5 Tips for Handling Aggression in Toddlers

When your toddler gets aggressive, it’s easy to worry. But even very challenging kids can learn to simmer down – if we teach them constructive ways to cope, and steer them away from situations that overtax their self-control.

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Myth of the terrible twos

Toddlers have the physical independence to move around, the ability to fight back, and the will to investigate the world on their own terms. Combine these traits with their limitations – like poor self-regulation and immature language skills – and you’ve got a recipe for “acting out.”

Yet if we compare early childhood around the world, it’s clear that some parents avoid “the terrible twos.”

For instance, in traditional Mayan villages, parents recognize that little kids can’t control their own behavior in the way older children can. So they don’t insist that toddlers share, and they train big kids to defer to their younger siblings. As a result, toddlers have little reason to get aggressive.

In the Netherlands, parents trained to empathize with their babies reported fewer externalizing behavior problems, like defiance and aggression, during the toddler years.

And in the United States, researchers recently confirmed links between preschool externalizing problems and parenting style. Children with the worst behavior tended to have either “drill sergeant” parents (who demanded absolute obedience), or “anything goes” parents (who let kids get away with aggressive acts). Preschoolers with the fewest externalizing problems had parents who enforced limits, but did so with sensitivity and realistic expectations about their children’s abilities.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that parents are responsible for every problem, or that all parents face an equally easy job. When it comes to aggression, some kids start off at a disadvantage.

Early life stress -- even stress experienced by the mother during pregnancy -- can alter a baby’s emotional system and increase his chances of becoming an aggressive child. In addition, some babies show temperamental differences (like excessive irritability, or an unusual lack of fearfulness) that put them at greater risk for behavior problems.

But these starting points don’t determine the future. In fact, many at-risk children seem particularly responsive to the influences of good parenting. If you’re coping with toddler aggression, consider these evidence-based tips.

1. Watch for environmental triggers.

Stressful events, poor sleep, sibling tensions, and even aggressive children’s television may contribute to externalizing problems.

2. Encourage your toddler to think sensitively – and optimistically – about other people.

Teach your child to show empathy and kindness by (1) being a good role model, and (2) talking with your child about emotions. Talk about what other people are feeling, and emphasize the benign intentions that accompany most acts. Kids with externalizing problems are often convinced that people are hostile towards them, even when it isn’t true, and this leads them to lash out. By providing alternative explanations (“she’s not frowning at you, she’s upset about something else,” or “he didn’t mean to hurt you, he was just play-fighting,”) you help your child learn to think optimistically, and maintain friendly relationships.

3. Practice positive parenting.

When we try to control kids with threats and punishment, we’re in danger of adding fuel to the fire, making kids act even more defiant. Parents who take the opposite approach – reinforcing socially acceptable behavior through praise, warmth, and friendly coaching – tend to see a pattern of decreasing aggression over time. If you have a thrill-seeker, help him find appropriate outlets for adventure. If you have a very irritable child, help her avoid situations that trigger her anger, and teach her specific tactics for coping with negative emotions (like taking a deep breath, getting physical exercise, or putting her bad mood into words). Read more about this approach

4. Temper tantrum? Try to stay on the sidelines until your toddler has cooled down.

Sometimes a child’s behavior poses a safety risk, in which case we must intervene. But otherwise, it’s probably best to wait until the angry component of the outburst is over. When researchers analyzed real-life temper tantrums, they found that any talk or attention from a parent – even a simple question – prolonged the child’s rage.

5. Get individualized advice.

Kids may be more likely to develop long-term behavior problems if their tantrums are frequent (occurring daily), prolonged (lasting more than 5 minutes), unpredictable (out of the blue), or marked by physical violence. Similarly, kids who seem strangely emotionless, or unfazed by the threat of punishment, may suffer from conduct disorders. If your child exhibits one of these symptoms, ask your pediatrician about getting a psychological evaluation, and take heart: A professional can offer treatment and advice tailored to your child’s needs, and early intervention can make a big difference.

Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.

Gwen Dewar received her Ph.D. in biological anthropology from University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she studied evolution, social learning, parenting, primatology, and psychology. A science writer, she founded the website, Parenting Science in 2006, and popularizes research of interest to parents, educators, and students of human nature.