Frustration and an inability to verbally communicate leads to toddlers to acting out physically, but it’s just a developmental stage and they need our love and understanding while they learn that hitting is not okay. Here are some ways to help your toddler through that aggressive stage.
why aggression happens
Picture this: a birthday party for a 2-year old, with 10 little guests crowding the tiny table, a girl smaller than the others is trying to get to the jelly. “Jeh,” she keeps repeating. “Jeh, jeh. Leeee,” she tries. Nobody is paying her the slightest attention. Until, that is, she yanks the birthday girl’s ponytail and seizes her jelly bowl.
Sound familiar? When a toddler is still learning to talk, when all she has are single syllables and sign language with which to express her needs, she may sometimes turn to other ways of getting her message across. What we perceive as aggression and shocking behaviour may seem to her a perfectly valid attempt at communication.
As toddlers acquire verbal skills and are taught to use their words, they gradually unlearn both the hand signals and the habit of getting what they want by using physical methods. They may still revert to aggression if they’re angry, frustrated, tired or overwhelmed, but it’ll be an exception rather than the norm.
Emerging communication skills are only part of the puzzle, though. Toddler aggression also has its roots in undeveloped impulse control and a desire to become independent. All in all, it’s a developmental stage that will pass as they grow older, and all we can do as parents is guide them through it with love and understanding.
- Enforce logical consequences. If your child hits someone with a wooden block, for example, take him out of the play area straight away. Sit down together and watch the other children. Point out that everybody is playing without hitting and tell your child he’s welcome to join in when he’s ready.
- Understand the limitations. If you want to ask how he would feel if somebody had hit him on the head, for example, by all means do so. Just remember that a toddler’s brain is not yet developed enough to handle the task of imagining what other people may be
feeling (although it’s never too early to start role-modelling empathy). Young toddlers can’t yet understand verbal reasoning, however they can learn to understand consequences.
- Stay composed. Difficult as it may be to keep your cool, don’t respond aggressively to your toddler’s aggression, or you run the risk of reinforcing their behaviour. Calmly lead them away from the action, saying the phrase you normally use to discourage undesirable behaviour, for example, “We don’t bite,” or, “Family rules say no biting”. If you think the child might not realise why biting is wrong, explain that it hurts the other person and makes them not want to play with you. If you believe your child understands this already, don’t offer the explanation, just leave it at reinforcing the rules. Provided you do it predictably and without fail, your child will soon realise they’re not going to get an entertaining performance out of you. Furthermore, watching you control your temper will teach them to copy your behaviour.
- Make sure the message you send is the same every time. Respond immediately and with consistent consequences to undesirable behaviour. Don’t wait until your child pushes her friend for the third time. Your toddler should learn that hitting, pinching, biting, pushing, or yelling is wrong the first time round, every time.
- Ignore the audience. Naturally, make sure the other child is all right, but then don’t let the presence of other people affect the way in which you usually deal with your child’s aggression, no matter how mortified you feel.
- Teach them to say sorry. Don’t be the only one making apologies: insist that your child says he’s sorry, too. Even if he can’t yet mean it at this young age, it’s important for him to learn the habit.
- Offer a gentle review. When your child has calmed down, sit together in an atmosphere of love and kindness, and discuss what happened. If he’s old enough to talk, ask whether he knows what made him react that way. Once you understand what happened, try to prevent similar situations in future.
- Teach alternative behaviour. Explain that it’s all right to have angry feelings but it’s not all right to resort to violence. Suggest other ways of dealing with emotions, such as using words to describe the problem, naming the feeling, or asking an adult for help if the situation is getting tricky.
- Reward good behaviour. Catch your child when she’s verbalising to get her way and offer her generous praise. Even if you’ve missed the actual moment, tell her afterwards: “I noticed how you asked to have a turn with the bucket, well done for using your words,” or “Daddy told me you asked his help when Nathan took away
- Encourage running around. Exercise is healthy for the body and the mind, but it has another useful effect: burning off energy. When children are well-exercised, they are less likely to resort to physical aggression.
- Comment on cartoon violence. TV programmes for children, especially cartoons, are famous for depicting slapstick violence. Very young children may well watch them and assume the rules in Tom & Jerry apply to real life. TV experts advise parents to monitor which TV shows toddlers watch, particularly if they seem susceptible to aggressive behaviour. Try to watch the programme together and discuss the situations that arise, e.g., “Do you think in real life Tom would be able to get up if he fell off the cliff like that?” or “This wasn’t a very good way for Jerry to get his way, was it?”.
No two toddlers are the same. Some take longer than others to outgrow the aggression period. Put up a large poster in the kitchen with the message: It’s Just A Phase. Just like cradle cap and teething, this too shall pass.
when to seek help
If it feels like your efforts have little or no effect, if the aggression is regular rather than occasional, if the child’s conduct alienates friends or poses a danger to themselves or others, seek the help of a child psychologist.
A professional will be equipped to help you pinpoint the source of your child’s behaviour and offer ideas on how to remedy the situation.
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