Do your toddler’s kicks or hits have you questioning if it’s more than “just the terrible two’s”?
One of the most common questions I get asked is “When should I worry about my toddler’s aggressive behavior?”
If that’s your question, you’re in the right place. Read this article, or listen to the podcast episode linked above. In the podcast, three developmental and behavioral pediatricians talk about behavior that’s labeled as “toddler aggression”.
It’s quite common for toddlers to behave in ways that people consider aggressive. So if you’re noticing this, know that you’re not alone! But even if it’s common, this doesn’t mean we’re not worried about this as parents!
That’s why in this article, we’ll explore aggression in toddlers, why this happens, what we can do, and when we need to seek help.
What is toddler aggression?
Hitting, biting, kicking, scratching, or throwing objects are some of the more common aggressive behaviors.
Many people don’t realize that a lot of what we label as “toddler aggression” is not deliberate behavior on the part of the child to hurt others.
Many people have different ideas of what is toddler aggression, and whether or not a particular behavior is considered “aggressive”. If a toddler hits, kicks, or bites someone else, many people may label these as toddler aggression.
But what about screaming? What about making dinosaur noises, or pointing a toy gun at a playmate? Are these toddler aggression?
How you perceive what your toddler is doing may also make a difference in whether or not you label a certain behavior as aggressive. If a toddler trips and ends up kicking someone, most people will not call that aggression.
But what about toddlers who are upset and having a tantrum – and they end up kicking someone? Or a toddler who pushes a playmate while playing?
Many toddlers are still learning to control their bodies. Also, different people process the same stimulus in different ways. What is a playful touch for one person may already be a hard shove for someone else.
What’s the takeaway from this? Toddlers are not deliberately trying to hurt others. It is the interpretations of other people that determine whether or not an action is considered “aggressive”.
4 Possible reasons behind “toddler aggression”
Difficulty handling frustration and other big emotions
Toddlers are just getting started on their way to learning to regulate their emotions and actions. The part of their brain called the “frontal cortex”, also called the “brakes”, won’t fully develop until your child is well into their 20s!
If a child is hitting, biting, or kicking, it may be a sign that they are struggling with emotional regulation or experiencing stress in their environment.
Budding skills and independence
Toddlers are just starting to learn about independence! They’re also very curious about the world around them. They’re like little scientists who test “theories” and see what happens as a result of the actions they take.
In the process of exploring and trying to satisfy their curiosity, they may do things that people interpret as aggression. For example, a toddler may be curious about what happens if he throws a toy to the wall or (oh no!) at your favorite vase.
Toddlers’ skills are also growing! So they may be feeling the same anger or frustration as a baby who’s crying and upset. But now, instead of just being able to express these feelings by crying, they can express them in many more ways – yes, including throwing a toy to the floor in anger.
Lack of communication skills
Young kids are just starting to learn to talk and communicate with others. Even if they already know how to use their words when they are calm, this doesn’t mean they have all these skills when they are upset.
Presence of trigger factors
Being tired or hungry, feeling overwhelmed with all that’s going on, and being ill are examples of factors that can make it more likely for a toddler to shout, punch, or act in a way that’s “aggressive”.
For a handy list of trigger factors and a plan for action, sign up for our FREE resource library. This includes a guide on tantrums (which can also apply to aggressive behavior), and also activities to boost your toddler’s language and communication skills.
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What we can do
Here are some things we can do to help toddlers on their way to learning to better handle their emotions and deal with frustration in a healthier way.
The first step is to be sure that your child and others around are safe. If your child is kicking or hitting, you may need to remove your child from the situation, so that no one gets hurt.
You may also need to childproof your home. While you have an active toddler, precious objects such as vases and figurines may need to be kept out of the way.
For more childproofing tips, sign up for our FREE resource library and get a handy PDF guide to help you.
Don’t take it personally
I know this can be tough. It’s difficult not to take it personally especially if you’re on the receiving end! But toddlers are still learning to handle their feelings. This doesn’t mean they hate you, or that you’re a bad parent.
Teach about feelings
When you and your child are both calm, teach about feelings. You can talk about them through books and stories, or by observing people around you.
Talk about your own feelings too – whether you may be happy or sad, talk about it. Show your child that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or upset, and model healthy ways of coping.
