In working with thousands of parents over the years, I get a lot of questions about toddler aggression: Hitting, kicking, biting – and of course – spitting.
It’s common for their stories to sound something like…
I have a toddler and a baby. And every time the baby gets near him, he tries to hit him, knock him down or push him away.
Or each morning when I try to get my toddler to get ready and out the door, he gets aggressive and starts hitting me.
Other stories start with I told my toddler he couldn’t go back downstairs before bedtime to grab more toys and he spit at me.
Another common scenario is my toddler tries to hit and bite everyone at daycare. He’s going to get kicked out of another daycare. I work full-time. I’m so lost at what to do.
Is this you too?
Toddler aggression…it’s frustrating.
Aggression in toddlers is very common. There are an endless number of scenarios that I regularly hear from parents, and as a parent, who went through this same thing, I can 100 percent relate to what you are going through.
Between the ages of 12 months and 2 years old, my son attempted to bit the ears off other children. Like Mike Tyson style. Downright horrifying to the eyes. His biting behaviors were seemingly unprovoked, and it pretty much made me want to hide in a closet for a very long time. Possibly three years long. That’s normal, right?
And if I’m being honest, I did stop going to a lot of playdates and places with other children around because it was very stressful and upsetting to watch. Constantly trying to manage and control toddler aggression is exhausting.
I remember one time my sister-in-law was visiting us with her 6 month-old daughter. As my son attempted to lay into his cousin like a starving T-Rex for the hundredth time, my sister-in-law laughed, “He’s going in for the chomp again!” I burst into tears and went all the way to ugly cry. Oh yes, yes I did. Because that’s how defeating toddler aggression can feel to a parent.
So…how do you stop toddler aggression?
Funny enough, the answer to that question lies directly IN the question. In working with parents over the years and listening to other parenting “experts,” there is ONE reason why parents get stuck when dealing with toddler aggression.
They’re trying to stop it.
Stay with me.
(Keep reading to the very end before you give up on me.)
If you have a toddler acting aggressively, trying to stop it will only make it worse. Instead, you must help your toddler work through their own anger and aggression.
All behaviors are drive by 3 healthy needs: experience, connection and power. Whatever children are doing is already meeting those needs.
When toddlers turn to aggression and anger, they are meeting their need for power. If you tell a toddler to stop or put them in time out or say things like “We don’t hit people,” the need for power is still ever-present.
In fact, if you respond with something that tries to control the child, their need for power becomes even greater.
This is why when you say “stop,” toddlers don’t usually stop.
Or when you put them in time out and they won’t go. They keep getting out, and then to drive their point home, they spit at you.
This is your child continuing to try and meet their healthy need for power. It’s just how kids work. Because the need is so strong, they will try to meet it over and over and over again until it’s met.
So what do you do?
Because obviously hitting, biting, kicking or spitting at others is not okay. It hurts and sometimes it’s especially gross when their dirty feet go towards your mouth or they spit in your face.
Yeah, not okay.
I am with you.
In order to help toddlers move themselves out of anger and aggression, you can help them meet their need for power in a way that works for everyone.
This is Language of Listening® and it’s the 3-part parenting framework I use with my own kids. It’s also the framework I teach to parents I work with as a Licensed Language of Listening parent coach.
When you see a toddler acting aggressively, you can say something like this…
“You’re angry and hitting AND I’m not okay with that. You can hit this pillow and pretend it’s [insert person they were trying to hit].”
Now, this is usually where the “experts” like to say that I’m promoting aggression and that the child will grow up violent.
To which I respond, they are 100 percent wrong.
Anger and aggression is not a desired state of being. You can see this in yourself as a parent when you yell and don’t enjoy it or feel completely exhausted later. Raising your voice and feeling angry isn’t all that much fun.
Kids don’t want to stay angry either.
The kids who are likely to seek aggression as they get older are those with upsets that have gone unheard for a very long time. Helping your child facilitate their own anger and aggression will help them move into a calm and relaxed state of being.
It also has the magical power of helping them see they can calm themselves down and that they have control over their emotions (vs. you needing to calm them and do it for them).
Here’s some more examples of responding to an aggressive toddler.
“You’re frustrated and want to bite your sister AND I’m not okay with that. You can bite this pillow.”
“You’re angry and trying to spit at me AND I’m not okay with that. You can spit in the bathroom or outside.”
“He’s knocking over your toys and you want to protect them. I’m not okay with pushing. You can push this chair here. Or you can take your toys to another room to keep them safe from your baby brother.”
Each time that your toddler does not act aggressively with a person, be sure to name that as a STRENGTH. It might sound something like this…
“You hit the pillow instead of your sister. That shows self-control.”
“You kicked the cushion instead of me. You know how to keep everyone safe.”
Helping toddlers move themselves out of anger and aggression is a series of small steps over time toward the behavior you want to see.
Each time your toddler gets upset and does NOT hit anything, not even a cushion, be sure to name that as a STRENGTH.
“You’re angry and you didn’t hit. Wow! You handled that. You know exactly what to do to calm yourself down!”
“You were upset and you took two deep breaths and we talked about it. You can calm yourself even when you’re angry.”
Taking it a step further.
As toddlers start to handle upsets without aggression, you can start offering alternative ways to calm themselves without hitting a pillow or cushion.
“You can rip this paper.”
“You can scream into a pillow.”
“You can take a deep breath.”
“You can talk about your upset.”
The possibilities are always there for kids.
It’s only a matter of helping them feel heard and understood and finding a way to channel the aggression (rather than trying to stop it) WHILE keeping everyone safe.
If you’re struggling with toddler aggression, you don’t know where else to turn. Or if you feel like you’re constantly having to manage your child, you may find the peace and relief you are looking for in this method.
I’ve seen this work with so many kids, and in my own home. If my son can find a way to facilitate his anger, rather than chomping off people’s ears (no offense Mike Tyson), I know there is hope for anyone reading this.
Print this free toddler listening checklist.
This post comes with a free printable checklist to help with toddler listening. I always have the hardest time remembering these phrases. This printable simplifies it!
Here is a sneak preview…
Download Your Free Printable
- Download the checklist. You’ll get the printable, plus join 37,000+ parents who receive my weekly parenting tips and ideas!
- Print. Any paper will do the trick, but card stock would be ideal.
- Place it on your refrigerator. Check things off as you go and don’t forget a thing!
Want more on parenting?
- Top Challenges When Parenting a Toddler and a Newborn + Solutions
- Why Is My Child So Angry and Aggressive?
- The Most Overlooked Reason Why Kids Won’t Listen, Focus or Sit Still
- Frustrated With Disciplining Your 2 Year-Old? Try These Ideas
- Parenting Anger: How to Help Yourself Cope When You’re Triggered
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