Aggression in a toddler

Bobbie, in the suggestions thread, asked about aggressive behavior in her 18 month old son. He pulls hair at day care (though not at home), kicks when he gets his diaper changed, and hits when he doesn’t get his way.

This is a common question, and (if you don’t mind my plugging my book) is exactly the topic of chapter 25, Frustration, Tantrums, and Aggression in Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool. My publisher won’t let me post complete chapters here for copyright reasons, but I’ll be happy to give you a good overview and starting point.

First, why is he so aggressive? I think aggression in toddlers is a way for them to express their frustration. Think about it. He can’t communicate verbally very well (yet), and he certainly has no patience for sharing or delayed gratification. There are lots of things he wants to do, now, that he just can’t. Though some toddlers are easy-going and don’t get all worked up, many have frequent tantrums and aggressive behavior when they don’t get their way. It’s tough being a parent of a toddler, but I’ll bet it’s even more difficult to be the toddler himself!

To deal with his aggressive behaviors, first try to reduce the overall frustration level. Offer simple choices (red or blue shirt?), and allow time for him to do things himself (I’ll bet he wants to put his shoes on, but he sure isn’t quick about it!). Keep your own voice and outlook relaxed and patient. It isn’t easy, but it does rub off on the child and really will help make things easier in the long run.

You need an “action plan” for aggressive behaviors. I suggest you choose only one behavior at first, and really focus on that. Be very, very consistent—don’t ever warn, or do things half-way. In fact, if he hits you and you cannot immediately go through all of the steps in the action plan, it’s better to ignore the hit than to do a half-hearted “don’t hit” or “uh-oh.” Though the exact punishment can be adjusted to fit your child’s temperament, a good example action plan for hitting looks like this:

1. Immediately when he hits you, hold him up at your eye level under his armpits and give him a mean, angry look. Say “no hitting” in a stern voice.

2. Turn him around so he cannot see you. You might want to hold him in a corner (though never to intentionally hurt him—just to make him feel that he’s excluded.) Hold him there about ten seconds.

3. Turn him back to face you, and show him a loving face. Say very sweetly, “no hitting.” Give him a kiss and do not stay mad at him.

That’s it. Do this every single time he hits, and he will stop hitting. It usually takes about 2 weeks. You may see an increase in his hitting right at first as he tests you, but don’t let that throw you off the plan. After he stops hitting, you can start to use this plan for other aggressive behaviors like hair pulling. You also need to make sure that you aren’t unintentionally encouraging hitting by “play-boxing” or anything like that. No hitting means no hitting, always.

Dealing with kicking while you’re changing your son is a different matter. You can’t really follow this plan while holding a messy diaper—and he can hurt himself by flipping down off of the changing table. Your best option is to start changing him on the floor where it’s easier to keep him safe, and ignore his kicks entirely.

The key is to pick your battle (in this case, hitting), and to deal with it strongly and consistently, without counting or warning or threats. He can learn that hitting is unacceptable, and this lesson is well worth your effort. Best of luck, and let us know how it goes!

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