Most toddlers get aggressive sometimes. Tantrums and aggressive behaviours—hitting, kicking, scratching, and biting—don’t mean you’re a bad parent, but they are a call to action.
Why Little Kids Get Nasty
An aggressive young child, at least up to the age of three, is not being ‘bad’ or disobedient. They are trying to tell you something, and haven’t yet developed the language skills or emotional habits to communicate more effectively. Either that, or they don’t feel you’re listening to them, and violence is the only way to get your attention.
Toddler aggression usually happens when a little one is not getting what they want, whether that want is reasonable (food, attention, a cuddle), or not (candy, someone else’s toy, something dangerous). And context matters. Quite predictably, toddlers are more likely to be aggressive when they’re tired, worried, not feeling well, hungry, or otherwise stressed.
Looked at from a child’s eye view, lashing out at someone is a reasonable reaction to the powerlessness of being a toddler. What else can they do?
How to Respond to a Young Child Who Has Lost Control
To begin with, punishment doesn’t help. In fact, you getting angry or impatient just makes things worse, exacerbating the frustration that led to your child’s bad behaviour, as well as demonstrating that anger and impatience are okay.
When your child gets violent, you have a great opportunity to fine-tune your parenting, and to help your child understand and communicate what they’re thinking and feeling. If you can find a way to welcome your young child’s act of aggression as a great teachable moment, you’re more likely to retain your sense of humour and perspective, and to act wisely and well in that moment.
Here are four simple steps for stopping toddler aggression, and teaching some important new skills in the process:
1. Stop the Aggression. Do what you need to do—gently, but seriously—to stop your child from being physically aggressive. If they’re hitting you, for example, or trying to hit, hold their hands firmly enough—with kindness—to ensure they won’t be effective. If your child was brandishing a loaded gun, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that weapon away. Hitting, scratching, kicking, and biting are no different. Hands, nails, teeth, and feet are the weapons available to the toddler. It’s your job to ensure they learn they cannot use their weapons on others.
2. Go Somewhere Private. If there are other people around, remove your child (yes, that might mean picking them up and carrying them, kicking and screaming) to a private place. That can be a quiet corner of a store or parking lot, or a separate room in a home. This serves three purposes. It gives your child a chance to calm down away from the situation where they were hitting (or scratching, or whatever), and it gives you a chance to deal with it away from the eyes of others. It also allows your child to maintain their dignity. Even for a toddler, it’s embarrassing to have a problem addressed in public.
3. Help Your Child Use Their Words (and NOT Their Hands, Nails, Feet, or Teeth). Once you’ve found a quiet spot, and are still restraining your child, or they’re no longer hitting, etc., look them in the eye, and tell them firmly and calmly—no anger or impatience or annoyance in your voice—something like, “In our family, we do not hit.” Model patient adult self-control. That is, be kind, matter-of-fact, and strong. No matter how you are feeling—angry, worried, embarrassed, whatever—this is a time to act like a good parent.
4. Debrief. Once your child has calmed down, and before too much time has passed (within the first half hour, if at all possible), have a short chat about what happened. You might say, “Hitting is never okay. When you notice you’re about to hit (or scratch, etc.), try to use your words to tell me how you feel. Instead of hitting, maybe you can say, ‘I’m tired, Mommy’ or ‘My tummy is rumbling,’ or ‘I really need you to listen to me, right now.’”
Prevention: Ten Pathways to Peaceful Co-existence with a Terrible Toddler
10. Take good care of yourself. The best way to teach a child about regulating their own emotions and behaviour is to be a good model of emotional self-regulation yourself. Do what you need to do to keep yourself happy, healthy, and optimistic. Find ways of managing your own emotions so you can be a model of calm, thoughtful, respectful behaviour. Remember that anger and shouting are also forms of aggression, tantamount to bullying when a (large) parent shouts at a small child.
Get help. If these ideas for coping with a young child's aggression and preventing it don't work, or the level of violence is disturbing you, or your child is three or older and still going out of control, it is time to consult a professional. Some problems with anger and violence need professional help.
For more ideas and perspectives on tantrums, aggression, and violence in young children:
“When Children Hit: 10 Tips for Parents,” by LR Knost
“Toddlers and Hitting: Help, Ideas, and Resources,” by Ariadne Brill
“How to Handle a Temper Tantrum,” by WebMD
“Temper Tantrums,” by KidsHealth
“Ten Top Tips for Preventing Temper Tantrums,” by Dona Matthews
“Disciplining Toddlers : 5 Reasons Toddlers Timeouts Are Harmful,” by Dona Matthews
“Managing Young Children’s Transition Tantrums,” by Dona Matthews
Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster