Toddlerhood is the most violent time of life. As a parent this means you’ll inevitably have to deal with your sweet hearted child showing signs of behaviour that might trigger your own aggressive impulses. In other words it’s tough for everyone.
So why are toddlers so prone to biting, pushing and hitting even if you’re a gentle parent who doesn’t model those things?
Firstly, children’s brains are primed to recognise threat and danger. The amygdala, the primitive part of the brain which initiates a freeze, flight or fight response, is much more sensitive in young children.
That means they may have a fear response to something a rational adult might find unobvious or even ridiculous. And because the child lives in a magical world imaginary monsters feel real and the chemical surge tells them to be afraid. The illusion is strong. No amount of adult reasoning can take away the child’s experience in the moment.
So what does this have to do with aggression? Well, nearly all aggressive behaviour stems from a place of fear. So yes, your furious, bare-teethed clenched-fist little one is actually afraid.
The fear might want to be expressed by the child defending themselves with hitting. Or the tension of fear might want to bite or pinch as a way of releasing that feeling. So although aggression looks unnecessary and misplaced it can also been seen as a healthy mechanism for off loading tension. Unfortunately children feel bad about hurting others, especially when they make it look like they don’t.
While aggression and tantrums might seem like good strategies to the child in their primitive brain, it may take many months for them to discover new strategies. In the meantime, you’ll need to swallow your parenting pride and get really really close.
Tips for handling the aggressive phase;
Aggression disguises vulnerability and innocence
Simply remember that underneath that veneer of hurtful is a child who is hurting. Underneath the anger is a child who is afraid. This isn’t a reflection of bad parenting by a long shot. It’s a neurological learning ground which requires plenty of loving support by adults who can see the situation for what it really is, not what it looks like.
By remembering our child’s innocent striving to stay safe and connected we are better equipped to stay calm, loving and available.
From an empathetic place we can also set boundaries with more confidence and certainty. Children really need this.
Staying calm helps our parenting dignity survive!
I remember a friend, a wonderful gentle loving parent, whose 3 yr-old boy was wanting to bite other children. He did this when overwhelmed with feeling in social situations and was trying to release all that tension. On biting a baby my friend was understandably mortified and embarassed. The baby’s mother responded by saying that her baby would never grow up to do that, ever!
When toddlers are aggressive the best we can do for our pride and self-respect is to stay calm and connected. It’s the only way to turn something socially messy and unwieldy into something positive and potentially inspiring.
Noticing triggers for aggression and intercepting
You may start to notice certain triggers for aggression in your child. Maybe they tend to bite others at the beginning of their nursery session? Perhaps there’s a particular boy or girl your child has a tendency to hit? Maybe they pinch you when they are tired at bedtime?
If you know the triggers you can stay extra close and work on the connection. Sometimes you’ll need to stay so close that you’re going to be able to intercept hitting. Intercepting and using the line ‘I can’t let you hit…’ is a non-shaming way to support the child. Don’t forget, they don’t really want to hurt others, they just don’t know how else to manage the feeling surge in that moment.
Catching the aggression before it happens gives you opportunity to connect right-brain to right-brain. That means lots of nurturing touch, empathetic eye contact, listening, even gentle singing. Once the child connects with you they may be able to express their fears verbally or they may feel able to cry instead.
If you can’t intercept hitting (and you won’t be able to do all of the time) then reassure the child that you are there for them. Despite appearances don’t make them ‘wrong’ or blame them.
A blamed child holds in even more bad feeling and even more fear. That means more aggression. Similarly, punishing or isolating the child will compound their fear.
If you’re thinking that by responding kindly to aggression you’re somehow condoning or reinforcing the ‘bad’ behaviour then fear not. Children do not really want to hit or hurt and it’s largely developmental.
Aggression is a learning journey and a call for connection
As difficult as it is to witness, aggression is one of the many ways children learn how to exist as an all-feeling human, in a sensory-rich world. Even when we parent with love and sensitivity, our children will still experience abandonment, grief, desperation, overwhelm and confusion.
Such sensitivities go beyond your child’s control which means they are also beyond yours. Focus instead on creating the environment in which the child can return to their sense of well-being.
Aggressive behaviour encourages us as carers to grow and flex our muscles of compassion and open-heartedness. Little else about our children’s behaviour will challenge us so directly to see beyond our personal embarrassment and frustration! This means it’s a great idea to offload that tension with an attentive adult so it doesn’t explode in your child’s direction.
In a nutshell?
Stay close, validate the upset, remember the innocent motivation, notice the signals, offer connection. Your child is simply asking to feel safe again. Even if you can’t make that possible all of the time, your loving arms will always be the safe harbour they need. When the sea is rough, welcome them home.