Gently Responding to an Aggressive Toddler

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

I have always been a confident natural parent and it has served my toddler well in many ways. However, I have recently encountered some major difficulties with my 27 month old.

When she was almost two she went through a hitting phase. We helped her through this by creating a clear expectation: “We don’t hit each other. It hurts.” We suggested that she use words to express her feelings.  It’s OK to say “I’m mad!” and be angry.  However, hitting only hurts, it doesn’t help. It worked beautifully as a non-punitive way of curbing the hitting and made playtime much more fun for everyone. Abbey was more patient, less aggressive, and more expressive with language.

But for the past week and a half it seems like she has completely forgotten all of it. She is ornery and aggressive again, even worse than before – hitting and pushing, sometimes completely out of the blue! Additionally, she is whining and screaming and yelling at me – very rarely using words to express herself. What really breaks my heart is that when I come down to her level to speak to her and comfort her, to use the techniques that worked so beautifully before, she continually pushes me away and ignores me – sometimes even calling me “bad mommy!”

I don’t know what to do! It makes me so sad and frustrated to see my sweet girl like this. I have never punished, physical or otherwise, and very rarely do I raise my voice at all. I feel like I’m doing everything I should in this situation but Abbey’s behavior has just made a complete 180. She’s even refusing naps again, calling me “bad mommy!” for laying her down in her bed.  When nursing at nap time, she’ll come off the breast, hit me, and scream, “Bad mommy! NO NAP! NO SLEEPY!”

I am almost 5 months pregnant, and my husband is in the Coast Guard, deployed for 60 days. We are halfway through deployment right now. Maybe these things have something to do with what’s going on…I don’t know. I need to know what I can do to help her. I can tell it’s wearing on both of us. I’m embarrassed to take her out anywhere: that we will end up butting heads and she’ll scream “bad mommy!” at me in the middle of story time. Every day is exhausting and frustrating for both of us. She is my sweet girl for five minutes when we first get up, and then she transforms into a defiant, limit-busting, screaming, angry, aggressive toddler that I don’t recognize. It breaks my heart.

My mom and I chatted, and I do realize Abbey’s behavior is really very appropriate given her age and the circumstances. I guess what I need is not an explanation of WHY she’s experiencing extra aggression and negative behaviors, but HOW to HELP her through them. It makes me so sad to see her so frustrated and upset. I’m not sure how to react when I hold her and she hits and kicks me. If I could prevent the negative behaviors, I would do it in an instant! I’m just not sure how to do that.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Shae: First off, let me commend you for the fantastic job you are doing in such tough circumstances. Being pregnant and raising a toddler are big jobs. Doing all this with your partner away makes them huge. I hope you have some people locally to nurture you.

Your Mum is right. It is  very age appropriate for toddlers of your daughter’s age to have emotional outbursts of all sorts. This of course doesn’t diminish the difficulty of what you are facing! One possible explanation for this change is that she might be taking another big leap developmentally. With more vocabulary may come less aggression. Children at this age often get a bad rap.  I believe it is because they find it very difficult to explain what it is that they want or don’t want. It’s all there in their mind, but it doesn’t always come out the way they want it to. This leads to huge amounts of frustration.

Another possibility is that some toddlers find choice overwhelming and do better with a few options. For example, put a few different types of foods on a platter for your child to choose from rather than opening the fridge door and asking what they feel like.

Try saying “yes” as much as you can. Naomi Aldort says, “Making a sculpture out of mashed potatoes harms no one, is low-cost, and cleanable. Running away from us at bedtime is an invitation for play, and taking apart an old phone is a learning adventure. Most no’s can turn into yes’s easily: ‘Yes, you like to cut books, here is a magazine you can cut.’; ‘I see you are making a lake out of your juice. Here, let me move your project to the sink.’; ‘Yes, you love to paint on the wall, here is a big sheet of paper.’ and Yes, you can play with the phone.’ (I unplugged it).'” The rest of that article “Surviving The Toddler Years” is fantastic and has lots of good information on dealing with the challenges that this age group can bring.

Think about whether it’s worth lying down for naptime if it’s ending with both of you upset. Does she seem tired, or are you basing naptime on when she has been tired in the past? If she seems tired, maybe try something new like a long cuddle on the couch, and transfer her when she is asleep; or a walk in the stroller, or depending on your views on television, you could even change naptime to quiet time in front of a movie.

As far as the hitting and kicking and yelling go, I’d stay close but make it clear that you (and your baby) don’t want to be hurt. My 3 year old has always been very physical when having a meltdown, and it hurts to be kicked or hit! I sit near her and tell her that, “I’m here when you need me, but I don’t like to be kicked or I have a cuddle here for you if you want it, but I don’t want to be kicked.” I try (and sometimes it’s tough!) to stay calm and be present.

Most of all be gentle with yourself. It will help you both. Know you can leave storytime if you are both feeling overwhelmed and that staying connected will be the most helpful thing.

Acacia: It can feel so distressful to see your child expressing such intense emotions, especially when it seems so out of character. It can be scary and intimidating. Understand and remember that her feelings should not be taken personally. First and foremost, you must examine your own feelings and reactions and try to keep them separate from how you interact with her in response to her feelings. So often as parents we allow our emotions to complicate these issues further. For example, be careful with the word “defiant.” Your daughter is much too young to be defiant in any form. Wanting to label a young child as defiant is indicative of an adult’s personal feelings about a situation, not the reality of it.

