Experimenting with Aggressive Behavior
Your child is a joy to be around as he shares his curiosity and enthusiasm for everything from cardboard boxes to grocery store excursions. But then, one day, it happens: You scoop your son up into your arms and he whacks you in the face. Or he sinks his teeth into his brother's arm for no apparent reason.
Welcome to Toddler World, a place where the natives can be restless, lawless, and downright ruthless.
Between 19 and 21 months, children may hit, bite, scratch, or exhibit other aggressive behaviors not because they're deliberately being mean but simply because it's another way to experiment with "new moves and novel behaviors," explains Armin Brott, author of The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years (Abbeville Press). "Children this age wonder what will happen if they pull your hair or poke you in the eye." Too young to remember rules from one day to the next, a toddler may repeat aggressive behaviors -- even if reactions are negative -- especially if the behaviors elicit an exciting response from you.
The Early Terrible Twos
In fact, experts say the so-called terrible twos really start by 18 or 19 months, "when hitting and biting become common behaviors for kids," says Blanche Benenson, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center, in the Bronx, New York. "Since toddlers have such an egocentric view of the world, they can understand their own pain but not necessarily the pain of others."
To add to everyone's woes, toddlers are long on will but short on skill. Driven by nature to seek autonomy, they don't understand why they can't play with the stove, walk the dog, or try on all of Mom's lipsticks. They become infuriated whenever their efforts at independence are thwarted.
At the same time, they're still passionately attached to their caregivers and are sometimes frightened by their own antics and their caregivers' often surprising responses to them. This exhausting push-pull between independence and dependence, along with a good daily dose of frustration, can lead to intense mood swings, causing experts like Dr. Brown to call toddlerhood "the first adolescence."
Your child's most aggressive behaviors should start to subside as he nears his third birthday and learns to articulate his feelings better. Meanwhile, you can marvel at your child's growing repertoire of abilities.
"When you think about all of the new physical, emotional, language, and problem-solving skills that kids this age are learning at such a rapid pace, it's truly amazing," says Dr. Benenson. "No adult can learn as fast as toddlers can."