Toddlers have little bodies and BIG emotions, that they don't know how to manage yet.
That can make for a pretty dynamic combination.
They are beginning to assert their independence, while needing attention and love to validate their sense of self. They are learning new things and growing at such a rapid rate, that sometimes we might assume that they "know better" when it comes to behavior.
Yet, in any given moment, even if you have told them not to, they can explode into behaviors that are outwardly aggressive. Temper tantrums, hitting, biting, throwing, kicking...these are all things that can hurt other people and really drain parents and care-takers.
Such behaviors usually stem from an inability to cope with and control the big emotions they are feeling- positive or negative. And although they may know that you get upset when they do something like that, developmentally they do not have the impulse control or the ability to truly understand how their actions can hurt and affect others.
Helping toddlers to learn to manage their emotions and control their body's response takes time, patience, and consistency. There are a lot of great ideas and strategies explored in the articles I've included at the end of this post. I'm going to offer some general guidelines.
How we react to situations of stress and anger gives them a model of what to do. If we respond with yelling and violence, then they will learn those behaviors. A big reaction also gives them a lot of attention, which need may have been why they acted out in the first place. That attention supports the negative behavior. Responding in a calm, but firm way shows that we can handle our emotions and they can too.
Redirection and Natural Consequences
Have a plan for how you will redirect them after an incident, and what natural consequences can help them to learn. Consistency is the key here, as repetition helps them to learn new skills and builds their trust in your guidance and direction. A natural consequence can be as simple as removing the child from a situation or losing a toy for a few minutes. They don't need to be big to make a difference.
Short and Sweet
It is important for children to learn why behaviors are not appropriate, but toddlers will not respond to a long lecture- especially in that moment when they are consumed by their feelings. (Are you very receptive to instruction and correction when you are upset about something?) Consistently using the same, short statement in response to a behavior, with a consequence, can be effective and powerful.
Giving toddlers a chance to learn about behavior and feelings can go a long way as they grow and develop. Remember, the time to teach these things is not during or immediately after a big emotional outburst. Pretend play is one of the most important ways that children explore feelings and social situations. This can be a great opportunity to model how to identify and react to your emotions. Age appropriate literature can also offer a backdrop for learning about these things.
Keep it Positive
Toddlers live in a world of "no" and "don't." Making an effort to notice positive behavior, and to focus on what they can and should do will help make the world seem a little less restrictive and frustrating. It will also reinforce their learning of positive skills and behaviors. They are also at a tender stage of development because they are learning to feel either shame or confidence for who they are. If there is no love and positive direction to counteract the negative, then they will only learn to feel shame. But as we respond to them with patience and consistency, helping them to learn the boundaries through consequences, teaching, and positive support, their foundation of self-worth will be much more confident.
Hitting, Biting, and Pushing? from Practical Parenting
Aggressive Toddler Behavior: What to Do from What to Expect
Understanding and Responding to Children Who Bite from NAEYC for Families
6 Peaceful Solutions for Hitting and Anger from Simple Kids
Toddlers and Challenging Behavior from Zero to Three
Helping Young Children Channel Their Aggression from Zero to Three
P.S. I recently stumbled upon this blog that gives a more humorous perspective on the life of a toddler. Enjoy! :)
Behavior Tools is a series about understanding and managing behavior with young children. The more we understand children and their behavior, the better we are able to teach them how to make good choices and build a solid foundation of self worth and confidence. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to helping a child learn appropriate behavior, which is why we need a lot of different tools and strategies to draw upon when we work with young children.