Kevin cries hysterically, meanwhile Tommy holds a red fire truck above his head. Nobody saw what happened, but there are clear bite marks on Kevin’s right arm. If this scene has ever unfolded in your living room, you’re not alone. Parents often express worry about their toddler’s use of aggression when interacting with peers. It can feel extremely concerning to receive news that your toddler hit or bit another child at today’s play date. Biting, kicking, pushing, and hitting are common issues in developing toddlers. Here are a few strategies to consider when navigating aggression in toddlers.
What can parents do?
The first step is figuring out why your child is demonstrating aggression. Keep a log of occurrences, and gather information:
1. Who does your child show aggression towards? Is it primarily younger children? A particular peer? Adults? The babysitter?
2. Where does aggression occur most frequently? Look for a common environment (e.g. at preschool, at the park, in the playroom, etc.).
3. What triggers lead to aggression? Is it when you’ve told them “no”? Or when your child can’t verbally communicate their thoughts? During transitions during the day?
4. What is your child’s emotional state during aggressive moments? Do they seem tired? Frustrated? Sad?
Understanding why your child demonstrates aggression will help determine your course of action. For example, kids with delayed speech and language may use aggression to compensate for difficulty with verbal communication. It’s much easier to grab the truck than to say “I want the truck”. Similarly, children who have difficulty processing sensory information might feel more overwhelmed in over-stimulating environments, which may result in aggressive behaviors or poor impulse control. By keeping a log of occurrences, you can uncover patterns that may explain why your child is acting out.
Strategies to help your toddler during aggression:
The next step is to set clear guidelines, and give your child alternative ways to respond. Here are 7 strategies to consider when your child displays aggression.
1. Set clear boundaries ahead of time. Talk to your child about unacceptable behaviors in advance. Use clear and simple language (e.g. “It’s not okay to bite. Biting hurts people.”). You might even introduce these concepts through an engaging activity, such as a children’s story book (e.g. “Hands Are Not For Hitting” or “Feet Are Not For Kicking” by Elizabeth Verdick).
2. During moments of aggression, let your child know their behavior was not okay. Use a firm voice, and be specific (e.g. “No. We do not hit.”). Avoid yelling or using aggression yourself, as that might send a mixed message to your child.
3. If needed, take a time-out. If you notice your child is escalating or is having a difficult time regrouping, then provide a time-out to reorganize. Implement calming strategies, such as a calm voice or quiet space. When your child is ready, reintroduce them into the situation while guiding them through it.
4. Offer constructive ways to express emotions. If we simply tell our child not to hit, then we are not helping them solve the problem at hand. Chances are, your child was trying to send a clear message when they hit their friend (e.g. maybe they wanted a toy, or maybe they were frustrated). So instead of simply telling them what not to do, also offer them some better ideas. For example, you might model an appropriate phrase for your child to use “I want the car please.”
5. Give your child language to use. Especially if your child has speech and language difficulties, they may need help in knowing what to say or how to say it. Model simple, age-appropriate phrases to use in the moment (e.g. “stop that please” or “I want a turn”).
6. Provide safe opportunities to practice. For example, if your child frequently uses aggression with peers, then practice peer-interactions in a structure one-on-one setting with a parent present to guide and facilitate. If your child begins to display aggression, then intervene and model an appropriate way to handle the situation.
7. Praise positive behaviors. Let your child know what is going well. Give them positive praise with specific examples (e.g. “Wow, I like the way used your words! You said ‘my turn’. Good job using your words.”)