Claire and Nneka started Mellownest with one mission in mind; to help parents develop a more mindful style of parenting. With backgrounds in educational psychology and emotional well-being, they want to help you stress less, laugh more and enjoy your family.
Each month, they respond to a Mumbler’s question about parenting. This month they give advice and tips on dealing with changes in toddler behaviour
I’m writing because I just don’t know what to do about my 19-month-old’s behaviour. He has always been strong-willed but recently he has become more aggressive – hitting out at me and his dad and anyone else that gets in his way. It’s really embarrassing as the childminder has called a few times because he has hit or pushed other children. I try to deal with him calmly at home when he does it by saying no and then putting him in another room to calm down but actually, it really pushes my buttons. My husband finds it harder to stay calm and has really shouted at him a few times but this doesn’t seem to help. That usually just makes him angrier and he ends up having a huge tantrum. I would just really like to know how I can respond and make him stop doing this.
Hi Mumbler member,
We often get asked about toddler behaviour, so you are not alone in feeling frustrated and helpless about how to manage it.
In fact, this age or a little younger is a common stress point for parents. Just when you think you’ve got this parenting thing down your sweet baby becomes a whirlwind of a toddler and all the rules change.
Initially, we have to take a step back and recognise what seems to be challenging and difficult behaviour as a normal developmental process. Toddlers are designed to be strong-willed as they have a large number of developmental milestones to work on that require an extreme amount of persistence.
Can you imagine having to learn to walk at your age? How frustrating and challenging you might find it? Toddlers have to learn to walk, climb, speak and interact with the world in a totally different way from when they were younger.
This is exciting for them; they want to be on-the-go all the time and that often means that they aren’t quite as invested in the daily tasks you might like to accomplish like dressing, eating and getting out the door.
We have to learn to engage our toddlers as little people with their own thoughts and opinions. This can take a little getting used to at first and there’s likely to be a battle of wills as your adult agenda clashes with his toddler one.
My first point would be to start with connection, in other words your relationship. When things become challenging with our children one of the first casualties can be the warmth and fun parenting approach. Instead, we become rigid and locked into power battles that end up serving no-one.
Take a few moments to assess your feelings about your son. You might be having lots of negative and unhelpful thoughts like:
‘He’s so naughty’ or ‘It’s so embarrassing’.
This can lead to you feeling frustrated or even angry with your son and will impact on your ability to deal with the situation rationally.
Noticing your emotions will help you to manage them when your son doesn’t behave the way you would like. Modelling your ability to stay calm will be one of the most important lessons you can teach him.
Stepping back and recognising that to a certain extent your son’s behaviour is developmentally appropriate and, perhaps more importantly, not a personal attack on you might enable you to bring back some of the lightness to your relationship.
Tackling the aggressive behaviour
At your son’s age, his communication skills are somewhat limited, and this is a potential source of some of the aggression. Instead of being able to say, ‘No, thank you’ or ‘I want to play with that please’ he simply lashes out when he doesn’t get what he wants.
Set yourself up for success by being proactive. Notice his tone, expression and attempts to communicate however subtle they might be.
If there are common trigger points for his aggressive behaviour think about the changes you can make to the situation.
For example, if getting dressed is a challenge think about offering your son more choices so that he feels like he’s getting some much-wanted control. (Only give a couple of options as otherwise your son might become overwhelmed or disinterested.)
Then engage him in the activity in a playful way. Sing, read a story while you do it, tickle every part of his body as you get it dressed. It takes more time and effort on your part but is likely to be a more pleasant experience. This won’t always work but don’t be discouraged if he starts to refuse. If you have time – do something else for a couple of minutes before trying to re-engage him again.
Prevention is better than cure
In terms of actual physical aggression, at this age prevention is better than cure. If you notice your son raise his hand, catch it and say in a firm tone:
‘No, we don’t hit’
Keep your expression and body language clear but calm.
Try to redirect his attention but if your son continues, move out of hitting distance but stay present. Avoid leaving him or putting him in another room as this is likely to trigger a feeling of panic at the separation, and you’re more likely to see an increase in the behaviour or a tantrum which will take longer and be more stressful for everyone.
Expect to have to repeat this action many times while your son learns how to communicate differently. This, combined with a more positive and playful approach, is likely to produce a reduction in the behaviour over time.
This also applies to times when your son is around other children; until this behaviour subsides it’s best for you to stay close, take preventative action and remove your son from the situation if you can see him becoming overwhelmed.
Adjust your schedule
Some children are simply more high energy than others so responding to this need can help to prevent unwanted behaviour. Give your son more opportunities to burn off his excess energy and avoid situations that require lots of waiting or sitting still.
I know this is annoying, but it won’t last forever, and you will be able to go out for a family meal in the future.
Give your son lots of opportunities for rough and tumble play as this will allow his natural high energy to be released in a positive way. Chase him around the house, wrestle on the sofa. Those giggles are releasing pent-up energy that won’t be translated into aggression.
When it comes to children the golden rule to remember what you do is more important than what you say.
It would also be helpful for you and his dad to be on the same page when it comes to this approach as it sounds like it’s hard for your husband to keep his temper in check when your son behaves this way.
The trouble is that shouting or punishing your son might stop the behaviour in the first instance, but it won’t lead to long-term change or him developing the ability to regulate his emotions as it isn’t teaching your son an alternative way to manage when he feels strong angry feelings.
In fact, and this might be hard to hear, your husband is actually modelling a lack of emotional regulation himself. You son is small and learning how to communicate his feelings; he needs helpers, not guards!
As your son grows older you’ll be able to teach him more appropriate ways to communicate and part of this will be done by expressing and modelling appropriate emotions yourself.
That sounds complicated but actually every time you simply reflect what you see you’re helping your son to put another piece of his emotional regulation puzzle together. For example, you might say:
‘I know, you’re so hungry waiting for your dinner right now.’
‘It feels sad when daddy has to go, you wish he could stay’.
Having adults who can help him to interpret his confusing inner world will begin to give him the ability to express these things himself. It’s normal for these learning processes to take time so expect to have to repeat yourself and find patience even when it’s difficult.
You’ll get there in the end!
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