When you first bring home your baby, as difficult as things can get, they are still pretty straightforward. But as your baby begins to hit those feisty toddler years, deciphering their behavior can get confusing, and figuring out how to respond can be even harder. It can be really stressful when your child shows some disruptive toddler behavior, especially in a social setting, so you may need to decode their aggression. Luckily, there's often an easy solution for your child's frustration and aggression.
Romper reached out to developmental psychologist Dona Matthews, PhD, who says that when children under the age of 3 act out aggressively, it’s not because they are trying to be “bad”. She says that they are likely being disruptive because their emotional habits and language skills aren’t mature enough to effectively communicate what they are feeling.
If your toddler is being disruptive, there are productive ways to handle the situation. Matthews suggests that parents start with regulating their own feelings first, which might be hard to do in a stressful situation. But she notes that displaying calm and loving connectivity can make you a good emotional model for your child, and it also sends them a message of unconditional love. Rather than sending them into a time-out and shutting the dialogue down completely, Matthews says that you should show them understanding and respect by acknowledging their emotions and feelings.
However, to get to the root of your child’s frustration, you’ll need to do a little collaborative digging. “Children don’t have the self-awareness or the communication sophistication to know what’s going on or to explain,” she explains, “so ask yourself what the child is trying to communicate.” She says once you come up with a hypothesis, you should discuss it with your toddler to see if you can collaboratively solve the problem at hand.
There are numerous reasons your toddler is being disruptive, so here are five reasons that are worth considering in the moment.
1. They Aren’t Getting What They Want
Sometimes, well a lot of the time, toddlers can act out because they aren’t getting what they want. As obvious as this reason is, it’s crucial to consider looking at the situation from your child’s point of view. Matthews explains that when your toddler wants something unreasonable, like another kid’s toy or candy, sometimes the only reasonable reaction they have is to lash out.
Remember that your toddler hasn’t yet developed the emotional maturity or skills to respond to a situation like this rationally, so rather than punishing them, Matthews suggests making it a teachable moment. She first suggests gently putting a stop to any physical aggression and then privately and calmly talking to your toddler about how they are feeling and what the appropriate responses to their feelings should be.
2. Your Toddler Might Be Worried
Whether it is caused by new routines, transitions, traumatizing events, or from separation from you, your toddler may be acting out due to anxiety and worry. In Today’s Parent, Montreal psychologist Tamara Soles explained that anxiety and fear is a normal part of toddler development, but because it can be hard for them to communicate, their worries can crop up in other forms of behavior. If you can pinpoint the source of their fear or anxiety, Soles suggested acknowledging and validating your toddler’s concerns so that they know you are there to help and support them if needed
3. They Are Overstimulated
Too much of anything can be overwhelming for a toddler, so if they are acting out, it could just be a sign that there’s too much stimulus around them. In a report by Today’s Parent, psychologist Jillian Roberts explained that most toddler tantrums are due to over-stimulation, so taking it easy with their schedule or offering a calming hug mid-tantrum can help to relieve their frustration.
4. Your Toddler May Not Be Feeling Well
Everyone gets a little cranky when they’re feeling sick, but for energetic toddlers, that crankiness can turn into all out disruption. If your toddler has been feeling under the weather, try keeping them in a calm environment so they can get as much rest as possible.
5. They Might Just Be Hungry
Even adults get “hangry” from time to time, so if your little one is acting out, you may want to consider they just need an extra bite to eat. As they get older, toddlers go through sporadic growth spurts, which often are accompanied by increased hunger and appetite, noted New Kids Center. So even though it may not fall into your mealtime or snacking schedule, you might consider offering your child a snack to see if that helps.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.