Toddlers and aggression

Baby may not look too scary most of the time, but for many parents, there’s nothing scarier than when a toddler first starts experimenting with expressing their great big feelings by using aggression, no matter how little damage they end up doing. Toddlers have strong emotional responses to deal with, and they’re still in the very earliest stages of developing their self-control. More than that, though, they’re still only just learning about what those feelings they’re having are, and they don’t have any real framework for dealing with them yet. Channeling those feelings into a physically aggressive response, or into yelling or throwing a tantrum, is very common.

If your toddler starts using aggression as a way for dealing with their feelings, it’s not a sign that anything is wrong, but it is a sign that they are ready for the next step of learning how to deal with their emotions. And who better to learn from than you?

Why toddlers become aggressive

Toddlers may seem to have pretty quiet routines – play, nap, snack, play, bedtime – but there’s a lot going on below the surface. Toddlers are trapped for a while in the not-so-sweet spot where their desire for independence means they want to do more than they have the physical coordination to do, and understand and want to say more things than they have the verbal skills to be able to express. This means frustration and other big emotions come up a lot for toddlers, but they haven’t yet learned the framework for dealing with this frustration.

The time between 18 months and 3 years old can be especially filled with strong feelings, since it’s during this time that many toddlers come to their final understanding of their individuality, separate from their parents. This combination, and the fact that toddlers are still only in the very earliest stages of developing self control can lead to tantrums. In some cases, toddlers lash out physically. This isn’t because they want to hurt anyone, but just because, even though communication skills are growing, in moments of strong feelings, many toddlers still fall back on actions to “speak” for them – even if those actions hurt. Hitting, kicking, and biting usually peak around the age of 2, but from there, toddlers can start to learn more appropriate ways to express their feelings of anger, sadness, or frustration.

During this time, toddlers start to develop their ability to empathize, or put themselves in other people’s shoes, but it can take a while for that understanding to click. Hitting or biting back when a toddler hits or bites doesn’t teach them that hitting and biting hurt, and they shouldn’t do it, but rather that hitting and biting is something people do. Instead, toddlers need to learn how to identify feelings in themselves and in others, how to connect them with the events that caused them, and, eventually, other ways to channel those feelings.

How to handle aggression in your toddler

If your toddler has been showing that they are upset by reacting aggressively, there are a few different ways of approaching the situation that can help you figure out the best way to encourage them to deal with those feelings in better ways.

  • Watch and learn: Toddlers can feel like pretty mysterious people, but with a little observation, the people who know them best can often figure out the pattern of when they’re more likely to lose control. It might be a certain setting that a toddler finds especially stressful (whether that’s daycare, a relative’s house, or just a trip to the grocery store), a certain time of day, a threat to a favorite toy, or a recent big change in their life. If you can figure out what’s inspiring this kind of upset in your toddler, then you can start to do something about it.
  • Set the scene: It can feel like it’s not actually useful to just keep a toddler away from a situation where they tend to act out, instead of teaching them to act more civil. Toddlers don’t have a lot of self-control, though – even if your little one knows they isn’t supposed to lash out when another child at the playground reaches for their favorite toy, that doesn’t mean they have the self-control they need to stop themself every time. Leaving their very favorite toys at home, so that the stakes are lower when they are out and about can help keep their emotional response at a manageable level before they even begin. On the other hand, putting them into situations where you know they are going to have trouble keeping their temper can be a step towards falling into a pattern where they lash out and you respond, and they start to rely on your response as a way of holding your attention.
  • Model off the runway: It’s when they're calm that your toddler is probably going to learn the most from your reactions. Modeling healthy ways to deal with your emotions to your toddler doesn’t mean hiding the fact that you get upset too sometimes. Letting them know when you’re frustrated or having trouble with something, and then going on to react productively (whether that means trying a challenging new thing again instead of giving up or getting upset, or acknowledging that someone said something that hurt your feelings, and you’re now going to talk it through) gives them a framework for how to react to strong emotions when they happen in their life.
  • Fill their toolbox: One of the reasons toddlers lash out is because they don’t know how else to respond to their strong emotions, but they also don’t always have the skills they need to keep a situation from reaching a point where they start to get that upset. Skills like sharing, taking turns, self-control, patience, and waiting can help toddlers stay calmer to begin with. Games like playing pass with a ball help introduce those concepts in a non-threatening way, and when toddlers start getting interested in playing with slightly older kids, children who are more in a toddler’s peer group are great for teaching social skills that toddlers will want to learn from them, just by observation. Talking about a toddler’s feelings (“I know you’re upset we have to leave the park,”) on the other hand, can help them learn to identify those feelings, so that you can talk them through other ways to deal with them. And finally, offering alternatives (“Let’s draw an angry picture, and see if that helps you feel better”) for ways to express those feelings can help keep them from boiling over.

Aggression is a common phase for toddlers, most of whom believe actions speak much louder than words when it comes to expressing strong emotions. It’s important to address this stage, but it’s also important to keep in mind that most children come out of it fairly easily before long when they have positive models to follow.

  • Claire Lerner, Rebecca Parlakian. “Aggressive Behavior in Toddlers.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. February 1 2016. Retrieved May 31 2017.
  • “Aggressive Behavior.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved May 31 2017.
  • “Emotional Development: 2 Year Olds.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Retrieved May 31 2017. 

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