How You May be Unintentionally Teaching Your Toddler to be Aggressive

You may be unintentionally teaching your toddler to be aggressive. How so? And how can you teach them exactly the opposite?

The other day, in the community, I observed a calm, quiet, toddler sitting with family for almost an entire sporting event, interacting with family members throughout. I was intrigued by the little one’s ability to stay sitting and focused for such a long period of time for his age.

This child’s family was warm and gentle toward the toddler, and as I later had the opportunity to interact with them myself, I noticed that he appeared to be friendly and genuinely value family.

At one point, the toddler crawled up onto this adult’s lap. The two interacted friendly enough, the toddler pointing and the adult commenting, the adult giving direction and the toddler following, and the toddler poking at the adult’s cheeks and face while the adult smiled lovingly at the toddler…All very typical adult-toddler interactions….and then it happened…

It Starts with Normal Toddler Behaviours and Parent Reactions

As the toddler became more excited by the back and forth interaction, the toddler suddenly hit the adult in the face lightly. The toddler, seemingly taken aback by their own behaviour, paused for a moment.

This in itself is not cause for concern – most toddlers will occasionally hit out of excitement or curiosity or exploration or frustration or whatever other triggering situation or emotion may be behind the act, and it’s important not to overreact to this. But what happened next made my mind flash forward to 2, 5, 10 months down the road.

The adult didn’t scold the toddler, or yell, or punish, or spank. The adult laughed – a loud, hearty laugh, and while the adult’s words said something along the lines of “no hitting…we don’t hit” it was said through bright smiles, nose rubs, tickles, and laughter.

Many of you reading this will think to yourselves – seriously, Carla? What’s the big deal? The adult was kind, told the toddler what was expected, and they both enjoyed the fun interaction. Then they moved on. Besides, it was just an innocent bit of fun for both of them.

What most see at the surface level as a simple one-off interaction between two people who care for each other very much, I see something much deeper – the learning that is taking place, and the predictable behaviour to follow.

Now don’t get me wrong – I certainly wasn’t judging this adult or the toddler – quite the opposite, actually. I could see that this adult genuinely cared for and had the best of intentions in mind throughout the entire interaction with the toddler. Unfortunately, a lot of the behaviours that we come to recognize later as problematic, start out with these simple, seemingly innocent interactions, repeated and slowly (or, sometimes not so slowly) building over time.

Attention is a Powerful Teacher!

Here’s the thing about positive attention – it predictably increases the probability that the behaviour will occur again. That is, anything your toddler says or does that receives attention – positive or negative, but particularly positive – will almost inevitably occur again, oftentimes more immediately, frequently, or intensely.

This is a wonderful thing! You can teach your toddler how to behave appropriately simply by giving positive attention to appropriate behaviour.

Thanking your toddler enthusiastically for sharing their toys, complimenting them on their manners, and reacting with excitement to them trying something new and scary for the very first time will predictably increase the likelihood that your child will share, use their manners, and try new things more often.

But you can also unintentionally teach your toddler that aggression gets them positive attention by laughing, joking, or otherwise teaching them that this behaviour is acceptable and fun. The next time this toddler is on the family member’s lap, it is very likely the toddler will do this very same behaviour – because it was fun, and led to positive attention from an important adult in the toddler’s life.

Your toddler learns aggression through your attention to aggressive behaviour

Of course, there are other ways children can learn aggression as well – through seeing others act aggressively, or by being the target of aggression. However, even non-aggressive caregivers can unintentionally teach a child to be aggressive through the simple act of attending to aggressive behaviour.

As more attention is given to this type of behaviour, it will increasingly occur more often, and with greater intensity. So a simple, fun interaction involving problematic behaviours can unintentionally lead to real problems down the road.

Negative Attention can be Just as Good of a Teacher

Oftentimes, it’s not too long until the positive attention turns to negative attention – the toddler, or perhaps now preschooler or older child, is now being given negative attention for the very same behaviour that was once thought to be “cute”. This negative attention may take the form of pleading to stop, threatening punishment, yelling, spanking, and so on.

And now your toddler is older, wiser, and the behaviour has been learned, making it much more difficult to correct. The longer your little one receives either positive or negative attention for this misbehaviour, the more strongly the learning will be, and the harder it will be to get rid of. So the easiest thing to do? Discourage the behaviour from occurring from the outset.

For some toddlers, aggression is more than a one-time interaction, or there may be safety concerns with younger siblings or pets. When aggression becomes a pattern, or when there are safety considerations, simply ignoring your toddler’s aggression may not be the best approach. In that situation, there are plenty of alternatives for addressing your toddler’s behaviour. But that’s a topic for another post. The focus today’s topic is on dealing with your toddler’s behaviour before it gets to that point.

How do you have fun with your toddler, while also discouraging aggressive behaviour?

Teach your Toddler Boundaries and Expectations

All it takes is a little bit of knowledge and follow through. You already know what happens if you encourage the behaviour either through positive or negative attention and reinforcement. So what do you do instead?

You set boundaries.

Yup, it’s that simple.

You set boundaries. You remove all positive reinforcement – smiles, laughter, tickling – and you look at your toddler, with a serious face, and you set the boundaries by letting your toddler know that hitting is not okay by simply saying “Use gentle hands”.

And you model that behaviour.

And then you praise them like heck when they do it!

For some toddlers, the simple removal of the joyful interaction will be enough to teach that hitting isn’t something that gets them what they want. For others, this may lead to testing the boundaries. So, the toddler may hit again. Now what? Now you let your toddler know that they must use gentle hands if they want to continue to play with you.

And again, many toddlers will end at that. But some will, instead…you guessed it…hit you again.

Let me ask you something – how big is your toddler? Can they reach your face if you set them down on the ground, and you stand up? No, they cannot.

Can they throw themselves on the ground, and yell, hit at your legs, and cry, and run away? Absolutely. But how big are they? Truly, honestly, how much pain and damage are they actually going to inflict? Probably not really any at all. You ignore this behaviour, and you ignore it to the bitter end.

Give your Toddler the Opposite of Attention

If attention increases the likelihood of your child’s behaviour happening again, then the opposite of attention – ignoring the behaviour – will decrease the likelihood of your child’s behaviour happening again.

When you ignore the behaviour you don’t want to see, it will disappear, IF – and only IF – you ignore it to the bitter end. This is such a simple concept, yet it is not an easy one. You want your toddler to be happy and have fun, and you want to save them from what is obviously a very uncomfortable situation for them, and probably for yourself as well.

However, uncomfortable emotions are a reality of life, and your toddler will eventually have to learn how to manage them. Learning early on, and with small problems with small consequences will allow your child to slowly build the skills necessary to deal with adversity and to become resilient over time. Saving your child from their difficult emotions now, in the short-term, will have consequences for later, over the long-term. And this is exactly why you need to deal with this behaviour when it is still at a developmentally appropriate and normal level.

Get Support if You Need It – Early Intervention is Key

If your child’s aggressive behaviour continues to escalate, don’t be shy to discuss with a doctor or mental health professional. Remember – little people, little problems. The earlier you deal directly with the aggressive behaviour, the easier it will be to manage. And no, it’s probably not just a phase. There’s no such thing as an aggressive “phase” in development. Don’t wait until your child’s aggression is still presenting in their teens to get it under control.

Recognize when you need help, and find a supportive professional to help you manage your child’s aggressive behaviour. After all, the old saying still stands – it truly does take a village to raise a child.

If you are struggling to manage your toddler’s aggression, contact me today for a free 15-minute consultation to see if Parent-Child Interaction Therapy can help.

 

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