Toddler aggression. Is it real?


Is your tot aggressive?

Toddlers hit, kick, fight, bite, scream, shout, nag, cry, and moan when they don’t get what they want. This is called acting-out behaviour, since they are acting out their difficult feelings of disappointment, frustration, jealousy and the like.

All preschool children find it difficult to contain their feelings. So, the positive of this is: what you see is what you get! If your daughter is angry, she will show you with her whole body!

Normal behaviour

Developmentally, this is a new and challenging experience for your toddler. Until around 15 months, there was a symbiotic relationship between what she wanted and what you wanted. So, if you wanted your baby to put on a sun hat, she wanted that for herself too. She did not see herself as a completely separate human being, and your wants and hers were integrally linked.

Now that she is bigger, she suddenly realises that what you want and what she wants are completely different. She wants to go outside to play in the rain, and you won’t open the door because you don’t want her to get sick. So now there is a discrepancy between your wants and her demands, and this usually causes distress, which erupts into acting-out behaviour or toddler aggression.

And to add to matters, children lack impulse control. The younger they are, the less control they have.

Read: 5 activities for toddler development

A matter of control

Our job is to help our children learn impulse control as they grow up and to help our children verbalise their feelings without acting them out. This means that we allow our children to express their feelings even if they are negative ones, but we do not allow them to express inappropriate behaviour like hitting, kicking and hurting others deliberately.

What can you do to help your toddler?

Use the ART of parenting:

Acknowledge your child’s feelings. Say something like, “I can see you are very, very cross.”
Re?flect her unfulfilled desire. Follow that up with a statement such as, “You want to play in the rain and puddles.”
Take action. Here you can set the limits or give your toddler a choice: “There is no going out to play today, but you can choose if you would like to play with the balls or the blocks.”

Taking action, as the last step in the ART process, can include a variety of actions, including logical consequences or withdrawing negative attention.

Read: 8 things you didn't know about tantrums

What this teaches 

We must teach our children what the consequences of their behaviour are in real terms. So, “If you hit me, then it will be hard for me to stay in the same room with you, and you will then have to stay alone.” Make this only two minutes if she is two, three minutes if she is three, etc.

Children seem to work for your attention and will take both the positive and the negative. If your daughter’s screaming and crying gets lots of negative attention, ironically, it can reinforce the behaviour. Why? Because she might prefer to have you busy with her in an angry way than not busy with her at all.

In this case, try to give her lots of positive attention and ignore the negative behaviour as much as possible.

The goal of our discipline is to teach rather than to go for impact. Impact just reduces everybody to childish reactions. The ART of parenting aims to give you the skills to be containing, to maintain your stance as adult, and to teach your kids how to cope with their difficult feelings and find appropriate ways to express them.

Has your toddler ever thrown a tantrum in public? How did you handle it? Send us your stories to

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