Updated: Apr 11
Every toddlers WILL have moments with unkind behaviors.
The way adults respond will help determine if these acts continue. What YOU do WILL make a difference! Adults can respond to aggressive acts in ways that decrease unkind behaviors such as biting, hitting, kicking, and pushing and increase toddler's self-regulation skills for the future.
To learn more, choose your preferred way of learning!
*Listen to Naptime Nuggets #52 for stories and strategies to build toddler kindness during difficult moments.
*Read the list of helpful responses below.
*Check out the 22 second videos showing a response to toddler aggression that incorporates a lot of the tips!
I remember my daughter at 1 1/2, running toward me with her arms open wide... and then taking both hands and clocking me across the head.
My instinctual reaction? To strike back with my strong words and a small dose of time out. I needed a paradigm shift. Now I have one. I know now, when toddlers are overwhelmed with feelings, experience a strong impulse to do something aggressive, and do it, they cannot help themselves. I could not have expected my toddler to become filled with excitement, run toward me, and then stop herself and say, "OOOOH Mama, I am SOOO excited! Let's jump like frogs together!"... Just as she would not be able to read from a book or do the long jump/
When toddlers are experiencing these difficulties, we must remember, they are missing the skills and brain development to respond appropriately.
The most helpful way to look at aggressive acts? This action is a cry for HELP! When toddlers experience difficulty, adults can provide the HELP they need to gain the skills that will improve self-control in the future.
During tense moments, how can we help toddlers attune to the feelings of themselves and others and increase the likelihood of appropriate responses in the future?
Remember from Part 1: Teaching Toddlers to Be Kind, in order for a toddler to "hear" what we are saying, we need to be in a moment of "joint attention." This older infant is in a moment of bliss (exploring another child - a very interesting specimen). She is not listening yet. We must get a mutual gaze so she is aware we are sending a message. (I think of when I am designing a PPT presentation and my husband walks in to chat. I literally cannot hear him! He will need to let me transition my brain if I am to hear him and retain our conversation.)
HELP during difficult moments.
1) Approach quickly and calmly. Avoid yelling or scolding as this can create a "Fight", "Freeze" or "Flee" stress response in an already upset or excited child. Just get in proximity to help ASAP. Remain patient and kind.
"Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” 14th Dalai Lama
2) Get at the children's level and check in. Communicate the message to the child who has been hurt, “Are you okay?"
3) Show the behavior is unkind. Using mostly nonverbals and make sure you are 100% clear, "Ouch, biting hurts." When upset, the toddlers "thinking brain", the area that uses language, is largely turned off. So, words will not resonate at this time. Save your energy to tune in to the experiences each child is having.
4) Empathize with the child who has been hurt. “Oh no. Jack is sad. He is crying. Poor Jack." Show true empathy and caring for both children. "I am sorry this happened. Sad."
5) Help both children “communicate”. In the video below, you can see this in action! This step is addressing the real problem (the children do not have the skills to resolve conflict in a helpful manner and communicate their needs). You are providing a model of how to do this appropriately, with words.
6) Show the toddler how to make amends. Pat the hurt child on the back and offer a hug, ice, or a band aid. Encourage caring between the children. Do not force a child to apologize but instead, to make amends. Toddlers cannot reflect yet and may just pick up the pattern - I hit and then say “Sorry”. Instead, encourage the child to
a. Get ice to help jack.
b. Help Jack get what he needs - "Jack, do you need a hug? A pat on the back? Space?"
Make sure to stay 100% clear. Unkind is NEVER okay. Even if a child is biting in retaliation, keep the same message - We NEVER hit out friends. Hitting is NOT okay. We use words. We ask for help. We say "NO! STOP THAT!" We never bite.
Watch this great 22 second video to see toddler coaching in action.
Note how she is
*Down at their level and maintaining a sense of calm
*Helping them learn to communicate with words instead of actions (a life skill)
*Creating a block between the children to show, clearly, she is not going to let the children hit each other
Also note, she is not
*Trying to show who is "right" or "wrong"
*Punishing (something that can get in the way of learning as it changes the focus to the mean adult rather than the act)
*Yelling or instilling fear.
Instead, she is instilling a life lesson. We use words not our fists to work through conflict. LOVE THIS!
The reality is, toddlers will take many lessons to learn to walk, read, and behave. Channeling aggression into appropriate actions will take time. However, with your guidance, support, teaching, and calm - toddler will learn! What you do WILL make a difference!
Another Helpful Resource
Addressing Toddler Aggression in the moment:
Zero to Three outlines a three step process for addressing aggression.
-In this great article, the authors Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian first outline what to expect from 0-3 years
-For "How You Can Respond to Aggression in 3 Steps" skip down half-way.
-They end with, "When to seek help".