Toddler Behavior: How to Handle Aggression in Your Young Child

Recently, I’ve gotten lots of questions about how to handle aggression in young children. It’s a common concern, and it’s always startling when your previously sweet little baby starts to bite, hit, or generally wreak havoc. How did this happen? Did I do something to cause this? Surely, we rationalize, he’s learning it from daycare…(or a sibling, or a neighbor)…ANYONE but us, right?How To Handle Aggression in Young Children

Well, he MIGHT be learning it from daycare. But guess what? Aggression is an INBORN DRIVE. Aggression is NATURAL in young children (and older children…and adults!). We ALL have some aggression in us….thankfully. Aggression helps us protect ourselves and our offspring, and, when properly re-directed, gives us energy to pursue our goals in life.

But there’s a lot of parenting “advice” out there that seeks to squash any hint of aggression in our kids, and indeed to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Worse, to punish the expression of it in children.

Instead, we must understand that aggression is a normal drive; as inescapable as hunger, thirst, and the developmental urge to get up and walk. When I see a child in the clinic who expresses NO aggression — THAT worries me.

Of course, the problem is not with aggression per se, but with HOW IT IS EXPRESSED. That’s the key, isn’t it? Aggression must be re-directed appropriately, so as not to be destructive.

So, how do we do that, as parents?

First, get comfortable with aggression, including your own
Yes, your own. I will bet that the Dads reading this won’t have as much difficulty with this part of the assignment. After all, boys and men are typically more direct in their expression of aggression. I’m all for women’s rights, but there’s no doubt that most boys (and men) are more directly aggressive than girls and women. My husband is a lot more comfortable with our kids’ aggressiveness than I am. But I’ve had to learn from him that it’s not good for me to automatically chastise the kids simply for being aggressive — kids need healthy outlets for their aggression, as long as they’re not hurting anyone (or anything).

Moms need to understand that we, too, have an aggressive drive within us. Think about it. How do you channel your aggression? One friend of mine goes on a pounding run. Another paints vivid pictures. My sister likes horror films. Personally, I’m a head-banger. I feel so much better after a good power walk, listening to Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins or Black Sabbath (am I dating myself here, or what?). Get comfortable with your own aggression, and think about how you channel it in a positive way. Then, think about how you can help your children with the same issue.

Next, convey this to your kids:
I understand you want to break that toy. I know you’re mad. That’s OK. But I can’t let you break things. Sometimes when I get mad I listen to loud music and jump up and down. Wanna try it with me? Or: You guys can’t hit each other. I know you got mad at each other. Let me help you use your words to say how mad you are at each other. Then when we’re done, we’ll try to find out how we can be friends again.

More tips on handling aggression
For babies and young toddlers (up to about 18 months), IGNORE it as much as possible.
(And yes, even babies express aggression. What breastfeeding mother can’t attest to that? One minute you’re having a nice nursing session, and then all of a sudden — OUCH! Your sweet baby has decided to act out his aggressive impulses — on your nipple!) If baby is biting, physically stop her, in as unemotional manner as possible (you don’t want her to be reinforced by a big reaction from you), and try to move on. Babies will misinterpret any chastisement, and internalize it as shame. Not good.

For older toddlers, you can express your understanding of the emotion, but firmly show him what you’d prefer. You also want to praise and reinforce his HEALTHY expression of frustration and aggression. I know that little girl made you mad. I could see you were upset. But I am so proud of you for being a big boy and walking away from her. You didn’t hit. Great job! And try really, really hard to stay unemotional about it yourself. Easier said than done, I know, but if your child can trigger YOUR annoyance and aggression easily, it’s reinforcement for his own aggression. If you act out your aggression, so will they.

For preschoolers, you can talk more about their conflicts and help them role play or plan out problem situations in advance, or even after the fact. I know Ashley sometimes makes you mad. What will you do in school today if Ashley upsets you again? Can we practice what you might say or do, instead of hitting? Or try a role-playing exercise. OK, I’ll pretend I’m Ashley, and you try using your words instead of hitting. Let’s practice.

I also want to say a bit about “scary stories”. Preschoolers naturally gravitate towards “scary stories”, because they fulfill an important psychological function. They offer a way to SAFELY MASTER FEARS — as well as their own aggression. Because fears and aggression are related, psychologically. Fears crop up when children start to see what their OWN aggression can cause. They then start to generalize this fear of aggression to others. Some parents or “experts” suggest avoiding scary stories, but this is actually counterproductive. It’s important to give your child an opportunity to process and deal with scary things in a safe and manageable way. Why do you think the classic fairy tales have been around so long? Because they offer children a chance to process their natural aggression and fears. Of course, follow your child’s lead. Don’t expose him to scary stuff he can’t handle. But recognize that it’s important psychologically to allow him to deal with aggression in stories, at school, and at home.

