The first time your baby bites you while breastfeeding is shocking. So it is when your cute two-year-old claws your nose and won’t let go. Or, when your sweet three-year-old bonks a toy on the head of a playmate.
Many first-time parents, or even experienced parents who didn’t meet this challenge with an earlier child, are taken aback by this behaviour.
Yet, aggression is common among toddlers – and actually to be expected as young children start to understand mixed emotions.
It can be hard handling this behavior calmly because it is often painful.
There might be bruises, scratches or blood! When your baby kicks you in the shin, pulls her sibling’s hair, or head-butts his nana’s face, it can really hurt. A perfectly natural reaction to physical pain is a flash of frustration or even anger – potentially sparking more aggression between you.
Under this surface-level frustration, all sorts of painful feelings might bubble up for us. Some emerge from our own childhood, some magnify horrible thoughts about the present and some project concern for the future.
Does my child lack empathy? Could it be that my family was actually right about corporal punishment? What if my child grows up and treats their spouse like that?
Then there’s other people’s pain. Physical aggression is easy to spot and is stigmatised in our society. Other people’s harsh reactions can ignite our own deep feelings of shame and of inadequacy.
This aggressive behaviour is emotional for us. And what we do with all these feelings and thoughts makes all the difference if we don’t want the behaviour to stick around.
Why is toddler aggression common?
In early childhood, learning to navigate complex situations like sharing attention, food and toys, makes conflict inevitable and emotionally intense. And conflicts can easily escalate to aggression.
Adults tend to confuse violence and aggression. We generally underestimate children’s physical ability and overestimate their cognitive abilities. And too often we expect children to act like adults.
But think about how life really feels between 12 and 36 months.
Everything around is too big, too heavy, too fast, too loud or too far to reach. Children this age still can’t quite believe that they are separate from their mother and the newfound autonomy must feel exhilarating at times!
Yet their bodies don’t quite respond to their commands. They often fall or get hurt and regularly poop and pee in their pants.
Often children this age can’t understand what is going on around them. They can still barely talk. They do, however, believe people can read their minds. So, imagine how frustrating it must feel when those adults never seem to listen!
It’s easy to imagine these thoughts running through a toddler’s mind:
- Why do these adults keep taking away my toys, my books, my favourite sparkly shoes?
- Why do they keep pushing yucky food into my mouth?
- Why did I just get shuffled across the room without consenting?
We forget that, as toddlers, we relied heavily on actions to let others know what we felt or needed. When we felt frustrated or distressed, we also probably hit, pushed, slapped, threw, kicked or bit someone to say; “Stop it!”
“You’re too close to me, get away!”
As we’ll discover, how adults handled us in these moments can have repercussions on our own responses.
No toddler sets out to hurt or upset others.
Even when toddlers kick the dog or slap the newborn baby, they are still good children. They often just don’t yet have the skills to make wiser choices.
Toddlers don’t set out to hurt or upset others.They learn about themselves and the world by grabbing, dropping, swatting, mouthing, biting and seeing what happens as a result, exploring life through their little bodies.
There is a difference between this kind of vigorous exploration and actual aggression. However, when a child frequently lashes out or hurts other children it can signal that there is more going on than just attempts to discover the world.
Why are some toddlers more aggressive than others?
Aggressive acts commonly emerge when toddlers are overwhelmed by difficult situations or distressing feelings such as fear, sadness or anger.
Sometimes aggression seems to come out of nowhere, yet it always has a reason, even if we don’t understand it. However attentive and attuned a caregiver is, all children get frightened sometimes. Seemingly inconsequential events, like a sudden loud noise, darkness or an overly enthusiastic cuddle from a sibling can frighten a toddler.
Claire Lerner, a psychotherapist and child development specialist, points out that some other factors might make it more likely for a child to act aggressively.
Personality: During toddlerhood, protective automatic responses (including the fight-or-flight response) are easily triggered, especially in anxious, fearful and inflexible children. Impulsive, highly active and excitable children are more likely to struggle with inhibiting their spontaneous or dominant behavioural responses.
Level of development: A toddler’s brain is still forming and the speed of development and information processing varies between individuals. This is why children of the same age can display varying levels of cognitive ability, including attention, memory and verbal skills. Lagging skills may be an ongoing source of additional frustration for late bloomers.