Aggressive toddlers and preschoolers benefit most from positive parental interventions when acting in unhelpful ways.
When a young child acts aggressively it is typically a sign that she is feeling upset, scared or overwhelmed. Aggression can also be a sign your child has unmet needs. It’s normal and very typical for toddlers and preschoolers to struggle with aggression. With help from parents, young children can learn how to express anger in more helpful ways.
To help children learn to better respond to overwhelm and anger, aggression is best seen not as bad behavior but instead as a request for parental guidance and validation.
So, what kind of discipline (guidance) do children need when they act aggressively?
As parents, keeping our cool and helping children navigate intense feelings is key to reducing aggression and very important for healthy development. Additionally, research shows that a parenting style that is firm and affectionate (kind and loving) is more likely to reduce aggression than a coercive, power and punishment based approach.
Here are 8 ideas that may help you keep calm and respond in a positive way to aggressive behavior:
1. Aim to understand and accept :We don’t have to excuse aggression from toddlers and preschoolers or pretend it didn’t happen. That would be permissive. Instead, aim to approach it from a place of care and understanding so you can parent by supporting your child through intense feelings instead of punishing them away.
Bonnie Harris, author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It explains:
“Unconditional acceptance does not mean accepting the behavior; it does mean accepting the child who is behaving this way and knowing that she can’t do anything else right now; that she is feeling the way she is. Acceptance tells the child, “You’re okay.” Acceptance means my child is free to have his own needs and to hold his own perceptions, beliefs, and opinions.
So “What does my child need right now?” is probably the most helpful question you can ask when faced with aggressive behavior. Don’t focus on what you need to teach or correct just yet. (That will come later, when your child is calm).
2. Model self-regulation: For some parents, aggressive behavior may elicit feelings of parental failure or anger. It’s understandable, but If we explode with anger and revenge when our children are aggressive, they will not learn how to calm down and solve their problems. Strive to model staying calm, and approach the situation with the intent understand and if needed to problem solve.
3. Set limits to create safety: If a child is lashing out, or overwhelmed and acting with anger, it is important to confidently (not aggressively) block them from hurting anyone or themselves. Keep a safe distance or intervene if items are being thrown or broken. Actions speak louder than words during upsets and the idea is not to over power or frighten but simply to keep everyone safe. Using our bigger size in a calm way, without anger helps our children feel safe (physically and emotionally).
A year or so ago, after a day spent at the lake,my daughter decided she wasn’t at all tired. You know the way three years decide that sometimes? To top things off, I could not remember the pitch of the silly voice for the frog in the story we were reading (I was tired too!) … Out of sheer frustration my daughter kicked the book in my lap. I placed my hand over her toes and ankle. There was no force, just a calm visual reminder that I would not let her hurt me. My daughter started to cry and leaned into me. We hugged for a few minutes and then she offered a very sleepy “I sorry mama. Wuv you. We read tomorrow.” I didn’t need to say anything, just that gentle but confident block got the message across: Hurting me is not ok.
4. Focus on feelings first: This is more helpful than reactive words. For example “I’m noticing you are very angry” helps more than “Quit yelling already!!” or “You seem so upset.” instead of “If you hit me again I will take away your TV time for today.”
5. Rethink Labels: Try not to think of your child as a “hitter”, “biter”, “meanie”, “aggressive” and instead remind yourself that your child is just having a hard time, a moment that she needs some support and compassion to get through. Beware of using labels when you are discussing your child with others as well such as “Johnny always hits when he is mad.” Children tend to believe and act on what you say about them!
6. Skip Punishment: It can seem logical to dish out a punishment when your child acts disrespectfully or hurts your feelings but this will not help them learn to be respectful. When we respond to anger and aggression with control, power and frustration a child is much more likely to shut down. Instead of learning, a child feels powerless and focuses on getting back into control (by hiting, hurting, biting, yelling, refusing to cooperate) which perpetuates the aggression and hurt.
Alternatives that Help Your Child Thrive
Instead of punishments, try implementing alternatives that help children learn self-regulation skills (how to recognize their feelings, calm down and make better choices). Some alternatives are having a calm down corner, a calm down plan, learning breathing exercises and taking a time in. In my book Twelve Alternatives to Time Out: Connected Discipline Tools for Raising Cooperative Children I share how to start using these and other alternatives as well as success stories from many families already using them.
7. Self Care: I cannot recommend this enough; take time to care for yourself, to reset and recharge. We cannot respond in a calm and collected way if we are continuously stressed out, worried and anxious. It is not selfish but rather very necessary to prevent yelling and reactive parenting.
8. Accept Responsibility: Have you taken time to talk to your child about positive ways to handle frustration? Are limits set in a clear way? Do you model self-regulation? Have you been taking the time to connect each day and to fill your child’s cup with warmth, love and attention? This isn’t about excusing aggression but seeing it as a signal, a call for support and a time to give your child some positive guidance.
Peace & Be Well,
P.S. – Toddlers and pre-schoolers with guidance typically learn to overcome developmentally appropriate aggression. If you have worries that your child is aggressive very often, refuses your guidance or is harming themselves, you or others it may be useful to talk it over with a trusted health provider, parenting coach or counselor.
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