Toddler aggression often appears during a temper tantrum. A young child’s inability to control their emotions can lead to aggression toward others out of frustration.
Knowing when to worry about these externalizing behaviors can be difficult.
While some parents are taking the “it’s just a phase” approach, others are taking strict measures to stop it. Both of these discipline strategies could make matters worse.
Is toddler aggression normal
Although aggressive behaviors such as hitting, kicking, and biting are common toddler behaviors, they should not be ignored or treated as “just a phase”.
Studies have found that behavioral problems in childhood tend to persist over time1. They are strong predictors of more serious forms of behavioral problems or oppositional defiant disorders during adolescence and adulthood2.
In toddlerhood, belligerent behavior is also correlated with worse social competence, academic functioning3, and the likelihood of school dropout4. Chronic extreme aggression is also a risk factor for serious physical violence, theft, and delinquency in adolescence5.
But the good news is early intervention can yield better results. It’s important to address your toddler’s aggression as early as possible6.
Why are toddlers aggressive for no reason
An aggressive toddler rarely acts violently out of the blue. Parents’ responses to mild aversive behavior play a major role in the outcomes7.
A study was conducted with 54 mother-toddler dyads and found that a child’s aggressive behavior was usually preceded by an escalating series of misbehaviors that mothers either didn’t notice or failed to address effectively.
Keep a closer eye on your child’s behavior and respond to mild misbehavior as soon as it occurs.
Causes of aggressive behavior in children
Many factors, both internal and external to the child, contribute to aggression in young children. Aggression tends to emerge when several risk factors accumulate. Problematic behavior is up to four times more likely to occur when two or more risk factors are present8.
Internal risk factors include:
- Difficult child temperament
- Perinatal stress such as premature birth
External risk factors include:
- Controlling, hostile, or punitive parenting style9
- Permissive parenting style
- Witnessing domestic violence10
- Parental drug use11
How to deal with an aggressive child
The toddler years are a time when children learn to walk and start exploring the world. This is also the time when they learn to assert their independence.
The way issues are resolved can have a significant impact on the child’s future development. Good experiences will help them develop self-competence but power struggles will likely result in externalizing behavior12.
Therefore, the goal of dealing with an aggressive toddler is not just to stop their aggression, but to help them develop self-regulation so that they do not resort to violent behavior.
1. Take deep breaths (the parent)
When dealing with toddler misbehavior, the most important first step for frustrated parents is to take a deep breath and stay calm.
Negative emotions are contagious.
The most common reason children become aggressive is their parents’ negativity in handling bad behavior. The emotional stability of a parent is directly related to a child’s ability to regulate their emotions13.
A chain-smoking parent cannot stop their children from smoking. An angry parent cannot calm an out-of-control toddler.
It is vital that you become a good role model for self-control by regulating your emotions. Remain patient and caring, rather than irate or accusatory, no matter how much the child fights back or attempts to attack.
You might think it’s impossible or unreasonable.
However, when you, an adult, can’t control yourself in such a high-stress situation, how can a toddler with an immature brain, intense feelings, weak impulse control, and no regulating abilities do so?
Take action to protect the toddler, others, and property from harmful behavior.
Stop the child from hitting, separate them physically, or move them to a safe space to protect all parties.
Tell the child calmly, “I need to remove you to protect you and everyone else.”
Helping a toddler calm down is probably the most difficult step. Trying to stop their aggression may sometimes make them more agitated and confrontational.
Refrain from scolding, punishing, or threatening to punish because it adds fuel to the fire. Your toddler will not be able to change their behavior without your calm support.
What an angry toddler needs is your love and guidance, not harsh punishment.
3. Acknowledge difficult feelings
Attune to their angry feelings and acknowledge them.
Here are some examples. In a neutral tone, you can say,
“You must be very angry that Tim took your toy without asking. That was wrong and very rude of him. I am so sorry that happened to you.”
“You are very upset with me because I yelled at you for spilling the juice. I was angry at you even though you didn’t do it on purpose. It must feel very unfair to you.”
