Aggression is quite possibly one of the most difficult aspects of toddlerhood to deal with. You never quite know how to react or what is causing the behavior. The most important thing is to realize that aggressive behavior is actually perfectly normal and is a phase that nearly every toddler goes through. While it’s incredibly overwhelming and frustrating, your child is perfectly fine and you are not alone.
Toddlers do not act out because they are unhappy or because they simply wish to make you mad (though it may seem that way). Toddlers are going through such major changes at this stage in their lives; their minds and bodies are changing at incredible rates, and they don’t know what to do with all of the feelings they have.
Toddlers also possess an intense desire to become independent. While we are trying to hold on to our babies for dear life, they want to do things themselves and break away from you a little bit. On top of this frustration are also their complete lack of impulse control and the struggle to develop the language necessary to express themselves.
All of this combined can make for one very angry little boy or girl, and the only way they can think of to release their anger and frustration is to hit or bite. Since every toddler goes through this transition phase, nearly all of them will display some form of aggression as well.
Discipline and Consequences
Understanding your toddler’s behavior does not mean that you ignore it. Constant discipline, reassurance, and consequences are the only way to get your child through this phase and teach them that there are better and more acceptable ways of releasing anger than by hurting others. The second your child hits or bites, they must be disciplined. Don’t assume that you can ignore it because it only happened once; this only sets you up for it to keep happening.
The discipline needs to be consistent; your child must receive the exact same response every time so that he begins to see a pattern and learns that his bad behavior will lead to a punishment. Even what you say needs to be consistently the same; “Okay, you bit your sister again, time for another time out.” Not only will this help establish a pattern, it’s also much clearer than just saying, “Stop it!” because believe it or not, they often have no idea what that means!
Discipline includes consequences, and these should always be directly related to the behavior. If time out is your consequence of choice, it should be the consequence each and every time, and the amount of time spent in time out should increase depending on the severity of the behavior.
If your child is in a playgroup with a group of other children and begins to be aggressive with them, he should be immediately removed from the group. Discipline and have him watch the other kids for a while rather than letting him go right back to playing. Remember that you can’t “reason” with a toddler. “How would you feel if he bit you?” is not going to register in the developing mind of a toddler, so just stick to your pattern of discipline and consequence.
If you don’t want your child directing his anger at other people, sometimes all they need is something they can direct it at. For some children, burning off all that steam might only take a few hours of physical play. Playing outside at the park or playing ball are great outlets for your child’s frustration. Not only will the physical activity do him a great amount of good, but being outside also helps with moods.
If playing outside isn’t an option, you might consider indoor toys that allow for physical play like ball pits, small trampolines, or even just playing in the bathtub for a while. Avoid giving children objects like punching bags that are meant for hitting; you may think that you are providing them with an outlet, but you may actually encourage their aggressive behavior.
Also keep in mind that TV can be one of the worst influences on your child. Even G-rated cartoons and children’s television stations often have some degree of conflict or aggression. Seeing these things may actually influence your child’s behavior. If you do allow your child to watch TV, watch along with them and comment on any negative behaviors; “Well that wasn’t very nice for him to hit his brother, was it?” In this way, television becomes a learning experience as well.
Ask for Help
While aggression is normal, at a certain point it becomes cause for intervention and may be more than just general toddler frustration. If your child is extremely aggressive, especially if it’s unusual for him, and it goes on for a long period of time, you may want to consider talking to your pediatrician. Major warning signs may be other children being afraid of him, he’s attacking adults, or he has no response to discipline whatsoever.
Working with your doctor can help determine if there is a deeper underlying cause and what, if anything needs to be done to help treat your child. In most cases, it’s a passing phase that you’ll both soon put behind you.