Believe it or not, toddler and child aggression is actually completely normal! Especially around the “terrible two’s”, when they are craving independence and control and around the age of 4-5 when they are developing more independence.
Knowing how to control a tantrum is one thing, but managing an “angry toddler or child” is a whole other thing! Toddlers and young children have not yet grasped the technique of emotional control. This is why they are so much quicker than (most) adults to throw a tantrum.
Part of being a parent is teaching your child how to regulate their emotions, express their feelings and how to deal with control issues.
All of us have had those times when our toddler has had a problem with grabbing things or hitting other children…The normal response of a parent? Telling the child off!
Has this actually worked for you? Did your child stop grabbing, hitting or throwing the tantrum? Nope! Otherwise, you would not be here reading this right now.
Telling a toddler or young child off every time they cry, or constantly telling them “no” can negatively impact their emotional and mental state. It makes them feel as if they can not share how they feel or ask for something they want.
Resulting in an even angrier child!
Check out THIS CHEAT SHEET for 24 ways to say no, without actually saying no!
Toddlers and young children also lack something called “impulse control”, which is how we, as adults can stop ourselves from doing something that is not a good idea.
For example, if we are angry with someone, we know that straight up punching them in the face is not a good way to manage the situation. The same way we know that shouting and swearing or hitting and throwing is not going to solve anything either.
Children are yet to learn how to manage these emotions, so it is our jobs as parents, teachers and role-models to teach them how to manage their emotions in a way that does not end in violence or a shouting match.
Nobody said this was going to be easy, but it IS achievable – as long as you stay consistent and calm in your own approach.
Teach Your Child About Feelings
One of the main reasons that toddlers and young children throw tantrums and lash out is because they are feeling emotions that they don’t know how to manage.
Teaching your toddler simple words to describe their feelings (happy, sad, scared) can help them to understand their emotions more.
Using “social stories” (books about a certain thing – potty training, happy faces, a big brave bunny that stops children being scared of the dark etc.) are a great way to get your child recognising how people should act.
You can also link the “feeling words” to how your child actually looks or feels at a specific moment in time.
Saying something like, “You look really sad. What’s wrong honey?” can help them to recognise and label the emotion and try to explain what is wrong.
Social stories are very helpful in getting a child to understand anger in a better way. Books like, “I feel angry” by Brian Moses are brilliant for this!
Use an “Anger Thermometer”
Anger charts (also known as anger thermometers) are a visual reminder and cue for children to help them identify how angry they are feeling and to recognise the “warning signs” of anger.
These kinds of visual aids can teach children to manage their own emotions and feelings, as well as their actual behaviours.
You can buy ready-made charts, or save some money by simply making your own.
How to make an anger thermometer
Draw a line (or a thermometer if you are confident in your drawing skills!) on a large piece of paper. Size A3 is best as it is big enough for your child to see from across the room.
Get your child to help you colour in the thermometer (red at the top)
Write the numbers 0-10 inside of the thermometer (0 at the bottom, 10 at the top)
Write little notes next to some of the numbers (0=Not angry at all, 5=Quite a bit angry, 10=Most angry I’ve ever been!)
Draw a happy face at 0, a neutral face at 5 and a sad/angry face at 10
Once you have created your thermometer, cut a small piece of cardboard out with your child’s name on it and stick some blu-tack/sticky tack on the back and let your child stick their name tag wherever on the chart they feel at the time.
Let them move it whenever they need to let you know how they are feeling.
Explain to your child how each stage of anger physically feels.
Think about when you begin to get angry. How do you feel?
Your face and head get warm, you feel tense, you might clench your teeth or make fists with your hands. At each stage of anger, physical signs become more intense, to the point where you might even end up wanting to hit or throw something, or shout and swear!
If you are able to teach your child these “warning signs”, they will be able to recognise warning signs and know how angry they are more quickly – resulting in less anger overall.
You know your own child better than anyone, so you are the best person to make decisions on which behaviour management techniques will work best with your child.
Many schools use a system in which children can take ownership of their own behaviour – in the form of a “time-out” card.
Give your child a visual and physical card or toy that they can show you if they are feeling frustrated or upset.
Train your child to use this.
Every time you see them getting a little stressed out, show the card/toy and explain that they can calm down for a minute or two before continuing with the activity.