Attunement and acknowledgment can do wonders in helping an emotionally aroused child calm down. You are not condoning their behavior. You are just accepting their big feelings.
4. Emotion coaching
Labeling your child’s emotions and teaching them how to talk about their strong feelings are techniques in emotion coaching.
Emotion coaching is teaching children how to understand, recognize, and manage their emotions. Emotion coaching does not directly reduce child’s aggression, but it can improve their emotion regulation which does help reduce child’s behavior problems14.
5. Suggest alternative ways to deal with issues
Teach toddlers better ways to deal with disagreements. There are often positive ways to solve problems, but we have to show them how.
For example, if they are hungry and want cookies right before dinner, ask if they can settle for some rice crackers because dinner will be ready soon.
In addition to helping them solve problems, you’re also giving them opportunities to practice their language skills.
6. Ask your toddler what they want to happen
A child’s ability to resolve conflicts and negotiate disputes is one of the most important skills they must develop. These social skills are learned at home by participating in family exchanges and watching how parents communicate with each other.
Ask your toddler what they want to happen. If their desire cannot be met, explain why and give them options. Explain to them why they cannot have or do something, even if they do not understand them yet. This will help develop their critical thinking skills.
7. Teach them emotion regulation skills
Everyone experiences feelings of frustration at times. Teach them it is ok to feel frustrated but not ok to be violent. Show your child acceptable ways to deal with strong emotions in the future.
For example, do breathing exercises, use words to voice their objection, punch a pillow, ask parents or family members for a bear hug, etc.
Do not spank
The use of physical punishment to discipline children teaches them that violence can solve problems.
Studies have shown that spanking at age one predicts aggressive behavior in toddlers15.
If you spank your child to teach good behavior, your child will mimic your behavior. Instead, use positive discipline.
Be a good role model and talk about your anger management
Model to your child how you handle your own anger without becoming aggressive. Being a good role model is the best thing you can do to prevent your child’s aggression.
Also, talking openly about your feelings of anger helps them learn different ways to deal with emotions so they realize violence is not the only option.
No one can avoid getting angry. But you don’t need to follow it up with aggressive outbursts.
Re-evaluate your no’s
In the toddler years, children develop a sense of curiosity about the world around them and a need for independence. The experience of constantly being told “no” can be very frustrating16.
Re-evaluate what you are saying no to. For instance, playing with food is exploring the properties of food. Not using a toy “the right way” is expressing creativity. Jumping in the puddle is exercising.
Give your strong-willed toddler a feeling of control over things that are safe by relaxing your restrictions on what your child must listen to you.
Notice and address mild aversive behavior before it escalates
Parents of non-aggressive children tend to notice and address mild misbehavior before it gets out of hand. So
However, when responding to your child, do not use the power assertion control strategies. Aggressive behavior tends to be associated with highly controlling parenting strategies, such as anger, harshness, criticism, spanking, and physical control17.
Teach communication and problem-solving skills
After they have calmed down, you can also teach them how to respectfully disagree and how to suggest an acceptable alternative the right way.
Research shows that greater family compromise predicts lower aggression in toddlers18.
You can help them become more flexible by being flexible yourself. The idea is to give them options, not just say “no” to everything.
Notice and encourage appropriate behavior
A toddler can feel discouraged if everything their parents say is “no” or “bad”. Compliment your toddler when they show good behavior.
When to worry about toddler aggression
To help your toddler learn a different behavior pattern, your patience and compassion are essential. Aggression does not develop overnight, so it will not disappear overnight either.
However, researchers have identified 5 high-risk patterns, excluding tantrums due to hunger, sleep problems, or illness19.
- During the last 10-20 tantrum episodes, exhibit aggression directed at caregivers or violently destructive behavior more than half of the time.
- Show self-injurious behavior or self-directed aggression during tantrums such as head banging, holding breath or hitting themselves.
- Have more than five tantrums a day on multiple days.
- Tantrums last more than 25 minutes on average.
- Have trouble calming themselves.
Consult a child psychologist, mental health professional, or your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned or observe these warning signs and red flags.
