How to deal with aggressive toddler behaviour

How to help little ones who lash out.

Aggressive toddler crying on the floor with her toys

Photo: iStockphoto

Last summer, 2½-year-old Carmin started hitting children in the home daycare her mom, Cheri Bojcic of Chilliwack, BC, was running. Up until then, Carmin had been so easygoing.

Got a hitter on your hands? Or maybe your daughter has sunk her chompers into the arms of daycare mates? It’s challenging when your toddler or preschooler acts out aggressively — you might be embarrassed or upset by the behaviour, or worried about what exactly is causing your sweet pea to lash out at unsuspecting subjects.

Behind the bite
First of all, you needn’t worry your angel has suddenly developed a devilish side. “This kind of behaviour often accompanies the time in children’s lives when their language is still evolving and they can’t express what they want to say,” says Kim Watts, interim manager for the Ryerson Early Learning Centre in Toronto. “Or they’re frustrated at not being understood, or someone has something they’d like to have.” Other triggers include a change in the child’s life, such as the arrival of a sibling.

So what can you do? “If we think children are naturally aggressive and we have to drill that out of them, we’ll come at the toddler years thinking about ‘training’  rather than helping them,” says Jean Clinton, a Hamilton child psychiatrist and member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Mental Health and Developmental Dis-abilities Committee. “Helping them grow in learning empathy and connecting to others has a huge impact on how you approach this.” Here are tricks to try at home and with any caregivers — experts say consistency helps discourage the behaviour.

Focus your attention
“Our approach is to say in a firm voice, ‘Stop! I don’t like that. It hurts,’” says Watts. Then, instead of scolding the aggressor, child care workers focus their attention on the injured party and soothe his pain. “We then encourage the biter to come and see why her friend is crying, and involve her in helping the hurt child to feel better,” she says.

Use diversion
If your child wants a toy someone else has, help him by saying “Oh, you’re really frustrated because you really want that toy. Why don’t you play with this one first, and then we can take turns.”

Help her use words
Bojcic gets down to her daughter’s level to talk to her. “I remind her not to hit people because it hurts them and their feelings,” Bojcic explains, “and then I give her examples of what she should say in order to settle the situation.”

Act preventively
Bojcic tries to watch for when her daughter has reached her “boiling point” and steps in before anything happens. “I’ll also tell her what she should say to try to get the other kids to realize that she’s getting mad,” Bojcic says.

Be a model
Practise taking turns with your toddler and talk through what you’re doing: “It’s my turn; now it’s your turn.” Or help him with a social situation —  say some other child is reading the book he wants. Try: “She’s using that book right now. Can you find one that isn’t being used? Here’s one!”

A little TLC never hurts either. “Sometimes if things just aren’t working with Carmin, I pick her up, tell her it’s OK, and remind her not to throw toys,” says Bojcic. “Then we’ll sit down together and maybe watch a show, and have a ‘time in.’”

Mom of two Astrid Van Den Broek has dealt with her share of attacking toddlers.

Read more:
29 toddler discipline tactics that work
5 tips for dealing with toddler frustration
10 tantrum tamers that actually work

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