This shows your child that you are aware of their feelings and provides them with an opportunity to take control of their own feelings before anything gets out of hand.
Mindfulness for children
Mindfulness is a fantastic way to get children aged 5-12 (when they can understand the instructions) really taking notice of their own feelings and bodies.
Although, mindfulness and meditation practices are great at all ages!
Teach your child how to breathe properly, how to take deep breaths to calm down and help them to focus by counting up to 10, taking a short walk or paying attention to the noises of the environment around them.
Even stopping what they are doing to do jumping jacks/star jumps is a fun way to help them “centre” themselves again.
There are a ton of really awesome meditation practices for kids on YouTube, like these two:
Recognise and reward the positive behaviour
Giving praise to a child is the best way to keep them behaving well. If you know that you will get something good, why would you do something bad?
Every time your child does something good, make sure your shower them with praise!
Simple things like asking to play with a toy, rather than just taking it, shows that they are developing their social and emotional skills and are trying to do the right thing – as they have seen and been taught.
Try to spend more time praising positive behaviour than sanctioning or pointing out the negative behaviour. This also demonstrates to your child that you are more interested in them when they are behaving well and doing the right thing.
Be specific in your praise. There is no point in telling a toddler, “Well done!” for sitting down when eating. They probably won’t have a clue what you are saying it for. Instead, say something like, “Well done for sitting down when you are eating!”.
This reminds your child what the good behaviour actually is. Showing that you are noticing the good behaviour will also help your child to become more confident in their own behaviour control.
Use a simple reward chart where you add a star or a “dot” sticker for each positive behaviour. Once your child has reached a certain amount of stickers, they get a bigger reward like a new toy or a day doing whatever activities they want to do.
Here is a free list of 40 Fun Things you can do with your toddler or young child.
This is also a great tool for getting the child to remind themselves of the rules.
You can point to the reward chart and ask the child what kind of behaviour you want to see from them (nice hands, inside voice, no throwing, no hitting etc.)
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Set clear boundaries
Everyone needs boundaries – especially children.
You can create a rules board which displays clear rewards and sanctions (with simple pictures for toddlers to understand).
This website for autism awareness has some fabulous ideas for how to use visual cues for children. These signs and symbols are very useful for younger children who do and do not have autism.
Hitting = Time out
Using bad words = Revoke screen time
Snatching or throwing = Toys taken away
Not hitting when angry = Stay up 10 minutes later at bedtime
Putting toys away = Stay up 10 minutes later at bedtime
Asking to share = Extra time on iPad or toys
A consistent approach to behaviour management is essential in keeping those boundaries clear and in teaching your child that you mean business.
How you respond to a behaviour directly influences how a child will behave next time. Try to respond to a behaviour in the same way every single time a behaviour happens – whether it be a positive or negative behaviour.
If you allow your child to get away with something once, they will expect to get away with it again next time. If you sanction them the next time, they will not only be confused, but also frustrated. Understandably.
Your child needs to be clear with what they are and are not allowed to do. If you show consistency, your child will know what to expect, which helps to keep behaviour positive and mindful.
A few months before my daughter was turning 2-years old, she got really excited when we were playing, started flapping her hands in excitement and suddenly slapped me in my face!
She actually knocked my glasses off!
I said “Ouch. No hitting. Hitting hurts” and showed a sad face so she knew she hurt me. I waited a few seconds before saying, “show me your kind hands”. We continued playing and I said, “look, mummy is smiling because I’m happy we are playing. Smiling (with a nod and a happy face).”
She did it again about a week later. This time, I did the same thing (with the sad face), but I also took her off my lap, sat her on the floor and repeated the same phrase as above, “No hitting. Hitting hurts. I won’t play with you if you hit me.”
This time, she looked at me confused, so I softly stroked her face and said, “See…kind hands. Softly.”
She copied me and returned the action on my face.
The third and final time she did this (a few days later), I did the same thing again – placing her away from me this time!
Again, I said, “Ouch. No hitting. Hitting hurts! I won’t play with you if you hit me”. I then made her sit there for about 15 seconds (ages for a nearly 2-year old).
She came over to me and stroked my face, softly – like I showed her a week or so before.
She has not hit me since! Yay!
