Being a parent to a toddler is filled with precious moments of joy and silliness. However, sometimes you may experience some “terrible two’s” hiccups. Read on for some tips to help your toddler learn and develop into a happy, healthy child.
(I originally posted this article on Bronson Hospital’s blog site on February 10, 2022).
A health article from Dr. John Spitzer, a pediatrician at Bronson Primary Care Partners.
What can be more frustrating than not being able to find your words to express your unhappiness, frustration, or anger? Welcome to the toddler years! As parents, these moments are filled with joy and silliness. Sometimes though, we may lose our patience with our little ones because we don’t know how to help them.
In fact, sometimes their aggressive behaviors can cause us emotional and physical pain. Not that they mean for that to happen, but they are simply expressing their negative energy in unintended ways. So, what goes into their response, and why is a 2-year-old more likely to have that aggressive temper outburst compared to an older child?
Factors That Go into An Aggressive Temper Outburst
There are three main factors that go into a toddler’s behavior, be it positive or negative. Keeping these factors in mind can help us navigate these difficult toddler years and their tantrums.
- The child’s age and development. Part of a toddler’s frustration in dealing with life’s challenges is not being able to express their feelings. If you think about your child’s development, you’ll notice that a lot of energy goes into gross and fine motor development for the first two years. But somewhere around 18 months to two years, their energy begins to focus on language development. Typically, an 18-month-old might have around 10-15 words in their vocabulary, rising to about 25-50 words and putting together two-word sentences by two years of age, and exploding to about 1,000 words by three years of age. A typical four-year-old will have too many words to count, talk in paragraphs and tell stories. It is no wonder that two-year-old Tommy hits Jack on the head when Jack takes his truck. It is easier for Tommy to release those hurt and distrustful feelings with a hit than trying to verbalize his feelings.
- The child’s temperament and sensitivity. What is temperament? According to the Webster Dictionary, it is “a characteristic or habitual inclination or emotional response” to activity going on around us. It is our predisposition to act and react in certain ways. Some children tend to get excited, physical, or emotional easily. Some children tend to be sensitive with their feelings or with touch. These types of toddlers are more likely to respond to an adverse event with anger and aggression.
- The child’s past experiences and social environment. Children are constantly observing and trying to learn from their environment. Sometimes, unintended adverse experiences can create an imprint in a child’s mind, then becoming a way for them to solve problems. From remarks of shame such as, “What’s the matter with you?” or “You should know better!” to overt childhood trauma, negative events can become imprints in a child’s psyche and may later come out in a negative way.
Responding to Aggressive Behavior and Tantrums
Once a toddler begins to display some aggressive behavior and tantrums, how do we help them out?
In the moment:
- Stay calm. As a parent, we always want to be in control of the situation. Trust yourself that you know what to do. This acknowledgment will give you a sense of peace and serenity that will allow you to think clearly. If necessary, take a minute or two to collect yourself. Your child needs to see you calm and in control, while they are “spinning out of control.”
- Survey the scene and situation. Try to put yourself in your toddler’s shoes. This may give you some empathy to appreciate what they might be feeling.
- Stop the aggressive behavior or tantrum. While staying calm and very matter of fact, you may say something like, “No-no, we don’t hit.” or “No, you cannot bite.” Then, you want to move into a different location to help your child gain control. Depending on the location and circumstances, you may find yourself placing your toddler in a “safe space” (see below. Sit down and hold your child in a hug (it may take a couple of minutes). Or, put your child in the stroller. During this time, you may find yourself giving some words of reassurance, like “You are going to be ok,” “I know you are upset and it’s ok to feel angry,” or maybe “Take a deep breath, let’s work together on this.”
- Move on. Once you feel your toddler has settled down, try to change the scenery or activity if necessary. If you feel that maybe they have hit a state of boredom, maybe let them run outside in the backyard. Perhaps suggest they try a different activity. This will help reset the field and rules for their interaction with others.
In the moment, we are simply trying to put out a fire. Eventually, what we would like to do is be more proactive and try to minimize these aggressive behaviors and tantrums. In any event, make sure your reaction is appropriate to the circumstances and not an overreaction. Always try to avoid yelling or further traumatizing a situation. Remember, your child is learning from you at that moment as well and will copy your response, positive or negative, as a learned behavior.
Long-term solutions to help minimize tantrums:
It is difficult for children to learn when their brain has been flooded with hormones and emotions. The best way to teach children in the long run is to address potential misbehaviors when they are calm, before they have a meltdown. Here are some suggestions to empower your toddler to solve problems:
- Teach them to self-regulate. Teaching “self-regulation” skills can start as early as the toddler years. The two big challenges toddlers face not having enough words to express themselves, and not being able to control their impulsive behavior. As adults, we can put words to their emotions so they can learn to recognize them. Try phrases like “I know you are angry,” “I know you are hurt,” or “I know you are frustrated.”
Adding new words to your child’s vocabulary that help them to identify their emotions will help them move to the next step: learning how to relax. You can practice relaxation techniques with them such as deep breathing, using the belly muscles to breathe, using their arms to stretch up and out or tensing and releasing their arms and legs.
- Play charades or visualize adverse situations. When your child is calm and in a good mood, act out being mad, frustrated, or disappointed. Ask them how they would make things better or feel better in the acted-out situation. This exercise will help them create empathy and understanding. Listen to their thoughts and ideas, it’s amazing what they can come up with!
- Help your child feel confident and secure. Keep a regular routine at home. This creates a space that is safe, secure, and predictable. Some great times to have a routine in place are mealtimes, bedtime, nap time and playtime. Children like predictability and feel confident when they know when the next activity is coming up.
- Create a safe space. Let your toddler create an area in your house that they consider “safe and cozy.” This should be an area that they can be comfortable going to when they get upset or frustrated. This can be any area in the room or perhaps a tent that you have propped up. Let them choose and create the area themselves. In this area, let them have some pillows, stuffed animals, books or objects that they can safely squeeze, such as squishy balls or larger foam balls.
- Create space for child play with books and toys. Teach them what areas in the house that have “nice things” or “things we don’t touch.” Children do better when they know the rules.
- Play soothing music during the day. Children tend to be more relaxed and may listen better when home feels peaceful. Playing classical or “spa” music at home will help children find a sense of peacefulness that they can try to tap into when having a dispute with another child.
- Reassess as your toddler grows up. Ask yourself if your child is developing enough to be able to use the right words and solve problems by themselves. Supervise your child carefully when they are involved in disputes with playmates. If a disagreement is minor, keep your distance and let the children solve it on their own. However, you must intervene when children get physical, or the issue continues even after they’re told to stop.
When to Seek Help
Despite your well-intentioned efforts to manage your toddler’s aggression and tantrums, you may still struggle sometimes. That is okay and completely normal! If you notice your child is showing signs of the following behaviors, consider setting up an appointment with your child’s pediatrician.
- Your toddler’s aggression is persistent to the point that it is interfering with a healthy and functioning home.
- Your toddler’s aggression is interfering with their social development and ability to play with others.
- Your toddler’s aggression is having an impact at daycare, childcare, or preschool.
AAP HealthyChildren.org, Toddler Aggressive Behavior
ZeroToThree.Org, Aggressive Behavior in Toddlers
www.parents.com, Taming Toddler Aggression
AAP HealthyChildren.Org, Childhood Trauma & 3 Ways to Help Kids Cope