Improving Your Toddler’s Aggressive Behavior

Toddlers are at quite the exciting stage of life! They are grasping the power of language, can navigate around more proficiently, and are realizing that they can make their own choices and exert their own influence on the world around them. Additionally, around age two, many toddlers hit the peak in the number of acts of physical aggression towards others (1). The sweet, cherub-cheeked little girl can shock her parents with a startling bite on the arm, during a sudden outburst from experiencing a disappointment.

Parents often struggle to understand how to stop the biting, hitting, kicking, and scratching that their toddler seems to be resorting to more and more. Its stressful for the whole family, hurts badly despite your child’s small size, and can be quite embarrassing right in the middle of the grocery store!

There are multiple possible reasons for a child’s aggressive actions, including fear, frustration, feeling overwhelmed or exhausted, jealousy, anger, and un-obtained wants. They feel completely out of control, and most likely do not want to harm their friends or family members. For toddlers, aggression sometimes results because they are unable to communicate their wants and needs verbally.

Claire Lerner, a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist, wrote an article entitled “Aggressive Behavior in Toddlers.” About aggression, she counsels that, “Toddlers also don’t have the self-control to stop themselves from acting on their feelings. They are just beginning to develop empathy—the ability to understand how others feel. So, they cannot yet say, Mommy, I am mad that Zachary grabbed my favorite doll. But I know he just wants to play with me. So how about I offer him a different doll to play with? Instead, your toddler may bop Zachary on the head with a toy truck.”

For parents, it is very easy to feel angry when your child reacts aggressively. It can be very hurtful and confusing. According to Lerner, “Parents often expect that as their older toddlers become more and more verbal and advanced in their thinking skills, they are capable of more self-control than they really are. This stage of development can be very confusing because while your 2 ½-year-old may be able to tell you what the rule is, she still does not have the impulse control to stop herself from doing something she desires. At this age, emotions still trump thinking skills almost every time.”

Lerner recommends three general steps for managing a young child’s aggression. They are:

  • Observe and Learn. Consider what the underlying reasons for your child’s behavior could be. This might be a temporary occurrence with a playmate, or a deeper underlying issue. Also, watch for a pattern of common times and situations when the behavior happens. Also check yourself for how you respond and your ability to remain calm when the problems happen.
  • Respond to your child based on your best understanding of the behavior. It is most helpful to plan ahead for when aggression is likely to occur and take preventative measures. Distractions can be a good tool for helping your child avoid acting out. Help your child recognize his emotions and how he can cope more appropriately. Give your child an alternative where he can “channel his energy.”
  • Help your older toddler (2 ½ to 3), who is beginning to understand logic and rational thinking, learn from his actions. Guide your child in recognizing how her behavior affects others and herself and help her think about how they can act differently.

For the full article see:

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  1. Lerner, C. & Parlakian, R. (Feb. 1, 2016). Aggressive behavior in toddlers. Retrieved from

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