Is your little angel turning into a big bully? Follow these strategies to put an end to your toddler or preschooler's aggressive behavior.

By Emily Elveru and Nicole Harris
Updated December 15, 2019

Preschoolers and toddlers are little people with big feelings, and their ability to manage emotions, understand someone else’s perspective, and resolve conflicts are just beginning to emerge. Maybe you’ve seen your kid hit a sibling who wouldn’t share or yell at 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. 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.

Why Little Kids Act Out

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. “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; even the most affectionate parents have kids who sometimes lash out. The habit may be largely due to their natural impulsiveness and trouble regulating emotions. Some kids are simply more short-tempered than others. And certain tots may learn to bite from relatives or caregivers who give nibbles for fun.

Your child may also hit or bite simply because she revels in practicing the new skill. If she’s ever received positive reinforcement for aggressive behavior—whether in the form of the toy she was vying for or a chuckle from you—she may continue to act out for the potential payoff. 

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 day care 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.’ 

How to Stop Aggressive Behavior

You can equip your toddler or preschooler with more appropriate tools for getting his message across as well as boost his self-control with these expert strategies.

Show your disapproval. The instant your child’s fists fly, state loudly 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.

Remove your toddler from the situation. Calmly take her to a quiet corner and explain that hitting or biting is not allowed. This will give her a moment to regain her composure.

Block the assault. If you see an attack coming, catch your toddler’s hand in midair or place your hand over his mouth. The dramatic halt will certainly grab his attention.

Apologize for your child. If she hits or bites a playmate, turn your attention to the victim. See if the child is okay, and make sure your toddler hears you apologize; she’ll see that you don’t like how she has behaved, and she’ll gradually learn empathy. Apologize to the other parent, who will likely understand that you’re working on curbing this passing habit in your child.

 Never hit or bite back. It’s an ineffective way to show your toddler what his actions feel like to others. Instead, it conveys that this kind of behavior is acceptable.

Don’t play-fight. Though roughhousing can be fun, avoid nibbling or hitting when you play. If your child strikes you, react with a frown or a sad face. You might say, “That hurts Mommy.” Never laugh off violence.

Encourage words. Help young toddlers use language and gestures to communicate. He may be able to point to his cup when he wants milk or say simple words like “mad” when he’s frustrated. If you reward his efforts to talk, your child will ultimately learn that words are a more effective and socially acceptable way to meet his 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 her how to respond.

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.

Use your words. You probably say this to your child when he’s whining, but it’s effective when he’s having a tough encounter with a peer too. If he’s frustrated that his friend took his toy, first soothe him by stroking his back, then instruct him on what he can do if it happens again: “Next time, tell Matthew, ‘I was using that.’ ”You can help prevent your child’s conflicts from turning into bullying by coaching him on better ways to solve his problems, 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 taking turns by singing a song or counting to ten, then 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 instill kindness. You can help build your kid’s empathy skills by pointing out everyday occurrences. For instance, you might say, “Charley is sad because her block tower got knocked over. What can you do to help her feel better?” In the future, your little one won’t hesitate to help pick up the pieces.

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