frustrated, but it is not okay to hit mommy”.
- If your child is lashing out at other children, remove him from the group temporarily for a “time-out”. I would advise that parents NOT try to simply reason with their toddler at this age – remember that toddlers have not yet developed the capacity for empathy so appealing to them by asking something like: “How would you feel if your sister did that to you?” will have little to no effect whatsoever. At this age children do not understand reasoning, but they understand consequences. By disciplining your child immediately and consistently he will soon begin to realise that this will be the consequence every time he hurts someone and hopefully this realisation will lead to improved behaviour.
- Provide your aggressive toddler with an alternative, more acceptable gesture. For instance, you may want to say: “No hitting the cat. Stroke him, gently” as you gently guide his hand in stroking the cat.
- Reward good behaviour. Heap your toddler with praise and give her lots of smiles and hugs when she displays good behaviour such as comforting a distressed friend or waiting her turn.
- Encourage an aggressive toddler to use his words when he is upset and teach him to ask for help. Call his name to get his attention and then prompt him – “Noah! Say: Mommy, please help?”
- Ensure that your toddler is not modelling his behaviour on that of older children at home or at school.
- Avoid situations that may cause your child to feel overwhelmed, such as overcrowded play-spaces.
- Supervise your child if you know that he tends to lash out at others. Parents may sometimes feel embarrased to admit to other parents that their toddler behaves aggressively, but by sharing with other parents you can enlist their help in trying to prevent aggressive behaviour during play dates and they might also be able to offer valuable advice from their own experience.
If your toddler is on the recieving end of the aggression you would try to deal with it in the following way:
- Restrain yourself from taking your anger out on the offending child – this just reinforces the behaviour and continues the negative cycle.
- Aggressive behaviour should never be overlooked. State the problem simply. Remember – you want to “alert” the parents of the offending child to the situation, not confront them! Try not to get emotional about what happended, but simply tell them the facts and ask their help in solving the issue.
- If the aggression continues, despite your efforts to intervene – take your child and leave.
- Role play with your toddler on he to be firm and to say “NO” or “STOP THAT” in a loud voice if anyone is hurting him.
Anel Annandale is a prominent Educational Psychologist with a passion for early childhood development and a special interest in neuropsychology.
She is experienced in the field and has established herself as an expert, often appearing on television shows such as Exspresso. She is also available as a guest speaker at relevant events and functions.