The reality is that your daughter has some needs that are not being met and she’s expressing them through tantrums. This doesn’t mean you have done something wrong. There could be several issues at hand, some of which you may not be able to control like your husband’s deployment. See her tantrums as a valid way to express her intense emotions. Guide her with questions to find out what angers her and validate her feelings. Naomi Aldort, author of Raising our Children, Raising Ourselves, explains, “a young child who is not yet conversational will feel validated when her hate is acknowledged with your description of the facts.” For example, when she yells “Bad mommy” at nap time, you might state for her, “Mommy wants you to take a nap and you don’t want to. You feel mad.” Although it may not stop the tantrums all together, she will feel reassured that you acknowledge her feelings and still love her. Her raging is a cry for help to express some emotions that she can’t identify alone. Give her the words, but don’t necessarily expect her to use them. Two years old is still very young to be expected to use words as a significant means of communication.

An inability to express her emotions in words might contribute to her physical reactions too. She seems to have a lot going on that could be causing her distress. Her hitting and pushing may dissipate as the deeper conflicts are resolved, or you may see these physical reactions continue to come up as a form of expression for her as her sense of security changes. As you offer her the words to use and reinforce that hitting hurts others, remember that she is communicating her own hurt and needs another way to express it. Perhaps offer her chances to feel empowered through physical play outside of those tantrums. As her confidence is restored it may cross over to more stressful times.

Above all else, remember that her intense emotions are not bad. Allowing her the safe space to express them is empowering and emotionally healing. It teaches her that these emotions are a part of life and that she is capable of handling them. I encourage you to check out Naomi Aldort’s book and to continue with the amount of gentleness and love that you have given her so far.

Amy: I sat with this question for a few days before writing this response. The reason I sat with it is because what I’m about to say you may initially resist, but when you look into it you will find relief for both you and your daughter.

You are a thoughtful, gentle, caring mother. That shows through in the past guidance you have given her in response to aggression. It also shows in the fact that you’re looking for more gentle guidance answers since what you have been doing is not currently working.

From what I am gathering, this is a strong conflict for you that pushes many buttons or highlights spots in your parenting that you normally feel confident about, but do not when your daughter doesn’t match your expectations. Our expectations can be based on ideas we have about what should be/ or should happen and on our past experience. In the past, she has responded well to gentle tactics. It sounds like because she is not responding now you are questioning either/both yourself and your gentle approach.

When we begin to question ourselves, a human tendency not needing judgment, our children feel the energetic discord that we feel. If you are feeling unsure, your daughter feels that. This is not wrong or bad. It just is what it is. With the circumstances you have mentioned – solo parenting while your husband is deployed and being 5 months pregnant – it is absolutely natural to question not only yourself, but life as a whole at times!

Here are a few suggestions to bring yourself into balance so you can continue to guide your daughter in a gentle manner just as you always have. Consistency is key and inner consistency on the part of the parent is as important as the actions we take. What I mean by inner consistency is bringing one’s self present to the moment and our intentions in parenting.  This means finding calm in the middle of a situation where we don’t initially feel calm.

To do this you may start by writing down your intentions for your experience with your daughter when she’s feeling emotional or aggressive. You may want her to feel your love, be free to express herself, know the limits of what she can and can’t do when angry, and have a safe place to regain calm. Taking a few moments to write down these intentions can help you center yourself when strong, defiant situations arise.

See each situation as perfect. It’s easy to see our children upset and feel like something is wrong. We communicate that feeling and our children end up questioning themselves. It’s not wrong. It’s emotion. As a parent we get to guide behavior when necessary towards what is appropriate. We can see each situation as a perfect opportunity to learn and guide. Nothing more, nothing less. This takes away the stigma of dealing with a child who is defiant. (I must acknowledge that this can be initially frustrating.)

To move through the frustration, breathe deeply into your body. Acknowledge the sensations/feelings present in your body and breathe into them. Allow the breath to cleanse and free any stuck energy. Continue on breath awareness as you focus on your intentions of interacting with your daughter. If you need to take a moment to center yourself, do that. Talk to your daughter about your feelings without blaming her for them. “I feel frustrated too. I’m going to sit on the couch for a few minutes and breathe. Join me if you would like to.”

Another thing you can do that will help you gently guide her in appropriate action is to use your full awareness when she is cooperating/happy/content/calm. Observe her, touch her, pay attention to the smells, sounds, gestures, etc. that you notice in relation to her. Capture the feeling. Then, when you are in the midst of a frustrating situation with her, bring that feeling back. This can help you hold the space for her to return to the recognition of well being that she has inside.  This doesn’t come from a forceful place but a place of positive expectation. She also wants to feel in balance and will as she navigates emotion and life changes.

Parenting children isn’t always easy. Aggression is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting and you can take steps to reduce aggression. You are doing your part through modeling gentle ways of dealing with strong emotion. Continue guiding with discipline that works for everyone. In the end, both you and your daughter will come to see this time in your life as temporary and transformational.

Photo Credit: Christina (Used with Permission)

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