by Christina DiMartino
Throwing toys or food, hitting, biting, screaming, kicking and other forms of toddler aggression can be frightening to parents. It is, however, a normal part of human development.
Toddlers act out their wants and needs because they have not yet acquired social skills and have limited communication skills, so they cannot express feelings, needs and wants. Some of your child’s aggressive behavior can also be a test to see how much attention he gets.
Understanding toddler aggression
In his report for Dr. Spock, a child parenting company that provides expert advice, information and inspiration on raising happy, healthy children, Robert Needlman, M.D., F.A.A.P., states that aggression is a part of the human condition.
“One of our jobs as parents is to help our children find acceptable ways to express and deal with their aggressive impulses,” says Needlman. “A child’s love of his parents, along with his wish to be loved in turn, normally provides a strong motivation for the child to learn to cope with aggression. In the course of growing up, children are able to bring their aggressiveness more and more under control, provided their parents encourage this.”
In its report, Anger and Aggression in Young Children, the Child and Family Development Center of the University of Utah reports that anger is a primary emotion in reaction to such things as fear, hurt feelings, frustration, disappointment and jealousy. Aggressiveness is often your child’s response to frustration, discomfort or fear. If you can understand the triggers, you can often help your child to feel more comfortable and behave better.
What young children express as anger may be what an adult experiences as sadness. Children who are hungry, tired or crowded may behave aggressively. This is the way some young children cope with stress.
Children who are too young to express their negative feelings in words have little choice but to act out. If you start using emotion words like happy, sad, mad or frustrated at an early age, then they are more likely to use these words later on to express and take control of their feelings.
Invest in Kids is a Canadian national charity dedicated to improving outcomes for children by supporting parents. It reports that aggression in toddlers is normal and more frequently driven by frustration and the impulse to get what they want, than by the intent to hurt someone. Learning to control their emotions is a challenge at this stage.
Tantrums are quite common and sometimes go with aggression. Toddlers can easily use aggression to gain attention. They do it spontaneously or imitate others and experiment with different behaviors. “No” is a word toddlers love to use to assert their growing independence.
Tips for preventing aggressive behavior
While physical aggression increases with age—generally peaking between the second and third birthdays—the good news is that somewhere around age 3, the frequency of physical aggression should begin to decrease. In the meantime, try these tips:
Three key strategies
Children who experience lots of aggression—in their neighborhoods, between their parents or as victims of abuse—are more likely to become aggressive themselves. In the long run, the best protection against your child becoming inappropriately aggressive is to be raised by loving, peaceful parents.
Invest in Kids created Comfort, Play & Teach: A Positive Approach to Parenting to help parents address challenging behaviors like aggression with these three key strategies:
Read on (to your toddler):
Christina DiMartino has been a freelance and assignment writer since 1985. She is a researcher, interviewer, writer, editor, and manuscript collaborator with a repertoire of clients from around the world.