Create reasonable consequences and enforce them immediately
It is understandable for your child to get upset or frustrated about something, but they must learn how to handle that emotion. They need to know that they can not get away with displaying negative behaviour.
A basic rule of life (and maybe even science) is that every action has a reaction.
All consequences must be immediate!
If your child hits another child because they won’t let your child play with a toy, pull your child away and explain that that kind of behaviour is wrong. Tell them, “No hitting. Play with kind hands.”
Let your child sit away from the other child in a “time out” zone or seat for a few minutes to calm down and watch the other child playing. This will show them that they will miss out on the fun if they do not act appropriately.
If your child is a toddler, do not try to reason with them by asking them to imagine how it would feel being the other child. Children are not able to put themselves in another child’s place until they reach the age of around 4 years old.
That kind of reasoning is not something a toddler can do.
If your child physically attacks you (hits, scratches you or bites you etc.), tell them they have hurt you and show your sad face. You can even try my method above.
If they continue to do it, move yourself away from them immediately.
You can stand on the other side of stair gates (the ones you use to separate rooms for toddlers) or just go and stand or sit in a different place in the room.
Once your child sees you moving away, they will start to understand that they can’t hurt you because you will stop giving them attention if they do.
If you have nowhere to move to, or you are outside of the house, move your child into a “time-out” area.
When you move away, don’t talk to them! Just move.
If they follow you – which they almost definitely will, then you can explain why you have moved.
Hitting hurts. Show mummy your kind hands and I will come and play again.
You can also take away toys or privileges. This is very effective in teaching consequences to young children and toddlers.
If they can’t play nicely, they won’t play at all!
Keep yourself calm and model positive behaviour
The single worst thing you can do when a child is having a tantrum or an aggressive meltdown is to respond with more shouting or anger!
Smacking your child, or calling them “naughty” will never change your child’s behaviour.
All that happens in this situation is your child gets even more angry and frustrated, and ultimately learns from you that this behaviour is acceptable. They are likely to begin exhibiting this behaviour too, especially if they witness it on a regular basis.
Yes, it can be very difficult to keep your cool if you are outside and your child hits you or another child continuously. You tell them off and they hit you. Then you try to manage the situation but your child throws themselves on the floor!
But, you can do it. You can hold your own – you are the grown up! Just take a breath and step back while you collect your thoughts.
When you are ready to confront the situation, calmly approach your child and remind them of what type of behaviour you want to see. If need be, give them a chance to have their tantrum and then use these techniques to calm your child.
Try to also not say, “No!” for every bad behaviour they exhibit. This only teaches them that the word is acceptable and freely used.
Nobody wants a “no, no, no!” child running around!
You might also want to have a few methods in the back pocket for when you need to calm both yourself and the child down.
Taking a bath with some bath bombs like knightley’s adventures, going for a walk, whatever it takes as long as you can both calm down as much as possible.
Don’t forget to try out these alternatives for the word “NO!”
Hold restorative conversations
For older children (from age 4-5), one of the most effective (and proven) ways to curve a child’s aggressive behaviour is by holding restorative conversations.
A restorative conversation is where you talk to a child about their behaviour after the issue has occurred. It gives the child the opportunity to take ownership of their behaviour and to see why it happened and what problems it caused.
Rather than focussing on telling your child off, you will focus on how each person was feeling and what you can both do in the future to prevent it from happening again.
For example, after an aggressive problem has occurred, sit your child down and ask them the following questions:
Tell me what you were thinking and feeling at the time?
What have you thought about it since?
Who has been affected and in what way?
How could you have handled things differently?
What do you think needs to happen to make things right?
How will you try to make sure this does not happen again?
When is it NOT “normal” bad behaviour?
There are many “normal”, mostly harmless reasons for why a child might have regular aggression, but some of the time it can be a sign of something more serious.
Sometimes, no matter what you try or do, it just does not seem to make any difference at all. If your child is having regular meltdowns and emotional outbursts that are getting in the way of their every day life, or if you feel like your child has an anger problem that you can’t seem to calm or control, please seek the advice of a doctor.
If you are a single mother who is having problems coping with your child’s behaviour, have a read of this post. However, if you are feeling depressed or overly anxious, please also contact your doctor.