In every toddler group, there is a broad range of personalities that emerge. Often, one child is “the quiet one”, another is “the daredevil”, and invariably one is “the bully”. There are a multitude of problems that come from using these labels, but setting those aside, let’s talk about aggression in toddlers – specifically, what to do in the moment, depending on whether your child is the aggressor, or the recipient of aggression.
I have many memories of bullying and aggressive behavior in my childhood, though I don’t remember much from my toddler years. In my younger years, I was most often the victim of bullying, while in high school (and even college to some extent), while I still felt like a victim fairly often, I also relished the power that came with being the aggressor. Through all my experiences in elementary and middle school, one common thread was that I constantly felt that the adults who were supposed to protect me were not there for me.
I had a revelation recently about my response to my son being in a social situation where I perceived him as the “victim” of a “bully”. My first mistake was assuming that my perception of the situation was accurate, when what my son actually saw was not charged with the memory of my emotional experiences like it was for me. Toddlers to not perceive, nor do they act with, malicious intent. I ran to him when I saw his quivering lip, gathered him up in my arms, and (in an ‘oh poor baby’ voice) said, “You were playing with that and he took it away from you!” Bam! I threw him into that victim role without his consent! Imagine if I responded to him this way repeatedly throughout this most formative time in his life. I, the person he loves and looks up to most in the world, made it clear that he was the victim of this other child and that he needed me to “make it better”. That is not the message I want my child to receive and believe about himself and others.
I realized that when I was a young child, my mom looked at the world, to a certain degree, as being against her, and thus against me. I believe she responded to me from that place. I believe, with all the best intentions of connection, trust, and empathy, that she taught me, with her responses, that I deserved and needed adults (and others) to protect me. I learned that I was not capable of protecting myself, or of dealing with big emotions on my own. I learned that the situations that upset me must have been serious enough to upset her as well, and to warrant a “rescue” response.
I want to teach my son something different. I want to teach him that he IS capable of standing up for himself, that he is strong enough to handle whatever life throws at him, and that I am strong enough to be his rock. And I want him to understand that while he can’t change other people, his power lies in his ability to choose his reactions to the things that happen to him. I realized that for him to make those decisions about the world, I have to be mindful of the way I respond to him now when he is two years old. I don’t do it perfectly all the time, because I still carry the decisions I made about the world when I was his age, but with that awareness, I am working to establish new habits; new responses to the things that happen to me — and to him.
Research has shown that over-involved parenting is linked to anxiety. Additionally, that relaxed and calm parenting while the child is under stress (e.g., trying to accomplish a difficult task) leads to better child outcomes (see: Mitchell, J., Broeren, S., Newall, C., & Hudson, J.L. (2013). An experimental manipulation of maternal perfectionistic anxious rearing behaviours with anxious and non-anxious children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116, 1-18.). This means that our responses shift our children’s perception of stress. If we want our children to be able to respond calmly, we have to model that for them. This means that instead of using affection or attachment methods to calm our children in situations that do not call for extreme emotional disturbance, it is more effective to remain calm and respond confidently – empathizing with emotions, but generally ignoring associated behaviors. We respond to the feeling, not the physical manifestation of tears and upset or of aggression.
When my child is the aggressor, I will calmly, but firmly prevent him from causing harm to others. If he attempts to hit or bite, I will block the contact while saying, “I won’t let you hit.” If he seems to need additional support, I will move away from the immediate situation with him and say, “You seem to be feeling strongly. Let’s move over here until you are ready to be gentle. I will sit with you.” I will take this opportunity to connect with my child and help him feel good, because when children feel better, they do better.
If he is taking toys and the other child seems upset, I will sportscast the interaction to both children, describing what I see without judgment and observing any emotions that seem to be surfacing. I will validate and accept emotions, while setting firm limits on unacceptable behaviors. If my child demonstrates a tendency to be overly persistent in his behavior, I will consider it an exception to my general rule of non-intervention; I will increase my involvement and my limit setting, saying something like, “___ is playing with this right now. Please find something else to play with.”
When another child is the aggressor, I will calmly, but firmly prevent the other child from causing harm to others, blocking contact as above. I will encourage both children to use “no!” to empower them to respond without being physical. If my child is hurt or upset, I will move in calmly and empathize without showing my emotions. He can see my emotions at other times, but when he is overwhelmed, he needs me to be his rock. I will quietly offer my presence, but I will not offer comfort unless he requests it from me, because I want to allow him to experience his own feelings, not mine. I will acknowledge and empathize with his feelings, but I will make sure my response does not reinforce his distress or anxiety. I may place my hand on him to let him know I am there, but I will speak about the situation in neutral terms. Afterward, I will remind him again that he can say “No!” or “Stop! I’m playing with this!” when he needs someone to back off.
I was fortunate after that first experience to have a group of parents I look up to, who I turned to for support. When I asked how I should have responded to that situation, their answers blew me away. I had never had my eyes opened to my own victim-tinted glasses in a way that I could process! Once I realized what a profound effect my perception of the world could have on my child, I decided to respond differently. I have found that my response is similar not only when another child is the aggressor, but at any time when my son experiences distress, including his increasingly common experiences with the “bumps and bruises” of toddlerhood. I empathize with his feelings, but I resist getting sucked in, which allows me to be unruffled and to keep responding from a place of strength.
I hope that by empowering my child now, he will grow up to be one who chooses to stand up for himself and others like the young teens in this video.