How to Handle Aggressive Toddler Behavior

Wondering why your toddler is so angry and aggressive? Learn more about the causes and solutions to this common behavioral problem.

As a parent, you'd love if your toddler acted sweet and polite all the time, but unfortunately this isn't usually the case. You might notice aggressive behavior—hitting, shoving, and even biting—when your toddler is playing with their peers.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), these emotional outbursts are normal. That's because your little one is just beginning to learn self-control and emotional regulation. Aggressive acts are often a way of exerting independence, expressing frustration, and testing social skills.

Here, experts talk about the most common causes, trustworthy solutions, and when you need to worry about toddler aggression.

Causes of Toddler Aggression

Toddler aggression isn’t a sign that your child is destined for a life of crime. Rather, these unpleasant bullying tactics often stem from their emerging skills. Your little one is just learning about social cues, language, impulse control, emotional regulation, and boundaries. Sometimes they might feel frustrated or overwhelmed—and that can cause poor behavior because they're not sure how to handle the situation.

Aggression may also stem from anger or territorial issues. Your child may be upset about something, whether it’s a stolen toy or pulled hair, but they lack the capacity to express feelings in less offensive ways. In turn, they might lash out at a playmate in a kind of primitive response.

Try putting yourself in your child’s shoes, says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. "The whole world is bigger than you. You want complete independence. You can barely talk. You think people can read your mind. And now, someone has taken the toy that is rightfully yours." It’s no wonder toddlers might act out in frustration!

Other times, aggressive toddler behavior may be experimental. Your child might be thinking, "What will happen if I push Kevin?" or "Is it okay to bite Molly's arm?" They might’ve also seen an older sibling act aggressively and is mimicking the behavior (children learn by imitation, after all).

Toddler twins showing aggression in a sunflower field

Jill Lehmann Photography/Getty Images

How to Deal with Aggressive Toddler Behavior

When your toddler acts out, an even-tempered and consistent response from you will teach them to react calmly to life's frustrations, says Karen DeBord, Ph.D., a child development specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Here are some ways to handle children's typical aggressive behaviors.

Respond immediately. A parent or caregiver must deal with aggressive behavior immediately; if you wait until later, your child might forget what they did. Make sure that your child understands the rule as well as the reason behind it: "We never hit people. Hitting hurts."

Don’t let your child get their way. A toddler’s aggressive behavior should never result in a desirable outcome, such as gaining possession of an attractive toy. Otherwise they'll learn that acting badly gets them what they want.

Comfort the victim. Always comfort the injured child first, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D, author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents’ Attention (Without Hitting Your Sister). That's because you don't want hurting to be the best way to get your attention.

But still recognize the aggressor's feelings. According to Dr. Kennedy-Moore, recognizing your aggressive toddler's feelings may also help them calm down. Say something like, "I know it doesn't feel good when someone takes your toy."

Brainstorm alternative solutions. As your child expands their verbal and reasoning skills, guide them to better ways of dealing with the negative feelings, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. For example, if they just hit a playmate in a squabble over a stuffed animal, you might ask them, "How do you think hitting Caroline made her feel?" and "Can you think of a better way to get the teddy bear?" When a toddler takes part in coming up with a solution, they're far more likely to carry it out.

Acknowledge good behavior. Remember to praise your child for "good" social behaviors, says Dr. DeBord. After an amicable get-together, you might say, "You played so nicely with Kelly today. It really makes me happy when you share your toys so easily and willingly."

Monitor their actions with peers. If your child is going through a phase of aggressive behavior, watch them closely when they're interacting with peers. Try to intervene just as the misbehavior is about to take place. Say no sternly, and send your child to a designated time-out spot (or improvise if you're not at home) for two minutes.

Don’t act aggressive in response. Never punish your child's aggressive behavior by hitting or biting them to show them "what it feels like." The message delivered—that it's fine to hit someone as long as they're smaller than you—will ring loud and clear.

When to Worry About Toddler Aggression

Here’s a bit of good news for parents: Aggressive behavior is a primitive expression of frustration, anger, and the desire to control—and experts say you usually shouldn’t worry about it. As your toddler gains in other ways of expressing their strong emotions through language and gesture, these actions will likely subside.

However, if your child continues to be aggressive (especially through preschool), you might want to consult a mental health professional for advice, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.

The AAP recommends contacting your pediatrician for the following situations:

  • Acting unusually aggressive for longer than a few weeks
  • Attacking caregivers or other adults
  • Physically injuring themselves or other people (for example, their actions cause bruises or head injuries)
  • Being sent home from school or daycare because of the aggressive behavior
  • Fixating on violent themes

You can also reach out for help if you're struggling to cope with the aggressive behavior on your own.

Key Takeaway

Aggressive behavior is normal as toddlers learn about self-control and emotional regulation. It's important to have an even-tempered and consistent response. Contact your pediatrician if you're concerned about your toddler's actions.

Updated by Nicole Harris
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