Hair pulling, biting, pinching, kicking, hitting – all can easily be part of a day’s work for a busy toddler. And there’s nothing more embarrassing for parents when their small, carefully brought up offspring behaves in an aggressive way towards others.
You might be reassured to know that in toddlers, this behaviour isn’t done with any malice or intent to hurt another person. But it’s still really important to nip it in the bud before it develops into a habit.
Aggression in older children is less common. School age kids do occasionally bite and hit but are usually more aware of its effects, and it tends to happen in the context of fighting.
A child who hits out will need parental help to learn strategies for coping with anger and difficult situations in a way that involves being assertive, but not aggressive. If your child doesn’t learn this, the risk is that they will carry aggressive behaviour with them into adult life.
Why can toddlers be aggressive?
Biting, pinching and hitting are quite common habits in pre-school children. Your child will not really understand the full effects of their actions, and will not be doing it to hurt another child or adult.
Rather, young children often explore their environment by putting things into their mouths, and by touch, and biting and pinching can often be an extension of that. It may also be a way to relieve frustration or boredom. Alternatively, aggression can sometimes be a sign of jealousy – for instance, if there has been a new baby in the family.
If a child discovers it‘s a good way of getting attention, it can develop into a habit.
How do you deal with it?
It does need to be dealt with and you will need a plan that is applied consistently by whoever is caring for your child, from parents and grandparents to your child’s nursery or childminder.
This might involve sitting your child away from whoever has been (for instance) bitten, and being told firmly "no, don’t bite". Then ignore your child for a minute or so, and quietly and calmly get on with something else. This will help your child realise that biting is not the best way to get your attention. At nursery, your child’s carer could use this time to give attention to the child who has been bitten.
Children do grow out of this habit so hopefully it won’t be a problem for long.
What about an aggressive school age child?
In older children, aggression is potentially more problematic. It means your child is acting with the intention of causing harm or pain to another person, and it can be either physical or verbal in form. It can also mean damage to property.
Occasional outbursts of anger are, of course, perfectly normal. But if your child is behaving aggressively towards others, you will need to intervene to stop it. Your child will need to learn that hurting others is not an appropriate way of dealing with feelings of anger. Aggression will not be tolerated within school and you will need to make it clear that it is not acceptable at home either.
How is aggression dealt with at school?
If your child is being aggressive at school, the chances are this will be dealt with quickly – your child will face discipline in line with the school’s policy, and as a parent you will be informed.
You could discuss this further with your child’s teacher. If your child has started behaving aggressively only recently, and it’s out of character, it could be a sign that all is not well. Try gently talking to your child – is there something your child is worried about? For instance, could bullying be a problem? If you can identify a cause, you can make sure your child gets the help they need.
As well as dealing with the negative aspects of your child’s behaviour, you could also discuss with your child’s teacher ideas for reinforcing the sort of non-aggressive behaviour you would prefer to see. Depending on your child’s age, star charts can be useful for rewarding good behaviour. If the school is willing to try this, discuss some ground rules to ensure consistency. Your child may also benefit from help in learning how to get along with other children. Ask how the school can support him in this.
How should you deal with aggression at home?
At home, set clear, consistent limits. This might involve simple rules on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. For instance, if an older child is repeatedly pushing a younger child, you could have a no pushing rule. Sibling aggression is quite a common problem although it does vary in intensity.
If your child does behave aggressively, intervene immediately. Put your child in another room but do not stay with them. The point is that your child is temporarily excluded from involvement and attention from the family. This should give your child a clear message that their behaviour is not acceptable. In general, a child should not be left in a room in these circumstances for longer than a minute for every year of their life.
Also model the sort of behaviour you would like to see by managing your own temper, and be careful not to reinforce aggression with aggressive forms of punishment.
How do you teach new strategies for coping with anger?
Your child will really benefit from some ideas about what they could do when they feel cross instead of hitting out.
For instance, if your child feels angry with a sibling, perhaps because they have been provoked in some way, one possibility is for your child to come and tell you straight away. For this to work will need to be prepared to drop everything, listen, and intervene to resolve the situation.
If you see aggression between siblings or friends, step in immediately to show your child a more appropriate way to negotiate disagreements. Acknowledge your child’s anger. Let your child know that it’s perfectly acceptable to have and express angry feelings – but make it clear you will not allow your child to physically hurt himself or anyone else. Instead of kicking, your child could stamp their foot. Better still, encourage your child to express their feelings verbally.
Your child may also find that doing something physical when they feel angry is helpful, like playing football, singing, dancing or shouting into a pillow.
What if the problem doesn’t resolve?
If after a few months the problem doesn’t clear up, and your child continues to behave aggressively, see your GP. It may be a good idea for your child to be referred to a specialist in child development who would be able to carry out a detailed assessment.