In general, you want to convey your empathy and support for all your child’s feelings. When he feels understood, it will be easier to show him how to appropriately channel and redirect his aggression and other negative feelings. This is an important lesson for him to learn now, so that he can manage his aggressiveness throughout his life.

Aloha,

Dr. Heather
The BabyShrink

Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Welcome to BabyShrink.com, where parents turn for open, honest and direct answers to questions regarding their babies, toddlers and children up to age seven. Dr. Heather, the author of BabyShrink, is a licensed psychologist specializing in child development. She's also the mother of four young children, which gives her the unique ability to respond to parents' inquiries about the social, emotional and behavioral development of your children from both clinical and practical points of view.

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Posted in Annoying Toddler Behavior, Baby Behavior Problems, Popular Tips and Tricks, Preschoolers, Young Child Behavior
11 comments on “Toddler Behavior: How to Handle Aggression in Your Young Child
  1. patricia says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for this post! My 3 year old has started hitting and pinching and scratching other children recently, and I’ve been baffled by how to deal with it. Time outs seem to only make her worse, as she then starts hitting me. One question though: what do you do when you have NO IDEA why she’s being aggressive toward the other kids, and she can’t or won’t really tell you? I ask her why she does these things, and she has a typical preschooler’s rambling non-responsive answer, “Because I pinched her and then her mommy was mad,” kind of thing. The other adults who have witnessed the incidents have never mentioned any provocation and I’ve never seen any. I can understand that she hits me because she’s mad that I’m punishing her, but how to address this seemingly-unprovoked aggression? I’m happy to talk to her about channeling her anger better, if I understood what was driving it in the first place. Thank you!

  2. Dr. Heather says:

    Hi Patricia ~

    I really can’t overstate this: Aggression is INNATE. We all feel it bubbling up inside from time to time — often for no “reason” at all. Your daughter hits because she can’t help herself. And honestly, it FEELS GOOD. It feels good like any other biological drive. It is hard to comprehend that aggression can FEEL GOOD, I know, especially for little ones. But it’s true, and we have to get our minds around that in order to help them.

    Again, think about your own aggression, and try really hard to think back to when YOU were little. Hitting and breaking and biting were FUN. Really! Embarrassing to admit, but true.

    So when you understand this reality, you can help her step past it, by helping her channel it appropriately. Trying to understand WHY she’s hitting at this age won;t get you very far. When she’s a bit older, you can help her try to connect the dots, but at this age her natural aggression is sort of bubbling out, randomly. So don’t scold, and don’t look for a “reason”. Difficult to do, I know! Good luck!! :)

  3. Thank you for this post, so informative! I have a three year old boy and a 6 mo old girl, WHAT a difference in behaviours! My son is a “typical” boy, sometimes aggressive. It is good to read that it is natural and maybe a necessary thing for them. I get so embarrassed and find myself getting aggressive towards him (talking directly in his face, grabbing him and removing him from the situation) when we’re at playdates and he is pushing or taking toys from other children. I guess I need to relax and explain things better to him-most children are aggressive at some point or another so I need to deal with it better;)
    Also love the breastfeeding/biting tidbit. I had no idea that a strong reaction caused shame, how sad! I typically yelp and pull my daughter off–not meaning to be mean–but it hurts!
    Great article!

  4. Dr. Heather says:

    Danielle ~

    Glad it helped! Yeah, controlling our own aggressive reactions is not always easy, I can sure relate! But modeling a better way of handling our aggression and frustration is really the key. Sometimes it helps me to simply remember how small a toddler is, compared to me — I also giggle every time I remember how my pediatrician handles it when one of our babies screams and hollers about some aspect of an examination — “You don’t scare me!” he teases them, with a smile. I try to think the same thing when one of mine is having a tantrum. For some reason, this helps me keep it all in perspective.

  5. LeAndMatt says:

    Great article. Thank you for making me feel like some of my 4.5 year old son’s behavior is ‘normal’. My question is – at what point should you be concerned? Our son has a quick reaction (impulsive) to someone teasing, hitting (accidental or purposeful), etc. that is aggressive in nature. He also has ‘unprovoked’ aggressive behavior (randomly hit, kick, poke, or push a child) for no reason. He knows what he has done because as soon as it happens you can see him get upset as he recognizes what he has done and that it is wrong. We have removed TV and movies (especially shows that include aggressive behavior), removed ‘imaginary play’ roles that involve play fighting, swords, super heros, etc. If you ask him after he is caught doing something wrong what he should have done, he will tell you he should have walked away or asked the child to stop, or kept his hands to himself.

    Any suggestions….

  6. lex says:

    I have a daughter who is almost 3 and she has been hitting since 18 months. Lately it seems to be escalating, and it’s normally aimed at my husband and I, not children. However this week in daycare, she almost hit a baby at daycare, and I freaked. The baby wasn’t even touching her. I need some real answers on how to deal with her hitting. Using the acknowledgement of her feelings is fine, but it’s difficult when she’s in the middle of hitting me, and I’m pregnant. I’m afraid she is going to hit me in my stomach hard enough to do some damage.

