Seven Evidence-Based Ways to Address Aggression in Toddlers
As a child psychologist and a mother of three young children, I have experienced toddler aggression on both a professional and a personal level, and I understand that this is one the most vexing topics as a parent. So can the scientific research give us any guidance here? What are some evidence-based ways to address this unwanted behavior?
How Common Is Toddler Aggression?
First, science finds that aggression in toddlers and young children is extremely common (Tremblay, 2002). More specifically, 67% of toddler boys and 54% of toddler girls have “hit others” in the past two months, according to their parents (Achenbach, 1991). In addition, 62% of toddlers have reportedly shown aggression towards a parent in the past two weeks (Del Vecchio & O’Leary, 2006).
But, WHY are toddlers like this?
Aggression in toddlers is typically related to a lack of ability to regulate their own behavior rather than the malicious intention to hurt others or damage property (Posner & Rothbart, 2000). For most children, aggression will naturally decline as they develop the ability to inhibit their aggressive impulses and implement more effective strategies to solve their problems.
So, What Can We Do About It???
Yet, even knowing how common toddler aggression is and that it will improve as their little brains develop, this behavior is frustrating at best and dangerous at worse. So, here are some evidence-based strategies for reducing aggression in toddlers:
1. Manage your own emotions and give your children choices (whenever possible) rather than trying to control their behavior
Research finds that parents who show “hostile affect” (frowning, annoyed tone of voice, criticizing, yelling) along with a behavioral pattern of trying to control their children are more likely to have aggressive children (Rubin et al., 1998). In order to avoid showing “hostile affect” yourself, try to identify how your child’s behavior might “trigger” you and use coping strategies to calm down in those situations. You can avoid trying to control your child by giving them choices throughout the day, particularly when they are frustrated or upset. For example, if your child becomes frustrated when it is time to turn off a TV show, be prepared to offer them a choice for the next activity when you turn off the TV.
2. Notice when your child is engaging in behaviors that might lead to aggression and correct these behaviors before the aggression occurs
Research finds that mothers of aggressive children are less likely to correct misbehavior that then escalates to aggression than mothers of nonaggressive children (Del Vecchio & O’Leary, 2006). For example, if you notice your child refusing to share a toy with a friend, intervene before conflict occurs and help to coach your child through the situation, before they have the chance to become aggressive.
3. Always assume the best of your child
Research shows that mothers who view their children in a negative light (such as, interpreting unclear actions as hostile) are more likely to have aggressive children 3 ½ years later (Healy et al., 2015). Instead, always try to assume the best of your child and recognize that they are not intentionally trying to be difficult. For example, if you hear the baby crying from another room, don’t automatically assume that your toddler hurt the baby. Rather than saying “What did you do?”, calmly ask “What happened here?”.
4. Maintain a positive relationship
Previous research finds that the relationship between the parent and child is a very important factor in predicting aggression. Specifically, research shows that children who do not have a healthy attachment with their parents (referred to as an “insecure” attachment) may show more aggressive behavior than children who have a healthy or “secure” attachment (Lyons-Ruth, 1996). You can improve your attachment with your child at any age by being as responsive as possible to your child’s physical and emotional needs (feeding them when they are hungry, being present with them through times of distress or frustration), being predictable and dependable (returning when you say you will, setting consistent limits, sticking to routines), and finding ways to connect with your child every day (cuddling, playing with them, roughhousing, or showing affection in some way). It is important to note that building a secure attachment does not necessarily mean practicing “attachment parenting”, but rather simply means being attuned to your child’s needs and responsive to them.
5. Do not use harsh discipline
Harsh discipline, such as yelling or spanking, may disrupt the parent-child relationship and lead to more aggression (Shaw & Gilliiom, 2000). In particular, spanking (or any physical punishment) has been associated with increased aggression in children (Gershoff, 2002; Taylor, Manganello, Lee, & Rice, 2010). Instead, try to use related consequences to discourage aggression. For example, if they throw a toy, they lose access to the toy.
6. Provide emotional support to your children
Research finds that parents who provide emotional support to their children are less likely to have children with aggressive behavior (McCarty, Zimmerman, Digiuseppe, & Christakis, 2005). In this study, “emotional support” for young children included frequently showing affection, talking to the child, looking at the child, eating meals with the child, and answering the child’s questions.
7. Do not reward aggression with attention
A large body of research shows that behavior that is rewarded with attention will likely increase (Williams, Williams, & McLaughlin, 1991). More specifically, parental attention to misbehavior has been found to increase its frequency (Acker & O’Leary, 1996). Therefore, try to provide a lot of attention and praise when your child is calm and playing nicely so that you are paying more attention to nonaggressive than to aggressive behavior. Also, instead of rushing over to correct a child for being aggressive, try to first go to the child who is hurt and focus on soothing them until they are completely calmed down (and you are completely calmed down). Then, briefly explain to the aggressive child how to behave in positive terms (for example, “use gentle hands”) and help them to think of what they could have done instead (for example, “How could you have solved this problem? Would it have helped to ask for a turn with the toy?”).
Achenbach, T. M. (1991). Manual for the Child Behavior Checklist/4-18 and 1991 profile. University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry.
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