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Toddler Aggression: A Survival Guide

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Updated on Jan 12, 2012

No one's really ready for the first time their little angel lashes out in anger. Once toddler aggression is in full swing, parents can find themselves bullied to their wits' end. What's the right way to apologize when your daughter bites the neighbor boy? How do you look the stock boy in the eye after an epic grocery store meltdown?

It's no wonder parents are frustrated. In 2000, a study from Quebec day care centers published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development revealed to scientists what parents have known for some time: toddlers are the most aggressive human beings on the planet. At a rate of one episode of physical aggression for every four social interactions, these two-year-olds make hardened criminals—who manage to make it weeks or even years between violent acts—positively docile. The good news is that your little one will eventually outgrow tantrums, hitting, kicking and other aggressive actions. Until then, here are some tips to help you calm him down and keep your temper.

  • Most toddler aggression is perfectly normal. Biting, spitting and smacking are all a natural—if infuriating—part of human development. Your toddler acts like a little monster because his emotions and desires have developed faster than his communication skills. He's mad, but can't vocalize his feelings, so he hits. He wants a toy and has no impulse control so he pushes another child down to get it. There's a lot of stuff going on in his little brain, but the only response he has a firm grip on is aggression.
  • Stay calm during a tantrum. Pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Sharon Iglehart warns that "exposing toddlers directly or indirectly to aggression can precipitate a violent response." When you blow up in bumper-to-bumper traffic, it teaches your toddler that anger is a legitimate response to frustration. So while you dodge the sippy cup, take a deep breath. Try switching from anger to empathy: he's not taunting you, he's battling impulses he can't understand. Close your eyes and count to 10. If that doesn't work, try acting: use a calm voice and gentle hands even if you have to fake it.
  • Stop tantrums in their tracks. Staying calm doesn't mean standing idly by. Dr. Iglehart recommends "calmly and immediately removing the aggressive child from the area." Take him to a quiet spot and explain: "You have to have a time out because you bit Johnny. We don't bite. Biting hurts." Don't lecture or try to reason with him—he can't focus for that long. Stay nearby, but ignore any acting out. Once he sits for two minutes quietly, let him go back to playing. Stay consistent, and eventually he'll learn that the only thing biting gets him is a time-out.
  • Get moving. Tantrums happen, but you might able to reduce their frequency. Pent-up energy leads to aggressive outbursts, so try to exercise with your toddler every day. A walk around the block or a daily jaunt to the park will give him the chance to move around, so by bedtime he'll be too pooped to rage.
  • Swap candy for carrots. Don't let your child become the sugar-crazed victim of an overly sweet diet—eating healthy food is crucial for keeping your toddler level-headed and happy. For extremely aggressive toddlers, Dr. Iglehart combines therapy and nutritional advice. Scheduling regular meals, or a trial elimination of artificial additives and preservatives, gluten or casein may reduce the frequency and severity of tantrums until your tiny tyrant naturally grows out of his misbehaviors.
  • Know the warning signs. Not all toddler aggression is part of healthy development. A 2007 Washington University study compared the tantrums of healthy children to those of children with depression or disruptive disorders, and found that aggression is normal if it erupts 5 or more times per day for several consecutive days. The quality of the tantrums can be indicators as well. The occasional violent tantrum is OK, but if most of your toddler's tantrums erupt in violently destructive behavior, there may be cause for worry. Episodes of extreme self-harm—biting, scratching to draw blood or violent head banging—are cause for concern even if they happen infrequently.
  • Know when to get help. If more than exhaustion makes you feel like your toddler's aggression is abnormal, keep a journal of his outbursts. Take note of their length, how often they happen and how violent they are. If the behavior lands in the abnormal category, schedule time with a psychiatrist. Abnormal aggression may be a sign of genetic problems, stress, poor problem solving or coping strategies. Or the problem may be as simple as a significant change in routine.

The best way to ride out toddler aggression is to stay calm and proactive. Remember that by the time most toddlers are 3 years old, they've grown out of aggressive behavior. Stay consistent with punishment, and always reward good behavior. With patience, you and your toddler will make it to the other side of toddler aggression with nothing more than a few bite marks to show for it.

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