Ask Dr. Sears: Aggressive Toddlers

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Ask Dr. Sears: Aggressive Toddlers

Q  My 2-year-old son has started pulling hair, biting, hitting and pushing other kids. Any advice on how I can get him to stop? Please help.

A Many toddlers show aggressive behavior around 2 years of age mainly out of frustration: Their desire to do things is greater than their capability. They want to communicate their needs and wants, but have a limited vocabulary. Toddlers also become aggressive in order to release pent-up anger, to control a situation, to show power or to protect their turf in a toy squabble. Toddlers often perceive aggressive behaviors such as biting and hitting as communication tools. I recently witnessed another species' example of this instinct when I had the opportunity to swim in a dolphin tank with a trainer. I noticed that many of the older dolphins had tiny scratches on their bodies. The trainer explained that these are known as "love nips." Baby dolphins show love for other dolphins by nipping them. Many parents have survived similar cute little love bites from their beginning teethers.

Yet by 2 years of age, children need to be taught what are socially acceptable communication gestures and what are not. What begins as simply socially incorrect gestures in infants can become aggressive behaviors in toddlers if you don't keep them in check. Here's how you can teach your child to communicate in a less aggressive way.

Identify the trigger – the situation that prompts the child to be aggressive.

Is he tired? Hungry? Are there too many kids in too small of a place? Is he playing with temperamentally incompatible peers? Once you've identified the trigger, change it as much as you can.

Next, model kind behavior.

From 2 to 3 years of age, children are learning what is normal behavior: "How am I supposed to act?" It's up to parents, preschool teachers and other trusted caregivers to show and tell them. If your child happens to be in a preschool, daycare, or playgroup in which there are a lot of aggressive children, switch him into a kinder group. Show and tell him alternative ways of using his hands to communicate: "We don't hit, we hug." Redirect nipping: Tell him "No biting – that hurts mama!" as you put on your unhappy face. Then show him a better behavior: "Hug mama. That's nice!" as you put on your happy face. You want your child to make the connection that kind gestures are rewarded with kind reactions. Some rough toddlers need softening. Show him how to "pet" and "be gentle" to the cat, rather than pull the cat's tail. Let him act out his hand play by using "give me five" gestures.

"Time-out" the aggressor.

Children remember rhyme rules: "If you hit, you must sit!" As soon as he is aggressive toward a playmate, separate them. Put him into a minute or two of "time out" and then show him how to play nicely. Between 2 and 3 years of age children can make the connection between being aggressive and getting undesirable consequences.

Show and tell.

Children need to learn that biting hurts but that you shouldn't bite back. One way to convey this is to press your child's forearm against his upper teeth as if he was biting himself – not in an angry way, but in order to make the point that "See? Biting hurts!"

If your previously kind child shows a sudden change toward aggressive behavior, take inventory of what's going on around him. Is he learning aggression from his older siblings or playmates? Is he seeing it on television? Has there been a recent change in his care-giving environment, such as a change in daycare, a change from home to preschool, a move or a major family upset? When childrens' security or stability is threatened their behavior often regresses.

Between the ages of 2 and 3 most of these aggressive behaviors disappear on their own, as your child learns that nice behavior gets nice reactions and he develops more of a vocabulary to communicate with words instead of by aggressive actions.