Dealing with aggressive behaviour in toddlers

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

toddlers playing together

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

What type of behaviour is this?

“It isn’t helpful to label this behaviour as ‘bullying’,” says child psychologist Dr Rachel Calam. These acts of ‘aggression’ occur so often – and are usually unplanned and without understanding of the consequences, she explains. Bullying, on the other hand, involves the persistent physical or verbal abuse of another child or children. It is characterised by intent to hurt, is often deliberate, and has an awareness of the impact of the bullying behaviour. “It’s much more constructive to think in terms of helping the child behave better. It’s a social learning process,” says Dr Calam. Not everyone agrees with this, though. “I agree that it’s important to define ‘bullying’ but how do we eradicate it if we don’t label it?” asks Christine Macintyre, educational consultant and author of Bullying and Young Children (Routledge, Ј17.99). “The fact is that some young children DO bully. And, if it is not dealt with in the early years setting, it will continue – and progress - through the school years and into adulthood.” She refers to the increasing numbers of disruptive children arriving at primary school, and the number of exclusions among junior school children.

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?”

“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!”

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