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:
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.
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.
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.
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: 10 Pathways to Peaceful Co-existence with a Toddler
- Give your child your full attention. As much as possible, avoid using electronic devices when you are with your child. Respond attentively when they say or do something, so they don’t have to escalate their communications into tantrums and aggression in order to get your attention.
- Snuggle your child frequently. Provide warm close cuddle time throughout the day. Show your love actively and often.
- Maintain a schedule for playing, sleeping, and eating. A dependable schedule helps a child feel the world is safe and predictable. It also increases the likelihood their physical needs are being met.
- Provide reasonable small choices. Give your child as much control and as many choices as you reasonably can. For example, you can say, “It’s time to put your shoes on. Do you want to do it yourself, or do you want help?” “Would you like peanut butter on your banana slices?” “You choose a book, and I’ll read it to you.”
- Look for different kinds of stimulation. Sometimes toddler aggression reflects boredom. Make sure your child gets enough different kinds of stimulation—musical, physical, intellectual, social, and visual.
- Ensure ample time for active play. A two-year-old needs three hours of active physical exercise every day. Ideally, a good portion of that is outdoors. Toddler aggression sometimes reflects a need for more physical activity.
- Create a harmonious environment. Children mimic what’s happening around them. Are there other kids they spend time with who use hitting to get what they want? Are there worries or tensions at home or daycare they might be reacting to?
- Role-play different possibilities. In a calm easy moment, and in a lighthearted manner, re-enact a recent violent episode. Think together about possibilities other than violence, aggression, or tantrums. These could involve finding words, using a punching-pillow, one of the other options listed below, or something else entirely. Then reverse the roles, so you’re playing the aggressive child, and your child plays the parent role. I’ve seen even very young children come up with delightfully inventive alternatives that adults would never have thought about.
- Create a checklist of good alternatives to bad behaviour. Print a list of some good brief alternatives to violence. Ask your child for suggestions. You can illustrate it if you like, or paste on a photo of an angry bird or a violent child (crossed out with a big X) as well as a happy photo. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Use your words. Help your child learn to use words instead of hitting.
- Walk away. Teach your child to walk away when they feel someone is treating them badly. You don’t want them walking away from you, but that’s almost always better than scratching you.
- Go to your quiet corner. Make a special corner where your child can choose to go when they’re feeling like they need to hit. Let them keep books, toys, or stuffed animals there. If they have a special blanket or other object, let them take it to the quiet corner. You can ask if they want to go to the quiet corner when they’re aggressive, but don’t send them there as punishment. You want them to experience it as a good place to collect their thoughts and gain control of their emotions.
- Get physical. Some toddlers benefit from physical alternatives to aggression. In a calm moment, work out some options your child likes. That might include hitting a hitting pillow, stomping their feet while punching the sky, doing an angry dance, or touching their toes.
- Breathe out the nasties. Have your child breathe in to the count of five, hold their breath to the count of five, then breathe out like a dragon to the count of five. “Breathe out all your fire,” you can say, or “Breathe out the nasties and the angries, and then we can talk.”
- Ask for help. Help your toddler translate their aggressive urge into a request for help. Develop a code so they can let you know they want to get violent, and want your help preventing that. It can be “I need a hug,” or “Please help me,” or “I’ve got the angries again.” And then whenever the child uses the code, be sure to be available to hug them and listen to what’s going on.
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.