Inside: How To Use Positive Discipline To Respond to Aggressive Behaviors in Toddlers and Young Children
It’s quite normal for toddlers and preschoolers to struggle with aggressive behavior from time to time. When your child acts aggressively it is typically a sign that she is feeling upset, scared or overwhelmed.
Many parents worry that aggressive behavior is a definitive sign of ADHD or Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If your toddler or preschooler has a few moments of aggression or defiance here and there when you set limits or say NO, it’s more likely that they are acting out on age appropriate frustrations.
A squabble with a playmate or sibling that escalates into aggressive behavior is usually something that can be solved with positive discipline.
A new way to look at your child’s aggressive behavior
Aggression in toddlers can be a sign of unmet needs, fear, frustration or worry. Most often it can be considered very normal (not necessarily helpful or wanted) behavior.
Aggressive behaviors and outbursts also mean that your child needs help learning some self-regulation skills ( ways to calm down instead of meltdown) so they can cope better with difficult feelings as they grow.
To help children learn to better respond to overwhelm and anger, aggression is best seen as a request for parental guidance and validation.
When your child acts out in an aggressive way, the best thing you can do is see it as an opportunity to help your child do better.
With your help, your child can learn how to express anger in more helpful ways instead of acting out.
The Discipline Approach to Aggression that Helps children Calm Down and Behave Better
As parents, keeping our cool and helping children navigate intense feelings is key to reducing aggression. This often tricky step is also important for your child’s healthy development. Additionally, research shows that a parenting style that is firm and affectionate (kind and loving) is more likely to reduce aggression.
Here are 8 discipline strategies that may help you keep calm and respond in a positive way to aggressive behavior:
1. Aim to understand and accept :We don’t have to excuse aggression from toddlers and preschoolers or pretend it didn’t happen. That would be permissive. Instead, aim to approach it from a place of care and understanding so you can parent by supporting your child through intense feelings instead of punishing them away.
Bonnie Harris, author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It explains:
“Unconditional acceptance does not mean accepting the behavior; it does mean accepting the child who is behaving this way and knowing that she can’t do anything else right now; that she is feeling the way she is. Acceptance tells the child, “You’re okay.” Acceptance means my child is free to have his own needs and to hold his own perceptions, beliefs, and opinions.
So “What does my child need right now?” is probably the most helpful question you can ask when faced with aggressive behavior.
Don’t focus on what you need to teach or correct just yet. (That will come later, when your child is calm).
2. Model self-regulation: For some parents, aggressive behavior may elicit feelings of parental failure or anger. It’s understandable. If you explode with anger and revenge when your child is aggressive, they will not learn how to calm down and solve their problems. Strive to model staying calm, and approach the situation with the intent understand and guide.
3. Set limits to create safety: If a child is lashing out, or overwhelmed and acting with anger, it is important to confidently (not aggressively) block them from hurting anyone or themselves.
Keep a safe distance or intervene if items are being thrown or broken. Actions speak louder than words during upsets and the idea is not to over power or frighten but simply to keep everyone safe.
Using your bigger size in a calm way, without anger helps your child feel safe (physically and emotionally).
A year or so ago, after a day spent at the lake,my daughter decided she wasn’t at all tired. You know the way three years decide that sometimes? To top things off, I could not remember the pitch of the silly voice for the frog in the story we were reading (I was tired too!) … Out of sheer frustration my daughter kicked the book in my lap. I placed my hand over her toes and ankle. There was no force, just a calm visual reminder that I would not let her hurt me. My daughter started to cry and leaned into me. We hugged for a few minutes and then she offered a very sleepy “I sorry mama. Wuv you. We read tomorrow.” I didn’t need to say anything, just that gentle but confident block got the message across: Hurting me is not ok.
4. Focus on feelings first: This is more helpful than reactive words. For example “I’m noticing you are very angry” helps more than “Quit yelling already!!” or “You seem so upset.” instead of “If you hit me again I will take away your TV time for today.”
Emotion coaching helps even the youngest of children develop skills they will use as they grow to make better choices. Learn more about emotions coaching through one of our parenting courses.
5. Rethink Labels: Try not to think of your child as a “hitter”, “biter”, “meanie” or “aggressive child.”
Remind yourself that your child is just having a hard time, a moment that she needs some support and compassion to get through.
Beware of using labels when you are discussing your child with others as well such as “Johnny always hits when he is mad.” Children tend to believe and act on what you say about them.
6. Skip Punishment: It can seem logical to dish out a punishment when your child acts disrespectfully or hurts your feelings. The hard truth is that this will not help them learn to be respectful.
When you respond to anger and aggression with control, power and frustration your child is much more likely to shut down or retaliate.
Instead of learning, a child feels powerless and focuses on getting back into control by hitting, hurting, biting, yelling, refusing to cooperate with you and this only perpetuates the aggression.
Alternatives that Help Your Child Thrive
Instead of punishments, try implementing alternatives that help children learn self-regulation skills (how to recognize their feelings, calm down and make better choices).
Some alternatives are having a calm down corner, a calm down plan, learning breathing exercises and taking a time in. In my book Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children I share how to start using these and other alternatives as well as success stories from many families already using them.
7. Self Care: I cannot recommend this enough; take time to care for yourself, to reset and recharge. You cannot respond in a calm and collected way if you are continuously stressed out, worried and anxious.
8. Accept Responsibility: Have you taken time to talk to your child about positive ways to handle frustration? Are limits set in a clear way? Do you model self-regulation?
Have you been taking the time to connect each day and to fill your child’s cup with warmth, love and attention? This isn’t about excusing aggression but seeing it as a signal, a call for support and a time to give your child some positive guidance.
Peace & Be Well,
P.S. – Toddlers and preschoolers with guidance typically learn to overcome developmentally appropriate aggression. If you have worries that your child is aggressive very often, refuses your guidance or is harming themselves, you or others it may be useful to talk it over with a trusted health provider, parenting coach or counselor.