- 1.Heller TL, Baker BL, Henker B, Hinshaw SP. Externalizing behavior and cognitive functioning from preschool to first grade: Stability and predictors. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. Published online December 1996:376-387. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp2504_3
- 2.Loeber R. The Stability of Antisocial and Delinquent Child Behavior: A Review. Child Development. Published online December 1982:1431. doi:10.2307/1130070
- 3.Campbell SB, Spieker S, Burchinal M, Poe MD. Trajectories of aggression from toddlerhood to age 9 predict academic and social functioning through age 12. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online June 9, 2006:791-800. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2006.01636.x
- 4.Rubin KH, Burgess KB, Dwyer KM, Hastings PD. Predicting preschoolers’ externalizing behaviors from toddler temperament, conflict, and maternal negativity. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2003:164-176. doi:10.1037/0012-16184.108.40.206
- 5.Nagin D, Tremblay RE. Trajectories of Boys’ Physical Aggression, Opposition, and Hyperactivity on the Path to Physically Violent and Nonviolent Juvenile Delinquency. Child Development. Published online September 1999:1181-1196. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00086
- 6.Brennan LM, Shaw DS, Dishion TJ, Wilson M. Longitudinal Predictors of School-Age Academic Achievement: Unique Contributions of Toddler-Age Aggression, Oppositionality, Inattention, and Hyperactivity. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online April 19, 2012:1289-1300. doi:10.1007/s10802-012-9639-2
- 7.Del Vecchio T, O’Leary SG. Antecedents of Toddler Aggression: Dysfunctional Parenting in Mother-Toddler Dyads. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Published online May 2006:194-202. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp3502_3
- 8.Sanson A, Oberklaid F, Pedlow R, Prior M. Risk Indicators: Assessment of Infancy Predictors of Pre-School Behavioural Maladjustment. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online May 1991:609-626. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1991.tb00338.x
- 9.Rubin KH. Parents of aggressive and withdrawn children. In: Handbook of Parenting, Vol. 1. Children and Parenting. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; 1995:255–284.
- 10.Davies D. Intervention with Male Toddlers who have Witnessed Parental Violence. Families in Society. Published online November 1991:515-524. doi:10.1177/104438949107200901
- 11.Brook JS, Zheng L, Whiteman M, Brook DW. Aggression in Toddlers: Associations With Parenting and Marital Relations. The Journal of Genetic Psychology. Published online June 2001:228-241. doi:10.1080/00221320109597963
- 12.Helwig CC. The development of personal autonomy throughout cultures. Cognitive Development. Published online October 2006:458-473. doi:10.1016/j.cogdev.2006.06.009
- 13.van Aken C, Junger M, Verhoeven M, van Aken MAG, Deković M, Denissen JJA. Parental personality, parenting and toddlers’ externalising behaviours. Eur J Pers. Published online December 2007:993-1015. doi:10.1002/per.643
- 14.Ramsden SR, Hubbard JA. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Published online 2002:657-667. doi:10.1023/a:1020819915881
- 15.Berlin LJ, Ispa JM, Fine MA, et al. Correlates and Consequences of Spanking and Verbal Punishment for Low-Income White, African American, and Mexican American Toddlers. Child Development. Published online September 2009:1403-1420. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01341.x
- 16.Colson ER, Dworkin PH. Toddler Development. Pediatrics In Review. Published online August 1, 1997:255-259. doi:10.1542/pir.18.8.255
- 17.Crockenberg S, Litman C. Autonomy as competence in 2-year-olds: Maternal correlates of child defiance, compliance, and self-assertion. Developmental Psychology. Published online 1990:961-971. doi:10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.111
- 18.Feldman R, Masalha S, Derdikman-Eiron R. Conflict resolution in the parent–child, marital, and peer contexts and children’s aggression in the peer group: A process-oriented cultural perspective. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2010:310-325. doi:10.1037/a0018286
- 19.Belden AC, Thomson NR, Luby JL. Temper Tantrums in Healthy Versus Depressed and Disruptive Preschoolers: Defining Tantrum Behaviors Associated with Clinical Problems. The Journal of Pediatrics. Published online January 2008:117-122. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2007.06.030