Is toddler aggression normal | Why are toddlers aggressive for no reason | Causes | How to deal with an aggressive child | Prevention | When to worry
Toddler aggression often appears during a temper tantrum. A young child’s inability to control their emotions can lead to aggression toward their mother 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 toddler aggressive behavior such as hitting, kicking, and biting are common toddler behaviors, they must 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 possible 6.
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 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 aggressive toddlers is not only to stop their aggression but also 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.
You must 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?
Refrain from scolding, punishing, or threatening to punish because it adds fuel to the fire. If you get angry when you don’t get your way, your toddler will also get angry when they don’t get their way.
Your child cannot change their behavior without your calm support. They need your love and guidance, not harsh punishment.
Take action to protect the toddler, others, and property from harmful behavior.
Block the 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.”
3. Acknowledge and validate difficult feelings
Attune to their angry feelings. Acknowledge and validate them.
“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.”
“I can see why that would make you angry.”
You may use a loud voice to cut through the noise they’re making, but once you get their attention, return to a soft tone to show that you are not angry and you’re not yelling at them. You’re acknowledging their anger and frustration.
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.
“You are very upset and angry, aren’t you? Which part was the most upsetting?”
“Do you feel that anger inside you? You want to hit something to make that yucky feeling go away. Was that the case?”
“You feel frustrated because I didn’t listen to you. You wanted to hurt me because I hurt your feelings, right?”
“What else made you so upset? Can you tell me more about it?”
“You felt hurt when I said that, right? It sounded like I said you were not important.”
Emotion coaching teaches children how to understand, recognize, and manage their emotions. Emotion coaching does not directly reduce a child’s aggression, but it can improve their emotion regulation which helps reduce a child’s behavior problems14.
5. 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.
Ask your toddler what they want to happen. If their desire cannot be met, explain why and give them options.
Explain why they cannot have or do something, even if they do not understand them yet. This will help develop their critical thinking skills.
“How should we tell your brother that you don’t like his pushing the next time?”
“What do you think I should do instead?” “I see; you want to have the cookie right away. But I don’t want to ruin your appetite for dinner. So what should I do so that I can keep you eating healthy?”
6. Suggest alternative ways to deal with issues
Teach toddlers better ways to deal with disagreements. There are often positive ways to solve problems, and 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.
“Why don’t we go over together and tell your sister that she should not have taken your toy?”
“Next time I am distracted, can you pull on my sleeves gently so that I know you are trying to talk to me?”
In addition to helping them solve problems, you also give them opportunities to practice their language 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
Using 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
Being a good role model is the best thing you can do to prevent your child’s aggression. Model to your child how you handle your own anger without becoming aggressive.
Also, talking openly about your anger helps them learn different ways to deal with emotions, so they realize violence is not the only option.
For example, next time you’re getting upset, you can say, “I feel that I am getting angry. I don’t want to yell, but I really don’t like what’s going on. Please stop doing that and help me calm down.”
You are modeling how to express your big feelings and ask others for help.
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 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 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, patience, and compassion are essential. Aggression does not develop overnight, so it will not disappear overnight either.
However, researchers have identified five high-risk patterns, excluding tantrums due to hunger, sleep problems, or illness19.
- During the last 10-20 tantrum episodes, exhibited 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.
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