While it’s not an overnight process, this helps improve your child’s skills in communicating and gives them choices of what they can do.
Show your child different options of what behaviors are acceptable
For example, show that it’s okay to want a toy, but it’s not okay to grab a toy from another child who’s playing with it. Teach and show them how to take turns.
4 Signs that the “aggressive behavior” might be more than “just the terrible twos”
It is important to note that not all aggressive behavior is abnormal or a cause for concern. For example, it is common for toddlers to hit out of frustration or bite when teething. However, persistent aggressive behavior that causes injury to others or affects the child’s daily life is more concerning.
Here are some signs that you may need to seek consultation about your child’s aggressive behavior. None of this is meant to cause alarm. If one of these signs is present, it does NOT mean that there’s something wrong with your child or that you’ve failed as a parent.
But we point this out because there are times when extra help and support may be needed to help handle your toddler’s aggression. The earlier we start helping your child, the better the outcomes.
Early intervention is essential for addressing aggressive behavior in toddlers. It can prevent more serious behavioral problems from developing and can improve outcomes for children in the long term.
Delays in language and communication can make aggressive behavior more likely. For example, if your two-year-old is babbling but not yet talking, speak with your care provider.
Frequent or repetitive aggressive behavior that happens in multiple settings
Kicking and biting once in a while – maybe while frustrated or sleepy – might just be part of this age. However, frequent kicking and biting in different situations and in multiple settings (at home, at the playground, and in daycare) may need to be evaluated.
Parents often ask, “How frequent is frequent?” There’s no hard and fast rule to this. To answer this question, we often ask, “How is it affecting your functioning?”
If the kicking and biting happen often enough that you’re already avoiding the playground and your child is unable to have playdates, or if you already find playdates exhausting, then it’s already affecting functioning. This means you may need to speak with your pediatrician about this.
If you see any of these signs, you may want to mention them to your pediatrician or health care provider. But even if you don’t see any of these signs, if the aggression feels like it’s a lot to handle, by all means, seek support too! All families can benefit from parenting support.
Difficulty interacting with others
Being shy around others or needing time to get used to new people or places are generally normal at this age. However, these are some signs that an evaluation may be needed:
- not making eye contact with other people
- not being interested in other kids
- acting fearful in most social situations
- appearing unaware of others and what’s going on
Even very young toddlers should already be aware of what’s going on around them. If they’re not, this can lead to a lot of behavior that’s misinterpreted as aggression – such as bumping into or hitting others because they simply didn’t realize they were there.
If a child’s behavior is affecting their ability to play or socialize with others, or if they are showing signs of anxiety or depression, it may be time to seek help.
Toddlers don’t express anxiety or depression the way adults do. A toddler who’s feeling depressed may not necessarily cry or act sad, and an anxious toddler may not look like they’re fearful. Instead, they may act out by punching, kicking, or hurting others. These cues are often missed!
Frequent aggression when gadgets are taken away
In our practice, we frequently encounter children who become aggressive when gadgets are taken away, or when there’s a lag in the internet connection.
We’ve worked with parents who say it’s practically impossible to enforce limits on screen time. Their toddlers act violently by kicking, screaming, biting, and hitting when they try to engage them in screen-free activities. Only a tablet or phone is able to pacify them.
If this is the situation, simple willpower or simply telling yourself, “Okay, someday I’ll work harder and limit gadgets” may not be enough. These are signs of possible internet addiction, for which professional help may be needed.
If you’re worried about your child’s aggressive behavior, it’s important to seek help early. A pediatrician or mental health professional can guide you on how to address the behavior and may recommend therapy or other interventions if necessary.
Whether or not you notice any of these “when to worry” signs, kids still need support in learning how to manage emotions and behavior. Check out our course “Teaching Emotional Regulation”, which gives you tools and strategies to help your toddler learn this all-important skill.
Above all, remember this – if your toddler is behaving in a way that’s being labeled as “naughty” or “aggressive” – this does NOT make you a bad parent.
And this doesn’t mean your child is doomed to become an aggressive teen or adult! With loving and respectful parenting that also sets limits and boundaries, your toddler will grow up to be a kind and respectful person too.