    Please help.

  7. Dr. Heather says:

    Your daughter needs to be supervised when around younger children — just like any child this age. Limit setting, in an unemotional way, plus praise for good behavior, should help. Let us know what you’re trying.

  8. Dawn says:

    Thank you for the article. My son is 4 1/2 and he has random aggressive behavior. W have gone to a psycologist because we thought it was ADHD however he was not diagnosed with it. My soon is a really loveable kid and has many friends but he has episodes where he becomes aggressive not only withanother child but towards the teachers that are trying to resolve the issue. W can not figure out what the cause is for this behavior. He will hit a child and when told he should not hit, he begins spotting, scratching, punching and kicking anyone and everyone around. In the summer I would get calls almost every day from summer camp and would have to leave work and go and pick him up because they cannot get him to c calm down. Now at preschool it has started again and I just don’t know what to do. I don’t overreact or get aggressive toward him. I try to talk the situation out with him and role play with him for better options but nothing seems to work. It seems like he blacks out and when he finally calls down he is so upset from what he has done that he becomes erased. He apologizes to everyone without being asked to . Are we missing something? I am not sure what to do anymore.

  9. Dr. Heather says:

    Dawn,

    If you’re concerned that he “blacks out”, you need to take him for a complete neurological exam. This could be a type of seizure or other medical symptom. Don’t stop until you find an excellent, experienced pediatric neurologist. If nothing medical is found, try a good pediatric occupational therapist in case your son has sensory issues — something that is often missed. Getting help for BOTH problems would make a world of difference. Good luck!

  10. Annie says:

    Hi,
    Great advice from you Dr.! My son will be 4 in April and we are currently in therapy for behavioral problems! My husband is in the military and deployed when my son was 18 months old for 6 months and was gone on and off again for a while prior to his deployment! From that point on I can remember my sons energy as being very entergetic! I know boys are usually more active than girls by I really started noticing something was different when I was the only mom at the playground chasing my son around and watching him like a hawk because he would grab children in the face and pinch and scratch them. This aggression went on for about a year and he also banged his head on the ground around that age as well. The aggression hasn’t stopped. Since then I have has a daughter who is now 18 months old and rvis very good with her but recently has started to pinch, bite, and pushing and even throwin her on the ground. My husband deploys in April for 7 months and I know it will affect my son tremendously when he leaves ! My main concern for my son is that w get a bad report from school everyday that he is hitting at recess and not sharing an taking toys away! He doesn’t do well in large groups of children and there are 26 kids in his class and 3 teachers. He goes 5 day week from 8-12 I started picking him up earlier because he dropped his nap and would not sit still for the 2 hour nap time. I thought that would help his behavior. I recently went I a birthday party at a gymnastics gym and there were lots of kids invited and I had my 19 month ok daughter with me too. I saw a lady who was constantly running with her 2 year old son and had flashbulb memories of what I went through with my son at the age! She didn’t stop and when she did her son was out of the door and on the parking lot! We got I talking and she mentioned that he was nonverbal and in speech therapy and also they were evaluain him for sensory processing disorder! I feel like I should have gotten my son help sooner but now he is in speech therapy and I never woul have thought of sensory issues. I sometime hi k it could be ADHD an just read your reply about that and sensory problems. That is what the lady at the gym told me as well! My son will sit an build Legos for 45 minutes and is already reading 3 word sentences and is very happy and is an advance swimmer for his age and will hike for 2 hours with a small lunch break and maybe 2 piggy back rides! Lots if energy and also climbs everything! Some of the preschool that he has attended since we had moved often have been better but I think the number of students and the type of teacher has a lot to do with how he behaves at school. We had to pull him out of a school for hitting students an also hitting the teachers! Your thoughts! My husband is convince that he is just a 3 year old not who will just mature in time and gets really frustrated they he jinks obam always trying to label him but as a mother it is innate of me to want to do what’s best for my son and just know in my heart he needs help! Thanks for your help!

  11. Dr. Heather says:

    Annie,

    Of course I can’t diagnose your son from here, but what you describe certainly sounds out of the ordinary for activity levels. Seems like you are on the right track with exploring speech and sensory issues. Please insist that your son be evaluated and if need be, have the school build and IEP so that his needs can be met — perhaps in the way of a smaller class size, extra services, etc. Good luck and let us know!

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About Dr. Heather
About Dr. Heather
I'm Dr. Heather Wittenberg, child psychologist and mom of four. I specialize in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers -- and parents! Here, we solve your child's most difficult sleeping, pooping, crying, and eating challenges. My advice is based in neuroscience, but written in grab-and-go terms you can use immediately. I've been featured in national parenting magazines, as a television guest expert, and as a parenting writer. Welcome!

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