When your sweet little baby turns into a toddler that smacks you, you may be so shocked that you don’t know how to react. The second time you get hit, or pinched, or even bitten in anger, you might feel a level of rage come up that is both surprising and horrifying. Well, I am not going to shame you for any of that. I want to help you get this under control and help your child handle what is (probably) a normal level of aggression.
Yes, this is likely a normal response for toddlers. They have really limited language, hardly any understanding of their own feelings, and they live in the moment. You probably have one of the 85% of kids who are not placidly calm most of the time. If you have a very young child with a strongly spirited temperament (15-20% of the population) then you probably see this behavior at least a few times a week, if not daily. It’s still normal. And you have to deal with it or you will have a bigger, stronger, and more aggressive child next year.
Here are my suggestions to deal with aggression:
- You are going to have to use Dr. Karp’s Fast Food Rule. The first simple step is to state what you think your child is thinking, such as ” You say “No go inside”, in as short and simple a phrase as you can, based on age and level of emotion. The younger and more angry your child is, the simpler the message. Match your expression and gestures to the emotion you are stating.
- Wait for a shift in body language or level of screaming. Repeat the phrase if needed, may be more than once. Then state “No (biting, hitting, throwing)” and you say “I don’t like it” or a “We don’t hit” if your child isn’t totally out of control. If they are out of control, you have to wait until they can hear you.
- You must make it clear that YOU don’t like this behavior, not simply that it isn’t “nice”. Why? Because a personal message is more powerful to a toddler than stating that they broke the rules. I even throw in “That scared me and I don’t like it” to slightly older toddlers, to come down to their level. They might be a little surprised, but they know all about being scared. You aren’t admitting weakness, you are telling them how they crossed a line. As long as you are using body language that tells them you are still the adult in control, this helps them understand the seriousness of what they did. But the 12-18 month olds don’t get that, so wait until they are older to add that one in.
- If you were holding your child when this happened, put him down. Nothing says confuse me like saying these phrases while cuddling. If you were sitting next to them, move away a bit. The message is that they have crossed a line, because they have. They may cry about this, but that is OK. For now. Once they shift out of aggression, you can be more welcoming. Get it? Good behavior we welcome, aggression we do not. Simple.
- If you see the clouds building and you can anticipate your child will hit, bit, kick or throw, you are allowed to intervene. Pull your arm away, put them down, reach for the toy you think she will throw, or move away. You could say “I don’t want you to kick” and then offer a solution. This solution could be what you think your child needs, like a nap or a snack, or it could be something amusing, like looking in your purse for your keys. Young toddlers can switch things easily. Older toddlers sometimes commit to aggression and they won’t take the bait. But sometimes they will.
- Don’t be afraid to issue consequences. I don’t believe in physical punishment, but I have no problem with removing toys that got thrown or issuing kind time-outs. Losing the opportunity to go do something fun because you tossed your boots at my head is just fine for me. I never reward bad behavior. Ever. I have too much to lose if a child thinks that aggression will work to avoid something or receive something. Kids can hurt themselves in the process of being aggressive, and that is always going to be my fault. Not a chance.
- I always give children a chance to come back into the fold. Maybe not to get the same thing they were being aggressive about, but a new fun thing. You have to wait until they are calm to do this. This isn’t coddling. This is teaching them how I want them to behave, and that there is always a chance to do things better.