This article was first published in the May/June 2015 edition of the BCT’s Small Talk magazine.

toddler aggression

By Sharon Levrez, BCT Experiences Register coordinator

We expect so much of our children, don’t we? We want them to be cute, bright, well-behaved, gifted artists, dancers and musicians, popular with their peers and with other adults… So when our darling little angel turns around and hits, bites or pushes another toddler at a playgroup or nursery, it can be quite a shock.

“My son had a period of hitting and biting that coincided with him starting nursery school,” says Marie. “He has always been quite a softie so it took us a bit by surprise. He would mainly hit and run from his dad or me at periods when we he was pretty tired out, such as after school or after trips out.”

Will’s anger would take several forms, including being aggressive against himself, according to mum Tina. “He would bang his head on hard surfaces (floor, doors), hard enough to produce a big lump. He would start kicking, fling his arms all over the place, scream extremely loudly, spit, and try to bite, throw things.” This was not the kind of behaviour Tina wanted to see in her child. “It made me feel totally powerless, sad, desperate, cross, a failure, embarrassed when in public, guilty, exhausted, you name it…”

Dealing with a toddler who hits, bites, and pushes other children (or adults for that matter) can be incredibly frustrating and embarrassing for parents. But no matter what we think or feel, most experts seem to agree that this behaviour is actually quite normal.

“Many toddlers show aggressive behaviour around 2 years of age mainly out of frustration: Their desire to do things is greater than their capability. They want to communicate their needs and wants, but have a limited vocabulary,” says Dr William Sears, American paediatrician and the author or co-author of more than 30 parenting books. “Toddlers also become aggressive in order to release pent-up anger, to control a situation, to show power or to protect their turf in a toy squabble. Toddlers often perceive aggressive behaviours such as biting and hitting as communication tools.”

If a toddler bites, kicks or scratches, it doesn’t mean their parents are bad parents. It is not the parents’ fault. They can only control how they deal with the unwanted behaviour. And it may be worth noting that while aggressive behaviour is more common in boys, some girls can be aggressive as toddlers too.

“Even children in unimpeachably pacifist households may, when angry or frustrated, lash out with feet, fists, or teeth,” says American Heidi Murkoff, co-author of the “What to expect” books on pregnancy and parenthood. “A 13-month-old may not yet have a lot to say, but she’s got very strong opinions, and if her words fail to get the message across, you can bet she’ll quickly turn to more primitive means of communication.”

In some cases, the aggression may appear to be a reaction to a major change in the child’s life. In Marie’s case it was starting school, but it might equally be the birth of a new sibling, mummy going back to work, moving house or the loss of a relative. Or it may be unrelated to any external event.

Parents may also find that certain behaviours or situations trigger aggressive behaviour. Tina says that in her son’s case it was usually some form of frustration – either not being able to do something himself or not getting what he wanted. “It could be triggered by something seemingly unimportant (to us), like cutting a banana the ‘wrong’ way, or pouring milk on the wrong side of his Weetabix.”

Sally found a lack of routine, or a deviation from the usual routine, would make her son lash out. “He had to know what would happen during the day in advance,” she says.

Identifying the triggers is one of the first steps in dealing with aggression in toddlers, according to Dr Sears. “Is he tired? Hungry? Are there too many kids in too small of a place? Is he playing with temperamentally incompatible peers? Once you’ve identified the trigger, change it as much as you can,” he says.

Sears and Murkoff also advise keeping your cool while the tantrum plays out and using firm, simple statements to let the child know their behaviour is wrong. “That was a bite. We don’t bite.” or “Hitting hurts. We don’t hit.” work well. Treating violence with violence, as our mothers or grandmothers may have done, is not recommended.

Parents themselves should model good behaviour, they say. Speaking calmly but firmly to children, showing them affection, and treating others with respect, will encourage similar behaviours. They can show the child how to stroke a cat gently rather than pull its tail, or handle a doll with care. Similarly, good behaviour deserves praise. “You want your child to make the connection that kind gestures are rewarded with kind reactions. Some rough toddlers need softening,” says Sears.

Several of our BCT mums said they introduced a daily routine with regular nap-times. This helped avoid situations in which their toddler started behaving badly because they were tired or hungry. Similarly, avoiding overstimulation (too many play dates or playgroups) or stimulation at the wrong times, such as near lunchtime or early evening, is a good idea. This may mean missing a few social events, but parents might find this preferable in the long run. And if a child does start misbehaving during playgroups and play dates, they suggest removing the aggressive child from the situation, for example by using time-outs, to give them a chance to cool down.
As for the victims of toddler aggression, they need special attention too. For every child who hits or bites there is a child who is hit or bitten. They need to be consoled and reassured. And their parents need to be consoled and reassured that they are no more to blame for their child being picked on than the aggressor’s parents are for his or her actions.

Gale’s daughter Kate was bitten a few times in nursery school by the same child and she was really shaken by it. Gale says the school handled it very well, though. They explained that something wider was going on, without going into detail, so as to protect both children and parents. “They were very clear that Kate had done nothing to provoke it, which was useful to me when I was dealing with how upset she was,” says Gale. “We made it clear at home that just because it had happened didn’t mean that Kate and this little girl couldn’t be friends in the future. Now they seem to happily orbit each other but don’t seem to be particular friends.”

Should parents insist that the aggressor apologise to their victim? Some would say yes. But sorry is really an adult concept, and the chances of getting an angry and frustrated child to apologise are slim. “The best we could usually do was an apology the following day, or the next time we saw each other,” says Gemma. “When they are in that particular mood, it just feels so much more embarrassing as a parent to stand there pointing at your child, sounding slightly hysterical and insisting they apologise while they refuse.”

Each child is different, so it follows that the triggers and the best treatments for aggressive behaviour will often vary. You may need to try a few things before you find a method that works, and it may take time but most children do learn eventually that it is better to be kind to others.

“Just because your toddler lashes out physically does not mean she’s destined to grow into a bully,” says Murkoff. “With maturity will come empathy, and soon your child will understand that aggressive behaviour can hurt other people.”

Ten tips for dealing with aggressive toddlers

1. Identify what (if anything) triggers the aggression and either try to change it or head it off.
2. Keep your calm. Don’t let your own emotions get out of control.
3. Be firm and consistent in how you deal with bad behaviour.
4. Explain that hitting, biting and kicking are wrong, using short simple sentences.
5. Demonstrate kind behaviour yourself.
6. Limit exposure to aggression (for example at playgroups, or on TV).
7. Avoid overstimulation or stimulation at the wrong times.
8. Stick to a routine of regular meal times and nap times.
9. Use time-outs to give children the chance to cool down.
10. Encourage children to use their words rather than their fists.

Further information:
William and Martha Sears “The Good Behaviour Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten”
Heidi Murkoff, Sharon Mazel “What to Expect – The Toddler Years”
Tanya Byron “The House of Tiny Tearaways”
Positive Parenting Solutions – www.positiveparentingsolutions.com/about-us

More information is also available from the BCT’s Experiences Register where you can be in touch with other members for parent-to-parent support with toddler aggression and other issues experiences@bctbelgium.org