Kicking, Biting, and Hitting: Understanding and responding to your toddler’s aggression
Toddlerhood is full of chubby waving hands, the most precious giggles, and adorably mispronounced words. Unfortunately, toddlerhood can also mean daycare calling that your child bit a classmate, witnessing your child whack a playmate at the park, or being kicked in the gut as you attempt a diaper change.
It can be tempting to wonder where you went wrong but, rest assured, it’s normal. Aggression peaks between 18-24 months. Although it is developmentally appropriate for this age, it doesn’t mean you should chalk it up to a phase and ride it out: There are actions you can take.
Why are toddlers aggressive?
Your child’s aggressive behaviors (hitting, biting, kicking) have nothing to do with your child being “good” or “bad” - or for that matter, your parenting being “good” or “bad.” This age is a perfect storm of developmental factors that leave your child ripe for lashing out.
- Self-control: Your little one’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. This area of the brain is responsible for decision-making and moderating social behavior -- both needed for managing strong emotions and inhibiting aggressive impulses. The prefrontal cortex may not be fully mature until the age of 25! (Don’t worry, your child won’t be biting until then!)
- Communication Skills: Your little one has emerging communication skills but is not yet able to appropriately express all those big emotions and opinions yet, especially in the heat of the moment.
- Empathy: Your toddler is just beginning to realize that they are their own person and separate from others. This realization is the seedling to developing empathy, but your child isn’t yet able to understand how their actions affect others. In fact, empathy and perspective-taking skills continue to develop into the teenage years!
On top of all of this, aggression can be downright effective; a quick bite can get a playmate to quickly drop a desired toy or a caregiver to put off changing a diaper.
What to do about it?
It’s important to pay attention and take note of when and where these behaviors are happening. This can better help you understand your child’s triggers. Is your toddler:
- Hungry? Always have a snack handy.
- Tired? Skip that storytime right before nap time.
- Over-stimulated? Stay on the periphery or position yourself between your toddler and other children.
- Resisting transitions? Make a game of it.
In the Moment Response
Even with all the preventative measures in place, aggression can still happen, and it’s helpful to have a plan for when it does.
- Make sure everyone is safe. Separate and remove, if necessary.
- Use clear, concise language such as “No biting!” Be firm, but loving and model being in control.
- Don’t allow the behavior to “work.” It is important that your child doesn’t learn aggression as an effective tool.
- Soothe your child. If your child is agitated, they are not in a teachable state of mind. Get close. Use a calming voice and validate emotions: “You are really mad. It is hard to take turns. But it is not okay to hit.”
- Bring attention to and check-in with the other person. “Look, hitting made her feel sad. She is crying. Let’s apologize.” It’s not necessary to force your child to apologize, instead focus on modeling the appropriate behavior and begin to teach empathy.
- Coach the child on what an appropriate response would be. Wait until your child is calm and in a teachable state of mind and help them learn what they can do, not what they can’t do.
Be patient and consistent. Your little one’s journey to self-control, communication, and empathy takes time; even we, as parents, don’t always ace them! Remember that at the heart of discipline is teaching.
What each child needs is different. If you are struggling with aggressive behavior, Trustle can help. Our coaches provide on-demand (video chat, email, and text), personalized support to parents dealing with issues big and small. With Trustle, you can get affordable, accessible support that is trusted, and strategies that are created just for your family.