How to Stop Aggressive Behavior in Toddler
Please help…my son (2.5 years old) is showing toddler aggressive behavior. He keeps attacking his dad (my husband) by hitting, punching, kicking, biting, screaming, growling, etc. He will occasionally do this to myself and his little brother albeit not as often. I have tried so many techniques to stop it. I’ve tried redirecting, putting his own arm in the way of a bite so he can feel the pain and then explain that biting hurts, saying things like feet are for the floor, I will not let you hurt daddy and moving him away, ignoring, shouting, pretending to cry, really crying, etc. My husband is finding it hard to keep his cool.
This has been happening at varying degrees for 8/9months, so he is tired, and I don’t blame him. I have been trying to increase my 1-2-1 time with my son. I thought this behavior was to get attention from me but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. If anything it seems to be getting worse.
Some background: we are a military family and moved to Cyprus a year ago. Our toddler has a new (6month old) brother, he is still breastfed and co-sleeps. My 2.5-year-old stopped napping for the most part. I do try to get him to nap most days but it’s hit and miss. He is usually slightly better if he naps but then he won’t go to bed in the evening until very late. My son is kind, gentle, and a loving boy outside of this aggressive behavior. I really don’t know what else to do or where to turn to, please help.
Physical Discipline May Cause Aggressive Behavior in Toddler
In our pediatric practice, we have a lot of military families. Therefore we have some experience counseling these families to adapt to the challenges of being in the military and practicing Attachment Parenting. Your toddler is blessed that you both have continued to give him high doses of nurturing.
Our first impression reading the first sentence of your question is: Where is your toddler getting this behavior from? In general, military training is, of necessity, strict. Sometimes that carries over into how discipline is perceived in the home, especially if a certain (even small) amount of physical discipline is used. In several of our parenting books, especially The Discipline Book, we explain the pros and cons of spanking and show how the use of spanking can backfire even when it is done with loving intention (the only way it could ever be OK).
You don’t mention the use of spanking with your toddler. But just in case that is the case, we encourage you to read up on it in our books. There are some books out there that make the case that spanking is an important tool in the discipline. And spanking may appear to work with some children. But there is always a downside, in our experience.
Recognizing a Sensitive Child
So, let’s assume you are not using physical correction. Then what? If your son is overly sensitive (as many little boys are), celebrate his sensitivity. Sensitive hearts are a gift to humanity. Yet, the more sensitive a child is, the more he needs wiser discipline strategies than simply taking an authoritarian tone that can cause him to feel threatened. After all, in his mind, he has already been “demoted” from only child status!
The new sibling syndrome can catch parents unaware, especially if you have prepared him carefully since the time you shared with him the news of a new sibling’s arrival. Counting back to when that preparation might have started – when you were 6 or 7 months along – his acting out could have been connected to that “good news”. If so, you have not only a sensitive son but also a very perceptive and intelligent one: he could figure things out ahead of time. He somehow sees his Daddy as the strong one who can “take it” when his imagination takes over and he becomes, in his mind anyway, the second-class member of the family. He sees his Daddy as loving and accepting and the safe person who can handle his “angry bear” stuff.
So, if all our assumptions are close enough, I would suggest you look at how you can set boundaries around his aggressive behavior. You already are doing some things to help, such as giving your son more one-on-one time. One-on-one time with Dad might even be better. When a new child comes on the scene, the time lost with Mom can be balanced with more time with Dad, doing things that are more interesting even. If you can use a baby sling to manage the new baby, you will have more mobility and two hands free for your toddler’s needs.
It looks like it’s not helping when you say to your son, “I will not let you hurt Daddy”. He may be just seeing that somehow as permission to do so if Dad himself doesn’t give a clear, firm, but kind direction. “No hitting”, “No kicking”, “Now, let’s go for a walk instead”. With a sensitive child, you must watch the tone of voice and the facial expressions you use. (Dads and moms can look really scary when they are angry). If he feels scared, he will react to that perception.
I learned with one of my kids that I could simply not show him my anger. It was good training for me, not easy to change. So, try that, along with a clear boundary setting. For example, instead of correcting him for grabbing for something he should not have, instead of smacking his hand, yelling NO, or grabbing it back, try saying “This is not for Johnny” in a calm voice, stated matter of fact. “Not for Johnny” is easier for him to hear and to him, it makes more sense. Keep directions short and simple and calm.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
These are just some random examples of how you can try to get inside his head and imagine what his mind is telling him. When I had a situation that needed intuitive mothering, I would try to imagine what I would want my mother (or father) to do if I were the child. Dads can do this, too, but it won’t come naturally to a dad.
When my husband saw me deal with our toddler’s aggressive behavior in a way that surprised him (all he could think to do was to react in an angry way – parents are human and we have our “buttons”), he asked me how I knew just what to do. I told him I imagined I was the child, how I put myself in her shoes as the proverb goes. Then I did what I imagined I would want my parent to do for me. Remembering that children do want firm direction and support, and this doesn’t mean you become a pushover for unacceptable behavior. That can even be scarier to a child!
Find Like-Minded Support
Another suggestion is that you find a support group in your community with other moms. La Leche League is one, and there may be a playgroup of like-minded moms in your area. A great resource for learning how other moms/parents handle challenges is getting together and learn from one another. And you may wind up teaching another mom from your own experiences. Some one-on-one time with a mom who has “been there” is helpful. For me, being part of an attachment parenting playgroup or toddler LLL group went a long way to helping me stay balanced as a mom.
For more information on aggressive behavior in toddlers, read “14 Ways to Stop Biting and Hitting” on our website.
Martha is the mother of Dr. Bill’s eight children, a registered nurse, a former childbirth educator, a La Leche League leader, and a lactation consultant. Martha is the co-author of 25 parenting books and is a popular lecturer and media guest drawing on her 18 years of breastfeeding experience with her eight children (including Stephen with Down Syndrome and Lauren, her adopted daughter). Martha speaks frequently at national parenting conferences and is noted for her advice on how to handle the most common problems facing today’s mothers with their changing lifestyles. Martha is able to connect with both full-time, stay-at-home mothers and working mothers because she herself has experienced both styles of parenting. Martha takes great pride in referring to herself as a “professional mother” and one of her favorite quips when someone voices their concern about her having eight children in an already populated world is: “The world needs my children.”