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How to manage your child’s aggressive behavior 

mother scolding her baby

Key points:

  1. Toddlers may exhibit aggressive behaviors like hitting, pushing, or biting due to their limited self-control and emotional intelligence. It’s crucial for parents to address and teach alternative ways of expressing emotions during these challenging moments.
  2. When faced with aggressive behavior, parents should stay calm and use firm but non-aggressive language and gestures. Authoritative communication, such as saying “No, that’s not okay,” helps set clear boundaries. Repeating consistent messages reinforces the understanding that aggressive behavior is unacceptable.

While most of the time your child’s behavior melts your heart with love, there might be other times where their lack of self-control is overwhelming. We’ve previously talked about how at around 18 months your little one will begin experiencing the transition from oneness to separateness. During this period of growing self-awareness, your child might experience difficulties with waiting, sharing his toys, and taking turns. We’ve also mentioned that tantrums are common at this age, but aggressive behaviors should not be a way for your little one to cope with their frustrations. In this article we’ll discuss important strategies to keep in mind when you find yourself in these kinds of situations.

Because toddlers are just learning how to communicate, they rely on their actions to express what they think and feel. Your little one has still yet to discover what empathy is and what self-regulation looks like, so stopping themselves from acting on their feelings of anger might be hard for them. Their lack of self-control and emotional intelligence might lead them to express their feelings by using aggressive behavior such as hair pulling, biting, pushing, or hitting. While occasional outbursts are natural, they need to know that this behavior is not acceptable. As parents it’s important to teach your little one how to understand and communicate their feelings in a nonaggressive way.

What to do when this happens?

1. Stay calm. It’s important to stop their behavior in a firm but non aggressive way; remember you are your child’s role model. Take a deep breath to calm yourself before reacting. Bringing your own frustration to the table might cause them to get more agitated. If you remain calm, it is more likely they’ll calm themselves as well. There’s a build up of emotions inside your little one that led them to resort to e.g., punching, so they need you to stay in control when they can’t.

2. Use firm words and a gesture to communicate your message. Use authoritative and short words to convey your message e.g., “No, that’s not okay”. Remember at this age your little one learns a lot from your movements, so try to use a “stop” or a “no” gesture when sharing your message using a firm voice without resorting to yelling. Don’t expect your child to get it the first time, it might take a couple of times for them to realize their behavior is uncalled for. Help them remember this is not okay by using the same words and gestures every time this happens.


3. Don’t resort to threats or punishments. Until they are older, children simply don’t understand the concept of punishment. At this age they might not even understand what they’re being punished for and it might just cause them to feel misunderstood and hurt. Setting clear, calm, and decisive limits is a much better approach. Also, threats are not something you want them to learn, so resorting to statements like “Stop it or else…” is not setting a good example. Plus, your little one is smart, they’ll eventually figure out those are empty, and it will not help with the intent of improving their behavior.

4. Recognize their needs. Even though what they did was wrong, they need to know you understand the need behind what they did. If your child feels they’re understood, this behavior is less likely to happen again. If your child is angry or even crying, try using a short message to let them know you understand what they want e.g., “I know you wanted to play with that toy”. The best you can do is acknowledge them. You don’t have to agree with their methods, but you do need to recognize their feelings. Don’t tell them to calm down or act appropriately in that moment, that will just get them to escalate in an attempt to get you to listen to their needs. Repeat your short message as many times as you need in a soft and calm voice to get them to calm down and open the door to communication.

5. Take a break. Taking a break does not mean giving your child a time out. In fact, some studies suggest time outs give the child the wrong message, don’t help them learn about emotional regulation, and tend to worsen the behavior. Your goal when your little one is upset is to restore their sense of safety. Taking a break means taking a break from whatever situation or activity caused your little one to react this way. When they are really angry or frustrated it’s important to teach them  there are other ways to express their feelings in a healthy and nonaggressive way. Depending on your child’s personality, you can try taking a walk, cozying up with a book, jumping up and down, or listening to music.

6. Talk about the consequences of their behavior. Once the agitation passes, it’s important to let your child know there are consequences to their behavior. Use a calm and an empathic manner to communicate the message. “After you pushed your friend they started to cry because they got hurt. They didn’t want to play with you afterwards and that made you feel sad too. You wouldn’t like it if they pushed you, right? How about if you apologize and give them a hug?”. Taking a break after strong emotions allows your little one to calm down and listen to what you have to say. They will be more likely to understand that what they did was wrong, and they’ll be more open to apologize. They’ll also learn more about making a heartfelt apology rather than just saying sorry when they’re mad or being disciplined. This process also fosters your little one’s self-control, cognitive skills, and promotes empathy; important skills they’ll need throughout their life and in future relationships.

7. Give alternatives. It’s important to talk about what they could have done to express their feelings without resorting to that behavior, even though they might not fully understand them yet, depending on their age. Use a calm and an empathic manner to communicate with them. “I know you love playing with that truck, but your friend wanted to play with it too. It’s important to share and wait your turn. Meanwhile you can play with another toy”. If your child is special about a certain toy, you can say something like “If you don’t like your friend playing with that truck you can say ‘That’s my truck, can you give it back please?’ and offer another truck for them to play with”. An important part of their growing self-control and emotional intelligence comes from teaching your little one acceptable responses for what they did, things that don’t involve resorting to aggressive behavior.

8. Remind them of their support system. Empathize with your little one about how you also sometimes feel frustrated and angry and share with them what works for you too. Remind them they can always come to you when they’re feeling frustrated, hurt, angry, or sad. The best way to prevent aggressive behavior is to make your little one feel they’re in a safe and supportive environment.

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