Toddler meltdowns, tantrums, and fits are famous among parents.
In recents years, neuroscience has unlocked major insights about the developing child brain, explaining why toddlers go through aggressive phases.
We now know that toddler aggression is a sign of healthy brain development.
The reasons for toddler aggression are evidence-based. But how to respond when toddler aggression turns into hurtful behavior confuses many parents.
There's mixed advice ranging from (God forbid) spanking to time-outs, from ignoring the bad behavior to overreacting to it. When to worry if our toddlers display aggression?
The solution lies within connecting with our children. But how exactly can we guide our children out of the hurtful behavior, establish boundaries amidst that chaos, and protect their self-esteem at the same time?
This article will lay out a step-by-step guide against these confusions.
First, let's see why toddlers display aggression
1) They explore boundaries: Toddlers are in the phase of exploring how the world functions. "I wonder what happens when I push this person really strongly," is what genuinely crosses their minds. When caregivers provide toddlers with clear, firm, and compassionate boundaries, over time, toddlers learn what's acceptable in social relationships and what's not.
2) They don't know how to manage their emotions: Toddler's brains are yet to mature, in fact, the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotional regulation keep maturing until we are 25! A toddlers' brain is not equipped to take control of their emotions in a rational way. Thus they act impulsively.
3) They cannot express themselves with words: Brain parts that are responsible for language processing are also in the making throughout toddlerhood. Therefore, toddlers cannot express their big emotions through words. They rely on their behaviors to get their points across.
The world is complex
The world is a complex place even for adults. Toddlers want to get to know the world, they have wants and demands they cannot regulate, and they lack many expressive skills. When the above three reasons come together, toddler aggression can become inevitable.
Imagine becoming tongue-tied, being trapped in the land of giants, trying to keep up with the life around you but constantly being held back by some giant bodies. That's a lot, even for a matured brain. But on top of that, children's sense-making brain parts are in the making too, which makes everything even more complicated for them.
How to get through this phase
Even though we know these in theory, when our children's strong emotions are directed towards us, we feel estranged from our angelic babies who (towards the age of two) turn into little independent persons who want to have things their way. We might feel confused as to how we might get through this phase with no harm to our children's self-esteem while minimizing their hurtful behavior.
Without further due, let's see how we can help our children while they are going through an act-out that potentially or actually hurts someone.
Let's imagine that our child is mad at her dad for not letting them play with his phone. You sense that their energy is evolving towards hitting, or maybe they have already started to hit.
1) Make sure they feel seen: Tell them, "I can see that you want to play with your father's phone."
2) Validate the feeling: Make sure to tell them that their feelings are okay to have. "You seem upset that we are not allowing you to play with his phone. It's okay to feel upset. I sometimes feel upset too."
3) Place boundary on the behavior: "It's okay to be upset, it's not okay to hit."
Let's say our child's aggression continues to steep up.
4) Say you will move your body away to be safe: "I cannot let you hit me. I will now move over there to make sure I'm safe."
Let's say our child follows us and keeps hitting.
5) Contain them: "Seems like you need some help. I will now hold your hands to help you." and contain their body gently. In these situations, it's amazing to use our larger body as a tool to wrap and contain their little body.
Let's say our child has caused injury to someone. Before we were able to contain them, our child threw one of his toys to his father and hurt him.
6) Tend to the person who is hurt: Try to stay calm. If you cannot stay calm, try to pause and take 3 deep breaths. If you find yourself yelling, stop midway into the sentence. Go back and focus on your 3 deep breaths. When you feel calmer, attend to the person who is hurt. If this was another child, apologize to them and their parent. If you are not in a place to physically help the other person, gently move your child from the location. If you are the right person to help the injured person, you may say: "Honey, your father is hurt. Go get a tissue and let's help him."
7) Involve in him help: By inviting them to help, we're giving the message that they are not a horrible person. They did something horrible but they are not a monster for doing that. If we push them away from the help, they will stigmatize themselves for "being a bad person" as opposed to "doing something bad."
8) Forgive him: For him to be able to forgive himself, we must forgive him first. If we think that we are forgiving them too soon, we should wipe that off of our brains. Forgiving them is the first step to helping them become a better person and sooner is better than later. When they feel forgiven, they can work on becoming a better person.
9) Connect: When everyone is safe and calm (maybe at bedtime that night or maybe a bit sooner), it's time to talk to our children about what happened without blaming, judging, or threatening. It might be a good idea to frame what happened: "You were mad, and you threw your toy, but that really hurt Daddy. Daddy will be okay. But it is not okay to hurt people."
10) Ask for a plan: We might ask our children how they can help the hurt person feel better. We can help them come up with a plan such as saying sorry. We can discuss what he can do next time he feels the same way.
The more we practice handling toddler aggression this way, the stronger our children will become in handling difficult situations. Of course, it won't change overnight but over time, they will have learned two important lessons for life:
- “I want to control myself better next time so this never happens again.”
- “My parents didn’t give up on me. They know that I am good and I want to do right. They never stopped believing in me.”
“Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.” by Laura Markham.