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.

You might notice aggressive behavior—hitting, shoving, and even biting—when your toddler is playing with her peers. These acts are often a way of exerting independence, expressing frustration, and learning self-control. Here, experts talk about the most common causes and solutions for toddler aggression, and they break down whether you need to worry.

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

Ty 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?" She might’ve also seen an older sibling act aggressively and is mimicking the behavior (children learn by imitation, after all).

Aggressive Toddler Behavior Strategies and Solutions

When your toddler acts out, an even-tempered and consistent response from you will teach him 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 she 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 his way. A toddler’s aggressive behavior should never result in a desirable outcome, such as gaining possession of an attractive toy. Otherwise he’ll learn that acting badly gets him what he wants.

Comfort the victim. Always comfort the injured child first, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, author of 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 him calm down. Say something like, "I know it doesn't feel good when someone takes your toy."

Brainstorm alternative solutions. As your child expands her verbal and reasoning skills, guide her to better ways of dealing with her negative feelings, says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. For example, if she has just hit a playmate in a squabble over a stuffed animal, you might ask her, "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, she's then 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 his actions with peers. If your child is going through a phase of aggressive behavior, watch him closely when he's 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 him to show him "what it feels like." The message delivered—that it's fine to hit someone as long as he's 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 her 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.

Updated by Nicole Harris
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