Aggression, Ages 1 to 3

My toddler kicks, bites, and hits playmates. Should I be concerned?

Not necessarily. Aggressive behavior is a normal part of emotional and behavioral development, especially among toddlers. Almost every child hits, kicks, and yells; toddlers and even preschoolers often bite when they're overwhelmed by strong emotions. Generally, you can expect your child's aggressive behavior to taper off by age 7 as he becomes better at expressing himself verbally, using newly acquired words and grammatical skills. Children also abandon physical aggression as they become socialized and learn that biting, kicking, and hitting are more likely to get them into trouble than get them what they want.

Some children, however, have trouble developing language skills or have behavioral, emotional, or learning disabilities that stir up intense anxiety, fear, frustration, or anger. These strong emotions can erupt in a variety of aggressive behaviors, including biting, teasing, temper tantrums, and relentless whining. Once the source of such behavior is determined, parents and counselors can help these kids, and their reactions become less explosive.

The most common reason children become aggressive, though, is because they've witnessed aggression. If your child has been exposed to violence, whether at home or in a place where you have less control over what happens, take steps immediately both to ensure it doesn't continue and to help him understand that it shouldn't have occurred.

If your child's aggressive acts are frequent and severe, or your efforts to curb them have no effect, you'll need to consult your pediatrician or a trained mental health professional, such as a child psychologist or psychiatrist.

What can I do when my child acts out?

First and foremost, don't get aggressive yourself. Hitting, yelling, throwing objects, and calling your child names will never get him to curtail his bad behavior -- you'll just give him an example of new things to try (and get him more riled up). Show your child that you can control your temper -- and maybe he'll learn to control his.

If you have trouble with this, try to identify the thoughts that infuriate you. Maybe every time your child has a tantrum you infer that he's waging a war against you, and that thought triggers your anger. Remind yourself that, realistically, most kids in this age range have temper tantrums; they haven't yet learned to manage powerful feelings. Decide that the next time you have that thought you'll take a deep breath, count to 10, and tell yourself, "This isn't a war. I'm not going to get angry." If necessary, walk to the other end of the room and wait there until you've cooled off.

Second, you need to teach your child to recognize and understand his emotions, and guide him toward acceptable ways of letting his anger, fear, and disappointment show. These tips can help:

  • Respond immediately when your toddler acts aggressively. Don't wait until he hits his brother for the third time to say, "That's enough!" Your child should know instantly when he's done something wrong. Remove him from the situation for a brief time-out (just a minute or two is enough at this age). This is the best way to let him cool down, and soon he'll connect his behavior with the consequence and figure out that if he hits or bites, he'll end up by himself.
  • Teach him with logical consequences. If your child gets into the ball pit at the indoor play center and immediately starts throwing the balls at other kids, take him right back out. Sit down with him and watch the other kids play, while explaining that he can go back in when he feels ready to join the fun without hurting other children.
  • Cool off; then discuss what happened. Wait until your toddler has settled down, then calmly and gently review the circumstances that led to the aggressive behavior. Ask him if he can explain what triggered it. Emphasize that it's perfectly natural to have angry feelings but it's not okay to show them by hitting, kicking, or biting. Suggest better ways of responding, for example, by verbalizing his emotion by talking it out and using his words ("Tommy, you're making me mad!") or by asking an adult to mediate the dispute -- or maybe by simply walking away from the person or situation that's infuriating him.
  • Discipline consistently. As much as possible, respond to each episode the same way. Over time, your boringly predictable response ("Okay, you bit Billy again. That means another time-out") will set up a pattern that your child will recognize. Eventually, he'll internalize this pattern and anticipate consequences before he acts.
  • Promote self-control. Rather than giving your child attention only when he's bad, try to catch him being good -- for example, asking to have a turn on the swing instead of snatching it from another child. Praise him lavishly when he uses words, and he'll soon realize how powerful they are. You might even reward him with a gold-star sticker every time he manages to check his temper.
  • Teach the moral reasons for not acting aggressively. Even if he can't yet understand the concept of right and wrong, tell your child that acting out physically isn't right because it hurts other people. This helps to lay the groundwork for your child to develop empathy and ethics as he grows up.

How do I know if my child has a problem with aggression?

All toddlers occasionally grab a toy from another child or scream their way into a full-blown temper tantrum. But a child who has a problem with aggression typically will behave in these ways:

  • Frequently loses his temper, getting intensely angry
  • Becomes frustrated easily
  • Has a short attention span compared with other children his age
  • Physically attacks and fights other children or adults
  • Is frequently irritable and disruptive
  • Has trouble being social within a group

An aggressive child usually acts this way in more than one setting, such as both in his home and at daycare.

Are there special circumstances that might be causing my child's aggression?

A strong emotion such as physical fear is one of many possible explanations. Your child might lash out if he feels cornered by another child. But there are some more complicated reasons for especially aggressive behavior, including:

  • Frustration with learning. If your child has been slow to develop verbal skills or has trouble communicating his feelings, his frustration may erupt into anger and unruly behavior. While learning disabilities are not typically diagnosed until preschool or elementary school, you should be on the watch for signs that your child is struggling with language or pre-reading skills.
  • Family difficulties or discord. Children often act out in response to family strife, whether it's battling parents, a serious illness in the family, a sibling who teases endlessly, or a move to a new area. These troubles or changes stress children as well as parents, and even a toddler who doesn't understand the details may lash out or even destroy things, especially if other family members are expressing their feelings in similar ways.
  • Emotional trauma. Domestic violence and sexual abuse can create far more anxiety, fear, anger, and depression than a child can control or express verbally. Children who are exposed to violence at home or in their neighborhoods are much more likely to act aggressively than children who don't have to confront this.
  • Exposure to violent television shows and movies. Most experts believe that witnessing on-screen violence can temporarily arouse children's aggression. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that you monitor your child's viewing selections, particularly if he's prone to belligerent behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that parents not let children under the age of 2 watch TV at all.

When should I seek help?

Set up an appointment with your pediatrician if your child's aggressive behavior doesn't diminish even after a prolonged period of consistent discipline or is interfering with his participation in family, daycare, or other activities.

Your pediatrician may refer you to a child psychologist or psychiatrist, who can evaluate your child for a learning disability or figure out if he has an emotional or behavioral problem that's making him aggressive.

Though aggression is a certainly an unsettling problem for a parent to confront, remind yourself that your child is still very young. If you work with him patiently and creatively, chances are his pugnacious tendencies will soon be a thing of the past.

References

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Understanding Violent Behavior in Children. http://aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/understanding_violent_behavior_in_children_and_adolescents

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Fighting and Biting. 2008. http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/fighting_and_biting

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Children and Watching TV. http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/children_and_watching_tv

American Academy of Pediatrics. TV and Toddlers. http://www.aap.org/sections/media/toddlerstv.htm

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