How to Handle Aggressive Toddler and Preschooler Behavior

Is your little angel turning into a big bully? Follow these strategies to put an end to your toddler or preschooler's hitting, biting, and other aggressive behaviors.

Fashionable Stylish Preschooler
Melanie Acevedo. Photo: Melanie Acevedo

Preschoolers and toddlers are little people with big feelings. Their ability to manage emotions, convey their feelings effectively, understand someone else's perspective, and resolve conflicts is just beginning to emerge. Maybe you've seen your kid hit a sibling who wouldn't share or bite a classmate who wasn't playing restaurant "the right way."

Before you beat yourself up over such behavior, though, you should know that hitting and biting at this age are typically not malicious and happen more often than you might think. Aggressive acts are a normal (and thankfully temporary) part of development. They almost always stem from a kid's natural curiosity and lack of language skills, emotional regulation, and impulse control.

Learn more about your toddler or preschooler's hitting and biting, as well as how to put an end to these and other aggressive behaviors.

Why Little Kids Act Out

Toddlers and preschoolers act out because they are learning social norms and testing boundaries. "Biting is common because toddlers are in an oral stage—they explore the world around them with their mouths," explains Patricia Mikell, assistant director of Graham Windham Manhattan Mental Health Center and a child therapist in New York City. And certain tots may be unintentionally encouraged to bite by relatives or caregivers who give nibbles for fun.

"Toddlers are also exerting their independence now, and some kids express their willfulness by hitting others." It's not clear where toddlers get the idea to hit, but most do from time to time. The habit may be largely due to their natural impulsiveness and trouble regulating emotions. Your child may also hit or bite simply because they revel in practicing the new skill. Also, some kids are simply more short-tempered than others.

Hitting also is sure to get a reaction, and even negative attention can provide the attention many little kids crave. So, if they've ever received positive reinforcement for aggressive behavior—whether in the form of the toy they were vying for or a chuckle from you—they may continue to act out for the potential payoff. Don't worry, though, you can correct this behavior by setting limits and establishing consistent consequences moving forward.

Is My Preschooler a Bully?

Aggressive behaviors are more common in group settings where conflicts are more likely to arise, says Kurt Fischer, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A dispute between two toddlers over a toy, for instance, can easily escalate into a physical fight. "If young children are interacting a lot, such as at daycare or preschool, hitting and biting become social skills and a part of their survival instinct," he explains.

But is this behavior considered bullying? Probably not.

"Researchers say bullying involves deliberate meanness that repeatedly targets a specific child over time, and that there needs to be a power difference between the child doing the bullying and the child being targeted. If there's no power difference, then it's probably just a conflict rather than bullying," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a Parents advisor and the author of Growing Friendships.

"Also, young children aren't very good at telling whether or not a friend's behavior is deliberate, and they tend to insist that every action they don't like was 'on purpose,'" explains Dr. Kennedy-Moore. This sometimes skewed perspective is another reason why they may react aggressively when conflicts arise. They may assume a friend did something on purpose when in fact it was an accident or misunderstanding. Feeling wronged plus big feelings often beget a big reaction.

How to Stop Aggressive Behavior

Some aggressive behavior is pretty typical at this age but there are effective discipline tactics you can use to discourage it. Essentially, it helps to equip your toddler or preschooler with more appropriate tools for processing their feelings and getting their message across. Boost their self-control with these expert strategies.

Show your disapproval

The instant your child's fists fly, state calmly and firmly, "No! We do not hit." Self-restraint doesn't come easily at this age, so you'll need to repeat yourself often to drive home the point. However, while it's key to tell them to stop, refrain from getting overly animated when you reprimand their aggressive act. It's a fine line, but you want to clearly state your disapproval while also avoiding giving their misbehavior undue attention or losing your cool yourself.

