Dealing with aggressive behaviour in toddlers

Advice on what to do if your toddler bites, pulls hair or has other challenging behaviour

It’s the scene every parent dreads: the screeches of an upset three-year-old, running to her parent, because your child has just bitten her. Hurtful behaviour - snatching toys, scratching, biting, pinching and kicking - is actually very common in young children but knowing how to deal with it can be quite hard. 

baby-215867_1280.jpg

Why do they do it?

Young children explore their environment by putting things into their mouths, and by touch, so biting and pinching can be an extension of that, explains Dr Mandy Bryon, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Alternatively, aggression can sometimes be a sign of jealousy – triggered by the arrival of a new baby in the family, for instance. Children tend to show natural aggression during the “terrible twos” when they want to have control over their surroundings and engage in aggressive outbursts when they can’t. Tiredness and frustration are also triggers. Biters often tend to be the youngest child in a family because they feel small and powerless compared to older siblings who seem stronger, can communicate better and are more able to get what they want.

Some children are overwhelmed by the new environment of a nursery or playgroup. There is so much choice and equipment available and learning to share and co-operate takes time. Until then, their frustration and confusion is directed at other children. These early years play a huge role in how the child develops. “By the time children start pre-school they have already established certain habits and patterns of behaviour through their experiences at home and with siblings,” explains Jane Dawkins, a nursery and reception teacher, and mum-of-two, from Lincoln. “For instance, an only child may simply not be used to sharing and turn-taking.” It’s important to tackle this behaviour, rather than hope it will go away in time, as research shows that children who don’t learn to manage aggressive behaviour are more likely to become aggressive adults.

How do you deal with it?

  • Beware of labels within the family (the bright one, the quiet one, the naughty one) warns Dr Tania Byron, clinical psychologist and author of Little Angels (BBC books, Ј9.99). “Labelling children sets them up to behave in a certain way and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
  • Ensure consistency. There’s no point in mum calmly and firmly explaining that pinching is wrong if Granny just ignores it.
  • Don’t shout and yell. Try asking your child how they would have felt if they were on the receiving end of the shove/ bite/kick. Ask your child: “Would you like it if you were hurt like that?”
  • Use books or cartoon animation to reinforce positive behaviour and why hurting others is not nice. This is a great way to encouraging them to minimise it. 
  • If you are present and you see this behaviour, calmly remove them away from their play and explain in simple terms why you have done this so they understand. 
  • Keep a diary of incidents and potential triggers as this is a great way of understanding if there is something specific that may cause this. It is also helpful if you are getting support from a Health Visitor or nursery worker to share the diary as there may be patterns to the behaviour. 
  • Keep calm when dealing with challenging behaviour and take time out when you need it. Sometimes recharging your batteries as and when you can can help you deal with these situations with more patience.

“There is no point trying to reason with a child who is having a tantrum,” explains Christine Macintyre. “But, when they have calmed down, insist they say sorry if they have hurt another child.

Nurseries and schools should have a policy for dealing with inconsiderate behaviour. “Most problems tend to occur during outside play when children get over-excited, says teacher Jane Dawkins. “If after two warnings, a child continues to bite/kick/hit, I make them sit inside for two minutes. Seeing all the other children playing happily and not being able to join in is usually enough.”

Pay more attention to the ‘victim’ so your child knows that behaving badly is not a way to get attention. And use praise and positive attention to reinforce good behaviour. “Think for yourself how praise and positive feedback, rather than nagging or complaining, makes you far more likely to want to do things to please,” says Tania Byron. It works for children too!”

This page was updated on January 2019

How we can help you

If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

What do you think of our website? Your opinion matters, please share your views by filling in our survey.