What to do when your tot’s aggressive

Expert advice on how to handle your toddler’s aggressive streak. By clinical psychologist, Jenny Perkel

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While not all toddlers engage in aggressive behaviour, it is a very normal developmental phase. With a little bit of patience and a few tricks and tools, parents experiencing unruly behaviour in a child will find it easier to cope.
Parents often say that they don’t know why their child is displaying aggressive behaviours. The reasons are often not as menacing as you might think and can stem from a lack of language skills, the desire to be more independent, frustration, exhaustion, hunger or even a change in routine or boredom. Sometimes the behaviour is purely experimental. Toddlers need to test boundaries so regardless of the cause, the best course of action is immediate intervention.

What to do

  • Dole out punishment that fits the behaviour

Removal from the situation works well as your child has a chance to decompress away from what caused the behaviour. A brief time out, removing the toy that triggered the event are consequences that will stop the behaviour.

  • Set clear boundaries

Toddlers understand basic rules. It’s a good idea to make a picture chart of behaviour that’s not acceptable and put it up in your toddler’s bedroom. Show and tell him what you expect regularly. When a rule is broken, refer to the list and say: “One of our rules is no throwing toys. I am taking this toy away from you because you threw it.”

  • Be calm

Yelling and smacking will result in heightening the behaviour. Be calm and just repeat the rule, “There’s no throwing. Toys break when they are thrown,” then remove the toy for a few minutes.

  • Be consistent

The same rules should apply in every circumstance whether you’re out or at home, on a playdate or alone. When the rules change to fit the circumstances it’s impossible for your little one to understand.

What not to do

  • Don’t reason

Toddlers don’t have the cognitive ability to understand reasoning and lengthy explanations. They respond to immediate consequences that make sense.

  • Don’t prolong the incident

Once your child has calmed down and is engaged in a different activity, it’s over.

Good to know

  • Staying with your child during a tantrum is a good idea. Storming out can make him feel abandoned. But if you’re overly frustrated, you can calmly leave the room for a few minutes until he’s stopped crying. By staying calm, you’ll help him calm down too.
  • After the time out or once you’ve arrived home, your child must apologise for his behaviour. Teaching children to apologise is part of teaching mutual respect. When you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry, (but you also get a consequence).
  • Toddlers need lots of attention, so get down on the floor with him and play for at least 20 minutes a day. Read him a story and cuddle with him at night before bedtime, so he feels safe and secure. Give him lots of love and hugs, especially during a difficult phase. This will assure him of your acceptance of him regardless of his behaviour.

Dealing with angry toddlers

  • Don’t try to win every time – pick your battles.
  • Allow and acknowledge your toddler’s feelings of anger.
  • Label your toddler’s feelings to help him make sense of what’s happening.
  • Try to set boundaries before they’re transgressed.
  • Be understanding, but don’t give in to his demands.
  • Even if it causes a tantrum, don’t be afraid to say ‘no’.
  • Stick to familiarity and routine in your dealings with him.
  • Use distractions and other methods to calm him down.
  • Pay attention to your child. Tantrums can be avoided if you’re tuned into your child’s mood. Try not to push them past their coping point around food or sleep.

Toddlers need to be taught to manage their feelings in a safe environment. So it’s your job to teach him by example and by instruction what to do when he’s feeling angry. Help him to recognise his feelings by labelling them. For example, “You’re so cross now; you just want to hurt that boy.” Then you can take him away from the frustrating environment and help him to calm down by tuning into his feelings. “You really wanted that toy. It was horrible for you, and you got so cross.”
The toddler phase brings an increased need for independence and separation from the mother. So toddlers are often absolutely determined to do things their own way, they become angry when they can’t manage or when they can’t have their own way. They also think they’re the centre of the universe. So when you reprimand them, they’re insulted and infuriated. But toddlers do need limits, and they need to learn in the gentlest way that they’re not in charge – your job is to gradually and gently guide him off his pedestal

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