Separate them

Remove your toddler from the situation. Calmly take them to a quiet corner and explain that hitting or biting is not allowed. This will give them a moment to regain their composure. Also, this response sends the message that their aggressive behavior will result in being separated from the other child or the toy or activity they may have been enjoying before the hitting, biting, or other discretion occurred.


If possible, block the assault. If you see an attack coming, catch your toddler's hand in midair or place your hand over their mouth. The dramatic halt will certainly send the message that this behavior won't be tolerated. Again, if they know that their attempts at aggressive actions will be stopped, they'll typically begin to lose interest.

Apologize for your child

If they hit or bite a playmate, turn your attention to the victim. See if the child is okay, and make sure your toddler hears you apologize. They'll see that you don't like how they have behaved, and they'll gradually learn empathy. Apologize to the other parent, too, who will likely understand that you're working on curbing this passing habit in your child. However, give space for them (the other child and/or their caregiver) to be upset—and don't take it personally.

Never hit or bite back. It's an ineffective way to show your toddler what their actions feel like to others. Instead, it conveys that this kind of behavior is acceptable when someone does something you don't like.

Don't play fighting

Though roughhousing can be fun, avoid nibbling or hitting when you play with a child prone to aggression. If your child strikes you, react with a frown or a sad face. You might say, "That hurts Mommy." Never laugh off violence. Young children tend to see things in black and white, so if "play fighting" is allowed, they have a hard time understanding why actual fighting is not.

Encourage words

Help young toddlers use language and gestures to communicate. They may be able to point to their cup when they want milk or say simple words like "mad" when they're frustrated. If you reward their efforts to talk and express their feelings, your child will ultimately learn that words are a more effective and socially acceptable way to meet their needs than violence.

Help Your Little One Handle Tough Situations

Follow this advice to learn how to decode cues that your child may be getting picked on and teach them how to respond effectively.

Listen closely

While an older child might not report bullying for fear of being made fun of, preschoolers tattle a lot. Your child likely doesn't know the word bullying yet and may instead say that a classmate was mean or complain about a friend's behavior ("Lila called me a bad word." "She hit me." "Henry won't let me play with the trucks."). A quieter child may cry, withdraw, or seem fearful or angry about going to school without the ability to explain why.

Encourage them to use their words

You probably tell your child to "use your words" when they're whining, but it's an effective strategy when they're having a tough encounter with a peer, too. If they're frustrated that their friend took their toy, first soothe them by stroking their back, then instruct them on what they can do if it happens again: "Next time, tell Riley, 'I was using that.' You can help prevent your child's conflicts from turning into bullying by coaching them on better ways to solve their problems before they escalate to aggression, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

Teach smart responses

When you're playing pretend together, use your child's dolls, stuffed animals, or puppets to make "I" statements, such as "I'd like to try now" or "I don't like that." You can also demonstrate listening to each other taking turns by singing a song or counting to ten, then switching off and giving your child a chance to do the same.

However, it's important to keep in mind that your child doesn't need to experience a rascally classmate to make it a worthwhile occasion to instill kindness. You can help build your kid's empathy skills by pointing out everyday occurrences related to coping with feelings. For instance, you might say, "Charley is sad because their block tower got knocked over. What can you do to help them feel better?" In the future, your little one will be more likely to jump in to help pick up the pieces unprompted.

The Bottom Line

While it can be unexpected, stressful, upsetting, or embarrassing if your little angel acts out in aggressive ways, know that occasional hitting, biting, or other unwanted physical or verbal behaviors are normal at this age. Toddlers and preschoolers are still discovering the world around them, how their actions impact others, what social expectations are, and how to manage their own big feelings.

Setting clear boundaries and consistently following through with consequences and redirection when these transgressions occur will help steer your child to more acceptable behaviors. As their socio-emotional skills and awareness develop and family expectations become habitual, their tendency to lash out will diminish.

However, if aggression continues, check in with your child's pediatrician. They can get offer extra help and specific tactics to discourage the behavior, connect you with other helpful resources, and if needed, investigate if something else may be going on.

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