Aggression in 3-year-olds can take many parents by surprise. As adults, we view aggressive behavior as unhealthy and inherently wrong. So when we first encounter aggression in 3-year-olds (some 2-year-olds also exhibit these aggressive behaviors) we are shocked and feel as if we are failing to raise a good human being.
Okay, before you start stressing about your aggressive 3 year old, let me assure you, what you are experiencing is a normal part of emotional and behavioral development in young children. Most preschoolers will hit, kick, bite, jump, or yell when they are overwhelmed by emotions. Children act out in an aggressive manner when they feel threatened or frustrated by a problem.
WHY DO PRESCHOOLERS GET AGGRESSIVE?
The most common tantrums that lead up to aggressive behavior in 3-year-olds are
- need for your attention,
- to gain access to certain toys, activities or foods, or
- disagreement with your plans for that moment/follow routine.
The child is still learning how to appropriately express his needs or disagreement and sometimes the need or moment gets bigger than him.
How to control one’s impulses and solve conflicts in a socially acceptable way is still an undeveloped skill in this age group.
Such aggressive behavior, therefore, is normal for 2-4-year-olds. You may notice aggression peaks by age 3 and starts to decrease after age 4. (source)
HOW CAN I HELP MY 3 YEAR OLD WITH AGGRESSION?
- Stay calm
The first thing you need to do when your child hits, bites or yells is stay calm. Any reaction from you can motivate the child to keep repeating his actions. At the moment you are setting an example for your child of how one reacts when provoked. Do not join in his chaos, help him understand and learn through you how big emotions are dealt with. Explain calmly, “hands are not for hitting, or I can’t let you hurt your sister/friend.”
Related reading: How to become a calm mother
- Remove from the situation
When the child’s actions can pose harm to another child or adult, remove him from the situation. Do not wait until harm is done. At age 3 most children are verbal. You can wait until the child has calmed down or moved on to other things to bring up the subject again and talk about how we handle difficult situations. This is the conversation where you reiterate limits, for example, “hands are not for hitting, no throwing sand on other kids, it can hurt others”.
- Stick to your expectations and limits
At age 3 many temper tantrums may be for access to certain privileges like screen time or certain favorite food. When denied the child lashes out in a violent tantrum. At moments like this, it is important for the parent to stay calm, reassuring, and consistent with the set limits.
Reassure your child you care for him and stick to the set expectations. For example: I worry about your eyes that is why I cannot let you watch more T.V.
4. Be realistic about your child’s ability to follow house rules.
Set age-appropriate rules and expectations for your child. A 3-year-old may not be able to complete a task around the house without making a mess. Expect the messes and work around providing more opportunities for independence.
3-year-olds especially are beginning to enjoy the risky play. They are testing the limits of their bodies.
When children are unable to explore tasks independently that pent up frustration comes out as aggression.
Creating safe spaces for exploration and play is important for the child to develop confidence and a healthy emotional state.
- Be realistic about qualities such as empathy and sharing.
Many 3-year-olds have not yet developed impulse-control. Therefore sharing or taking turns can create situations of conflict. Even so, the child requires more opportunities to play in groups and learn through observation what sharing looks like.
If your child has a favorite toy that can cause conflict at a play date or at the park, do not bring that toy along.
Three-year-olds will protect their interests when threatened, and may not be willing to share with another child.
When we go for play dates, I make sure to buy a small toy or gift for the other child and ask my son to gift the other child. This simple act of gifting brings him joy and settles him into a happy mood more willing to participate in group play.
- Tune in, listen, and learn.
Our job as parents is to shape the world around the child. When the child is throwing aggressive tantrums frequently, it indicates something that’s lacking in his environment. Often the first questions to ask ourselves are
- Is our child feeling loved?
- Does he get enough time with his parents?
- Does he feel threatened by a new situation- the birth of a new sibling? or simply,
- Overtired, hungry, or sleepy.
All these situations can bring about aggressive behaviors in three-year-olds. The situations indicate unmet needs and the tantrum a way for the child to express his needs.
Understand the cause of the aggressiveness and take action to change the environment to suit the child. Results are almost always immediate. Solving the root cause of the disturbance yields better results than temporary solutions like offering a treat or distractions like T.V and screens.
Allow the child the freedom to express his feelings. Encourage talk and spend one on one time every day with your child. I know this sounds simple, but our busy lives and routines sometimes do not allow us to spend uninterrupted time with our children. I always felt like I know my child’s heart better when I have spent time with him, he feels more settled around me and I have insight into his challenges that help me help him better.
The days I have been busier at work, the distance between us becomes obvious and sure enough, I start to see cracks in his generally settled behavior.
Over a period of time, I found that one on one time spent with parents is one of the ways to resolve any of the challenging behaviors we face.
AGGRESSION IN 3-YEAR-OLDS – WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR CHILD HITS, BITES, OR GETS ROUGH
- Name the emotion or describe what happened
As much as is possible try to find out what led to the angry outburst and name the emotion for your child. For example: “You are upset your sister took your blocks”
I find this My Feelings Card Set quite useful in helping children understand and name emotions. It creates awareness about what to expect and how the child can act after a violent episode.
- Do not shame the child for expressing violently, but reiterate limits
For example, “Our hands are not for hitting/ I will not let you hurt your sister/ I cannot let you spoil the mattress”(While gently pulling the child away from the situation)
- Offer a solution/distraction
Let us build blocks here away from sister/ Move sister away with another toy/ Or offer a similar-looking toy/crayon/block.
- Help the child make amends
When the child has hurt another child/adult you can say something like this;”Looks like sister got hurt, let us give her a pat on her arm and comfort her”
- Ignore a rough play when possible
Sometimes I ignore rough play if it is happening in a safe space and does not have the potential to cause the child or those around him hurt. I try as much as is possible to bite my tongue and not say anything. Counting to 10 helps me in this case. Most times he gives up his rough play after a few tries.
At this age, a lot of it is the inner desire to experiment with things around him.
If I feel his rough play is going to harm him in some way, I ask him to “Use gentle hands/ Walk slowly/ or I describe the potential harm the object he is playing with can cause so he can understand it better and then distract to another toy/task.
- Channel that energy so he can express correctly
Often during a violent tantrum, all the child needs is a way to vent. You can offer a pillow to punch, paper to tear, or color. These activities help the child calm down. I start by punching the pillow myself and showing how I can get that frustration out.
- A quick tip: What to say instead of No
One trick that worked for me with my son is to say what I expect as if he already embodies that command. If he is around a baby and engaging in rough play, I will say “You want to show me how you can be gentle when you play with baby”. Or “You are so gentle around the baby.” These simple positive statements show I trust in him and 90% of the time, he follows through wanting to show me how well he can handle that situation. Sometimes he backs off if he feels he cannot do what I stated. A simple tip that works in many tricky situations instead of saying “No, don’t do this/that.”
To sum it up
Children act out in an aggressive manner when they are fearful, frustrated, or threatened by a certain situation. They want to protect their own interests. Show them how they can without harming others around them.
I hope these tips and tricks help you resolve some of the aggression in your 3-year-olds. Do leave me a comment if you need help with a specific scenario. Until then be the calm to your child’s chaos.