Half a year ago, a national newspaper stated in big letters that toddlers are “the most violent people on Earth.” Unfair? Most likely, yes. According to Kathy Lynn, parent educator, “violent is too harsh a word to be applied to toddlers. They are most likely the most frustrated group of people but by no means the most violent. They don’t know how to communicate their needs, so they get frustrated.” Almost every toddler will display signs of aggression at some point. Hitting, pushing, biting – they are all there. What’s a parent to do?
Why does it happen?
Some blame the parenting style. Some blame the circumstances. Some blame the rough-housing.
“Parents should never bite, kick, smack, slap, or punch their children playfully. Children do not have a perspective of what is too much; they generalize behaviour and copy it… Whoever is playing with the child should be very gentle, controlled, and modelling appropriate behaviour,” says Gloria Burima, registered psychologist in Victoria. When the parents playfully bite or punch, the child gets the wrong message and he might end up doing the same to other children because to him that’s playing!
Parents need to identify any possible sources of frustration. Maybe the daily schedule needs to be changed, or maybe they are just not able to accomplish as much. As Lynn explains, the more there is that toddlers cannot do, the more frustrated they get.
If toddlers who attend daycare start displaying signs of aggression, rather than labelling the child as violent, parents should observe the child in that particular environment. Most times, they can identify the things that set their child off. Whether the child is being picked on by other children or he doesn’t like that particular daycare, parents should spring into action and either change the daycare provider or find a way to resolve the conflict.
Punishment vs. Discipline
Nope, they are not the same. Parents should opt for disciplining rather than punishing the child.
“Development psychologists try to help parents understand that it is preferable to focus on discipline – a suitable and meaningful consequence for something that should stop or not be repeated – to help the child learn not to repeat undesirable behaviours,” says Burima. Toddlers as young as 14 months understand from their parents’ expression that some of their actions are wrong. Disciplining them though, should be an act of kindness and understanding, as they lack social skills. And even if they seem to understand they’ve upset the parent, the real consequences of a particular action elude them. Their curiosity and desire to explore make them repeat the same thing. It’s hard to call that misbehaviour but it is a mistake to ignore it hoping it will go away.
Start disciplining a child early. If your baby pulls your hair or pokes you in the eye, let him know it hurts and remove his hand. If you smile while you tell him it hurts he’ll take it as a game and do it again. If you put on a serious face, he’ll get the idea. Eventually. Your words and behaviour speak volumes. Establishing a good disciplining relationship early on with your child will help prepare you both for the future. New challenges arise every day.
Help is on the way
There is no universal cure for your little one’s temporary quick temper. But here are some suggestions that could make your toddler less frustrated and more understanding of the fact that aggression is not acceptable.
Teach your toddler how to communicate his frustrations: Allow her to cry, offer warm hugs and let her know it is alright to feel sad and angry sometimes.
“Toddlers should be able to express and identify their feelings, but they need a lot of help labeling how they feel. Anger masks a lot of other feelings – fear, apprehension, exasperation, frustration, disappointment, sadness, loss. Therefore it is important to help the child to identify feelings in themselves and others as soon as possible” says Burima.
• Time-out? It depends. Some parents do not believe in time-outs, while some do.
“Time-outs could make a child even more mad and frustrated. Instead, parents should keep the children close and calmly explain to them why hitting, pushing and biting is not acceptable” advises Lynn. Together, parent and child can look for a quiet place to calm down and discuss about what happened. Older children should be taught to calm down and think about their actions in a quiet spot where they feel comfortable. Whether you want to call it time-out or not, the idea is to discipline the child with love and understanding.
If you opt for time-outs, Burima’s advice is to keep them short – no longer than five minutes, even less that that – and keep your toddler within sight. You can hold your little one on your lap and calm them down. Explain to them that hitting or pushing hurts others. Since you are trying to teach your child respect and understanding towards others, remember that you teach best by example.
• Accept the fact that they might not be ready for the activities that you plan for them. Toddlers have a different view of the world: They don’t understand why they have to share and they get tired during a play date.
“Developmentally, toddlers are not ready to share their toys yet. When hosting a play date, they should be allowed to put away their favourite toys before the guests arrive so they won’t have to share them,” says Lynn. If there are obvious signs of aggression during play dates, consider putting them on hold for a while. There are many other activities your toddler will enjoy.
• By letting your toddler know what he will do next, he’ll feel more secure and less frustrated.
“Parents should try to make their little ones’ lives as seamless as possible,” says Lynn. Some children are more temperamental than others and parents need to respect that and tailor the day’s schedule according to the child’s needs.
• Consider signing up for a parent participation music class at your local community center. These classes provide a good environment for your toddler to get used to having playmates and enjoy their company. If you want to take it to the next level, here’s a challenge: Set up a short play with finger puppets and talk about nice behaviour. You’ll be surprised by your child’s responsiveness.
• Ask for help.
“Parents should be concerned about aggressive toddlers when their attempts to control and change these behaviors are not effective,” suggests Burima. It is not unusual for parents to overlook more subtle causes for the child’s aggressive outbursts so contacting the pediatrician for a referral to a child therapist might be a good idea.
• Last but not least, remember to keep your calm. Since you are teaching empathy and kindness, your child should always get the first example from you. And if some days you feel like you are losing it, don’t feel bad, nobody is perfect. Just make sure you apologize and talk to your child about it.
“This too shall pass…”
There will be days when no matter how hard you try, your toddler will be as wild as they come and constantly looking for trouble. Take heart and remember that children have different temperaments. Since this is the age where their personality comes out forcefully, it is our job as parents to teach them good behaviour, while nurturing their budding individuality.