Toddler aggression: causes and tips
Today I tackle toddler aggression: the likely causes and some tips. Toddler aggression is completely normal, and most parents reach that toddler stage at some point, but normal doesn’t make it easy! If your toddler is starting to act aggressively by hitting, biting, slapping or pushing other children (or adults), it can be a confusing time. Just five minutes ago this same child was melting your heart with their cheeky smile and laughter. Where has your lovely innocent child gone, and what is the deal with this sudden aggressive behaviour?
Please realise that even though aggressive behaviour in toddlers is completely normal to some degree or another, it doesn’t mean that the aggression should be tolerated. Today I want to give you some insight into some of the likely causes of aggression in your toddler, and help you spot their triggers. This will help you address things before they get too out of hand.
If you’ve noticed some aggressive behaviour in your toddler, the first thing I suggest you do is just observe things for a week or so. Pull back and look at the entire situation. You want to observe what provokes the aggression in your toddler. Can you pinpoint what the circumstances are when it occurs? If you can, you’ll be much more likely to stop it before it occurs. After all prevention is always better than a cure.
Anger, frustration, fatigue and hunger are the most common reasons for aggressive behaviour (you’ve heard the term “hangry”, right?). All four of these things impact on tolerance levels and can make the loveliest child react on impulse, seemingly with no control at all.
Once you start looking at the surrounding circumstances including social cues and time of the day, you may start noticing a pattern of behaviour.
Example 1: Do you notice that your son is always hitting his little sister right before lunch? That could be a hunger issue right there. A quick fix could be to bring lunchtime forward or supply a bigger snack at morning tea. That alone could stop the aggression in its tracks.
Example 2: Does your daughter start hitting right before bedtime? That could simply be fatigue. If she’s not getting the rest she needs during the day, what can you do about that? Try moving bedtime forward or look at the day’s schedule to make sure the nap isn’t too early, making the afternoon stretch too long.
DON’T DISCOUNT FATIGUE
While frustration is often talked about as a reason for toddler tantrums and aggression, hunger and fatigue are often overlooked. But all of them are super important. Fatigue especially lowers any tolerance we may have (yes, adults too) and makes all of us more irritable and impulsive. Think about how quickly you bite back or yell when you’re tired (we all do it). And that’s after an adult lifetime of learning social skills. Fatigue makes adults quick to anger or rage, and it’s even worse for toddlers.
If your toddler isn’t getting enough sleep (day or night), that alone is likely the number one reason for their aggressive behaviour. It makes sense to rectify that first (I can help there).
FRUSTRATION IS A FACTOR
I mentioned above that frustration is the common go to when trying to understand toddlers. And it certainly shouldn’t be overlooked.
If, as a toddler, someone else has the car that I want to play with, or you’re making me stop colouring because it’s bath time, I can get frustrated. Why can’t I have the toy, why do I need to have a bath? Quite simply, things aren’t going as I wish them too and I can react by grabbing, pushing, or hitting to ultimately get what I want. It’s impulsive and instinctive.
If you notice your child starting to get frustrated, that’s the right time to intervene. Before they lash out at their sibling or playmate. You definitely want to try and prevent the aggressive behaviour. You can do this by distracting them or moving them to another area to play.
If you see him starting to get angry at another child, the same applies, you want to try and prevent the aggression from occurring by offering another toy, removing him from the situation or distracting him with something else.
This behaviour is not “naughty”, it’s just an impulsive reaction to what’s going on. Just understanding this alone can help us take a deep breath in order to respond with understanding vs react with anger.
But what if you’re too late? It happens, you missed the lead up and turned your back, and before you know it, little sister is crying after being bitten. Then what?
AGGRESSION IS NOT OKAY
Now this one is another minefield depending on your parenting philosophy. I personally use time-out for physical aggression simply because I want my children to realise that we do not react to our anger or frustration (or fatigue or hunger) by lashing out. It’s not an acceptable way to get what you want. Therefore, there is a consequence in our house for aggressive behaviour.
In our house it is an automatic time-out for hitting, biting, pushing or anything aggressive or violent (this is different to a standard tantrum or meltdown). It’s non-negotiable.
It has been this way in our household since around the 18 month – 2-year mark. Simply because I have spirited kids who, once they get in that red zone, need to calm down before you can connect and hug them. They’re too angry for any connection straight away. Aggression in our household means straight to a safe timeout spot in the same room as us. It’s a clear message that the behaviour is not acceptable. You must stop what you’re doing (the aggressive behaviour) and sit out for a few minutes.
However, this is a learning process. It takes time and consistency. Toddlers need to learn that we do not respond to our anger or frustration with violence. However, that also means YOU can’t react with anger or frustration either.
Expect this learning to take time and patience on your end. Including a few trips to the naughty step or the timeout spot or whatever you prefer to use for a safe timeout or consequence until they understand it. That’s if you can’t circumvent the aggression by modifying the situation first.
That means plenty of emotional control and all-round consistency is needed from you (which is not always easy, I know). But there must be some sort of consequence for acting out with aggression if you couldn’t prevent it (and let’s face it, you can’t prevent all of it).
MODEL APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOUR
Why is that emotional control from you important? Because you’ll be modelling the appropriate behaviour to your toddler. It’s one of the ways toddlers learn, they copy your actions.
Show them how to navigate situations where they may feel angry or frustrated. Before it happens. You can do this by role-playing a mock situation. Roleplay to show them what will happen if they hit and tell them calmly that it’s not okay. This way they also know what to expect.
Talk to them as you intervene BEFORE conflict arises, and explain “I can see you want that toy, but she’s playing with that toy,” so “we’ll find a different toy to play with” or “we can see if she’ll swap the toy for this one” or “we can ask her if she’s finished playing with that toy”. Toddlers can understand what’s going on much earlier than they can verbalise it themselves. But it takes time and repetition.
And don’t forget to praise the times your toddler does play well with other children. This helps reinforce the good behaviour you want to see more of.
If they can’t hit, bite or push, you must calmly let them know what else they can do instead.
IT’S A HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY
As a parent it is our responsibility to show our children the appropriate way to behave, and what is and isn’t acceptable. This gets heavy at the best of times, but even heavier when you’re tired all the time. So, take that into account and try and remedy any broken night sleep for yourself and your child.
Practice giving your child other options and help them better navigate social interactions. Part of this is moving away from a situation if they are feeling frustrated and likely to lash put physically. Until such time that they can manage this themselves, you will have to do it for them as their responsible parent.
With steps in place to encourage acceptable behaviour, the aggression will pass. It will take a little effort from you in the meantime. But it will pass.
And if its fatigue causing the problem, and you’re not sure how to get past the over-tiredness and out the other side, let’s chat. If you’re ready for a step by step plan to help with sleep, book in for a free call. And let’s get it sorted.
Have you had to deal with an aggressive toddler before? Do you have any tips to help parents handle it? Please share.