How to prevent toddler agressions such as hitting and biting

Most mothers can tell you of the shock they’ve felt when catching their toddler biting, hitting, or otherwise “bullying” another child on the playground or during a play-date.  Or that twinge of embarrassment when a mother arrives at her child’s daycare, having missed her sweet daughter all day long, only to be approached by the teacher with “Molly bit one of her friends, today.” Toddler aggression is nearly inevitable. Anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time with young children can attest to having witnessed such behavior. But why do toddlers behave this way, and how can one prevent it?

When dealing with children under two years of age, you have to remember that although they may understand what is being said to them (receptive language), they may not always have the ability to articulate their own needs, wants, and emotions (expressive language).

Many adults, when unable to articulate how they are feeling, find other ways of expressing themselves: hugging, crying, or punching pillows – to name a few. Children are quite similar. Aggression is often a toddler’s way of saying, “I am unhappy about something, right now, and I need to get your attention!” (Gordon & Browne, 2008)

In dealing with these incidents, adults should always be sure not to overreact. It is important to assess the situation carefully in order to find out the child’s underlying need, meet that need, and be better equipped to prevent future incidents. Let’s take a look at three steps adults can take to prevent and minimize aggression in toddlers.

Observation

Whether you are a stay at home mom, a nanny, or a pre-school teacher, it is critical to keep a watchful eye on the children in your care. Observing children as they play, create, and socialize with one another is a useful tool in foreshadowing aggressive situations. Is there only one or two of a toy that everyone seems to really like? Does “Marsha” look irritated at the fact that “Sally” keeps tickling her, or tugging at her shirt? Do you hear repetitive and increasing louder cries of “Mine!” “No!” or “I do it!”? Is your furniture arranged in such a way that there are tight spaces, and freedom of movement is inhibited? Are the children well-fed, well-rested, and changed? Is there appropriate stimulation, or do they seem bored? Conversely, is there too much stimulation, so that the children are wired up? The more a regular practice of observation occurs, the better an adult can pinpoint the situations that may lead to aggressive behavior.

Modification

The next step is to modify whatever has been pin-pointed as the “trigger” of the child’s aggression. A common trigger is the battle that two children engage in when they both want a specific toy. It is important that toddlers have enough toy options when they are in groups. It is not easy for toddlers to share, as that skill does not seem to set in until children are two and three. (Brownell, Svetlova & Nichols, 2009) By having enough of the same or similar toys, toddlers will not have much of a reason to fight over them. Another common trigger lies in the furniture arrangement. Toddlers, although capable of getting around, have not completely fine-tuned those gross motor skills. If there is not enough space for freedom of movement, they may end up crowding each other, stepping on one another and falling on one another in corners or tight spaces. When this happens, all it takes is for one child to be irritated and feel claustrophobic, and as a way of saying, “Excuse me! Get out of my way!” that child bites or pushes another child.

Dramatization

When aggressive incidents do happen, however, it is very important that the adult not merely punish the offending child, but correct the offensive behavior. The first model of good behavior for a child is always that child’s care-taker. If the care-taker is aggressive (even if only verbally) with his or her spouse, children, and others in general – then it makes sense that the child who sees this behavior will imitate it. Modeling the type of behavior that one expects from his or her child is one way to ensure that those aggressive habits won’t continue on into a child’s pre-school years. However, there is another way to model appropriate behavior, and that is through re-enacting a situation.

If Johnny just snatched a toy car out of Bobby’s hand, the adult who observed it can quickly intervene before Bobby takes revenge. The adult can bend down so that he or she is at eye-level with Bobby and Johnny, and say something like: “Johnny, do you want the toy that Bobby has? Let me show you how to ask nicely for the toy.” At that point, the intervening adult can lead Johnny and Bobby in a role-play of how to ask nicely for something that is desired. Eventually, the children will learn to say things like, “I have it, please?” or “Mine, please?” instead of simply snatching the toy. And if the toy isn’t snatched out of someone’s hands, then there’ll be less of a chance of revenge biting, hitting, or pushing.

Despite the effectiveness of one’s prevention and correction measures, there will still be times when toddlers may behave aggressively. It is truly just a natural part of this stage of life. However, adults who are sure to remain vigilant in their prevention and discipline strategies, work together with their child’s teachers to re-enforce social goals, and who – most importantly – are consistent, will have a better chance of helping their toddler form good social habits.