As an SLP who works with very young children a common question I am asked by parents is about their toddler’s aggression toward other children. “Susie just started taking toys from other children–is this normal?” “What do I do when Bobby hits other kids because he wants their toy?” I hear the pain, fear, and frustration in their voice with each question. Parents wonder if there is something wrong with their child because the aggression is new and unexpected.
So let’s talk about what is typical aggressive behavior. According to National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families’, Zero to Three website, aggressive behavior is part of typical development. Here is a brief overview. Feel free to refer to the websites mentioned here or other material on infant and toddler aggression for further information.
From birth to 12 months of age, aggression can come in the form of babies pulling on parents hair, biting during breastfeeding, swatting at a parent’s hand when the parent has a toy child wants. Your infant does not want to hurt you, but is rather exploring the world around them through their senses. They are learning about biting, hitting, scratching, yanking, and pulling from your reactions to their behaviors.
Aggressive behavior from 12-24 months of age occurs as toddlers tend to be impulsive and cannot yet effectively express their feelings and wants. Hitting, kicking, biting are all typical aggressive behaviors during this time. Aggression tends to peak around the age of two as they have not yet mastered empathy at this time.
Aggression during 24-36 months of age tends to be exhibited when a child feels overwhelmed, angry or jealous. Aggressive behavior tends to be targeted toward parents, which can cause feelings of hurtfulness and frustration. Parents tend to believe that as verbal skills improve, behavior also should improve. However, children at this age are still very impulsive and although they may be able to verbally express a rule, they cannot control their own bodies sufficiently to follow the rule. Emotion will rule behavior every time.
Scholastic.com’s article titled “Preschool Struggles” discusses how typical aggressive behavior will continue through the preschool years. This article explains how aggressive behavior on the playground or in the classroom, temper tantrums and fighting over objects (toys usually) are typical behaviors for children during this age. In fact, Dr. Susan Campbell, author of Behavior Problems in Preschool, goes so far as to say that “probably 95 percent of aggressive behavior in toddlers and preschoolers is nothing to be concerned about.” She explains that parents should only become concerned if the aggressive behavior “escalates, goes on for a long time, or occurs with other problems.”
In both articles, how parents handle aggressive behavior is addressed. The Zero to Three website suggests parents do the following:
- Observe and learn when and why your child is exhibiting aggressive behaviors. Do behaviors occur in certain environments or with particular people? Is the aggressive behavior in response to change in the child’s life? Is the child tired or hungry?
- Note how you as an adult are responding to the situation. Is your response escalating or de-escalating the behavior? Are you able to remain calm when responding to your child? Do you feel effective in your response during these situations?
- Respond to your child based on your best understanding of the situation. Here are a few suggestions:
- Give your child advanced notice of change or transitions.
- Help your child understand his/her feelings during these situations. Use emotional language and explain what and why the child is feeling.
- Prevent aggression if possible. Avoid going places or doing things when your child is tired. Pack snacks if you know your child will get hungry. Ask family members to wait until the child has warmed up before they expect a hug.
- Stay calm. Take a few deep breaths and give yourself a “time out” before you respond to the situation. When you stay in control you are teaching your children to do the same in the future.
- Recognize and acknowledge your child’s feelings and/or goal. Show some sympathy and understanding with true feelings of compassion.
- Use words and gestures to communicate. It is helpful to use both words and gestures to aid your child in understanding what it is you want them to do.
- Tell them what they CAN do. Positive statements of what behaviors a child can do will sometimes ward off a temper tantrum. Ex. “Oh I see, you spilled your water on the floor because you want to play in the water. Let’s goes play at the water table. We can have much more fun there.”
- Try distracting your child. Sometimes a simple distraction will change your child’s attention to something more positive and he/she will forget all about feeling agitated.
- Suggest ways to manage emotions. Teach your child to take a few breaths or use other methods of relaxing. It is important to teach your child healthy ways to deal with strong emotions.
- Have your child take a break. Sometimes the best thing to do is have your child remove him/herself from the situation, and take a break. Giving your child time to get his/her emotions under control in a “cozy corner” or “safe zone”, etc. can be very helpful.
- Debriefing. After your child is calm you can discuss the situation and explain consequences of his/her behavior, brainstorm better choices for the next time, and always remind your child that he/she can come to you for help if needed.
The article also addresses ways to minimize misbehavior by doing the following:
- Be consistent with consequences.
- Avoid negotiation.
- Allow your child some time to problem-solve before you step in.
- Provide lots of positive feedback when your child is showing self-control.
So that is what typical aggression looks like in children birth to 5 years of age according to these sources. Please understand that all children develop at different rates and the ages mentioned in this post are general ages of development. With that said, every child should be viewed as an individual. The bottom line is that all children have aggressive behaviors as they are typically developing and learning how to negotiate this world we live in. However, if you or parents you are working with have concerns about a child’s behavior, I encourage you to continue your own research and request help as you feel is appropriate.
Maria Del Duca, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist in southern, Arizona. She owns a private practice, Communication Station: Speech Therapy, PLLC, and has a speech and language blog under the same name. Maria received her master’s degree from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. She has been practicing as an ASHA certified member since 2003 and is an affiliate of Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues. She has experience in various settings such as private practice, hospital and school environments and has practiced speech pathology in NJ, MD, KS and now AZ. Maria has a passion for early childhood, autism spectrum disorders, rare syndromes, and childhood Apraxia of speech. For more information, visit her blog or find her on Facebook.