Ask a Mama: Taming Toddler Aggression

I am having an issue with my 18 month old. A few weeks ago she started to do something that has me a bit concerned–when she is around other toddlers it seems she doesn’t know how to handle her emotions and tries to kiss, hug, or if they ignore her, she will pinch or hurt them in some way. I have tried to tell her she has to have soft hands and to give a love when she hurts someone but at such a young age I’m not sure she understands. Is there anything else I can do? Should I be concerned about her behavior?? It is hard to relax and let her explore when we are with other kids when she acts this way. I would appreciate any advice!!

Your cherub is smack in the middle of pre-verbal behavior. Before there are words, there are actions and reactions. She is happy, she is sad, she is hungry, she is angry—all broad stroke emotions with a toddler’s limited ability to communicate them. There is little empathy for others at this stage—toddlers are apt to see others as playthings, not playmates, and she is a tiny bundle of needs and desires: her’s.

Much of a toddler’s behavior is experimental, fueled by endless curiosity about the world and people in it. Her life these days is governed by “What would happen if….?” And that is where your concern steps in because her experimentation can and does hurt others. There are many different strategies for coping with aggression in toddlers, but one thing is clear: it is important to address it firmly and consistently from an early age.

Mudpie Mama Paula has a great suggestion for dealing with toddlers whose behavior is challenging, and it is nothing more than saying “Uh-oh”. It is a singsong warning that things are not right. “Uh-oh “is not so much an emotional reaction as it is a stop, a warning, an I-see-what-you-are-doing noise that even babies respond to. Then you gently remove the child from the situation where they are separate but safe. The trick is to give her little or no attention–positive or negative—but at the same time you are being clear the conflict warrants benign intervention. “The fewer the words we use while the child is misbehaving, the more effective we will be,” says Dr. Charles Fay, president of the Love and Logic Institute.

Uh-oh” can be used throughout childhood to effectively signal disapproval without anger and emotion. Finally, dear mama, there is a wide continuum of what is normal behavior in all stages of childhood. You may have a big reactor  on your hands—a child who feels emotions more intensely than others and tends to use physical responses to handle them. Or you may have an easygoing toddler who is simply passing through a phase. Either way, our job as parents is to interpret the world for our kids and help them manage it in appropriate ways. The country of each family has its own laws for governance. In ours, a big family, it was important that even mild violence and bullying was addressed from the very beginning, even if they were too young to understand.  You know your child best. There is a lifetime of friends ahead of her, and 18 months may be a little young to launch relationships and play well with others. Follow your heart.

For more information, here is a related post on toddlers biting.


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