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Toddler Aggression – When to Worry About Violent Behavior in Child

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 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.

toddler hits

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 time​1​. They are strong predictors of more serious forms of behavioral problems or oppositional defiant disorders during adolescence and adulthood​2​.

In toddlerhood, belligerent behavior is also correlated with worse social competence, academic functioning​3​, and the likelihood of school dropout​4​. Chronic extreme aggression is also a risk factor for serious physical violence, theft, and delinquency in adolescence​5​.

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​.

toddler grabs mom's hair

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 outcomes​7​.

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.

boy cries

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 present​8​.

Internal risk factors include:

External risk factors include:

boy hits another boy

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 behavior​12​

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 emotions​13​.

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?

2. Protect

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 problems​14​.

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.

toddler holds a hammer

Prevention

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 toddlers​15​.

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 frustrating​16​.

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 control​17​.

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 toddlers​18​.

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.

boy frowns

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 illness​19​.

  1. During the last 10-20 tantrum episodes, exhibit aggression directed at caregivers or violently destructive behavior more than half of the time.
  2. Show self-injurious behavior or self-directed aggression during tantrums such as head banging, holding breath or hitting themselves.
  3. Have more than five tantrums a day on multiple days.
  4. Tantrums last more than 25 minutes on average.
  5. 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.

References

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    Loeber R. The Stability of Antisocial and Delinquent Child Behavior: A Review. Child Development. Published online December 1982:1431. doi:10.2307/1130070
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About Pamela Li, MS, MBA

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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