Hitting, kicking, temper tantrums: These common toddler behaviors can have parents wishing they could disappear in a crowded grocery store or keep them up at night worried if their child’s behavior is normal.
Parents can rest a little easier knowing that, for the most part, these behaviors are normal.
“Toddlers experience the same frustrating situations we do as adults, but don’t know how to express it. So, they hit, push, yell and scream out of frustration,” explains Chad Lennon, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center.
“All of these behaviors are perfectly normal, especially if there is some factor that is causing it,” reassures Dr. Lennon.
Managing your child’s aggressive behavior
Toddlers can have temper tantrums anywhere – at home, the store or a park. Dr. Lennon’s first piece of advice is directed at parents – not their child.
“Parents should feel very secure and confident that they are responding to their child’s behavior appropriately – and that their child is reacting normally for someone their age,” he says. “Don’t worry about the people around you. Focus instead on giving your toddler what he or she needs to safely regain control of emotions.”
Dr. Lennon offers three pieces of advice to help parents manage their toddlers’ temper tantrums and aggressive behaviors:
Give them a safe space
The first step in helping a child in the middle of a meltdown is to ensure they are in a safe space where they are unable to hurt themselves, someone else or damage property.
“If your child is on the floor in the middle of a store, yelling and throwing things, scoop your child up and calmly walk away,” says Dr. Lennon.
Don’t worry about a cart full of groceries or the side-eye from strangers. Help your child regain composure by keeping yourself calm and steady.
“A natural reaction for parents is often to shush their child, tell them to be quiet or even lose their temper themselves,” Dr. Lennon admits. “Those reactions can actually make the situation worse in two ways. First, your child will mirror your emotions: if you’re upset, he or she will become even more upset, as well.”
“Second, telling your child to stop crying can send the message that emotions shouldn’t be expressed,” he continues. “Quite the opposite is true; your job as a parent is to teach your child how to safely and effectively express emotions.”
A safe, quiet space, away from prying eyes – and even well-meaning family members – can give both you and your child the chance to settle down and regain control.
Teach coping strategies
As your child begins to calm down, try introducing a positive activity to help them relax even more. This may include playing with a favorite toy, listening to music, holding a soft blanket or reading a book together.
“Quiet activities can help the child regain control or even become strategies to help them self-soothe before a meltdown occurs,” explains Dr. Lennon.
When your child is ready – and able – to discuss emotions, talk about what happened after they have calmed down. Together, you can work through what caused the inappropriate behavior and come up with solutions to manage their emotions more effectively.
Be a role model
Anger and frustration are a part of life. As a parent, it’s your job to teach children how to manage these big feelings. The best way to do this, Dr. Lennon advises, is to be a good role model with your own emotions.
“Kids are always paying attention to what we do – even if it doesn’t look like it,” says Dr. Lennon. “Next time you are feeling frustrated or upset, talk about it with your child. Road rage is a good example. We’ve all been stuck in traffic. When that happens to you, and your child is in the car, talk about how you are feeling. Tell your child how the traffic is making you frustrated, but you are going to take a deep breath to calm yourself. Share other self-soothing activities, like how talking to someone is a good distraction or music helps you calm down.”
These small, teachable moments can serve as a foundation for your child’s emotional learning and growth.
When aggressive behavior is an issue…
While certain behavior is considered normal – particularly emotional outbursts that have a clear cause – there are certain red flags parents should monitor.
“Most of the time, there’s a clear cause of an emotional outburst from a toddler. He or she might be hungry, tired or upset that they can’t play with a favorite toy,” explains Dr. Lennon. “However, if your child is continually experiencing meltdowns that you can’t connect to a clear cause, then you may want to talk to your pediatrician.”
Another red flag to keep note of is if your child’s behavior becomes aggressive very, very quickly. “If your child can go from zero to sixty in a matter of seconds, without any clear signals, then that’s something you may also want to discuss with your child’s pediatrician,” says Dr. Lennon.
Dr. Lennon also encourages parents to discuss any worrisome behavior with your child’s provider. A pediatrician can help parents assess what’s normal and recommend additional strategies to support your child’s emotional development.