On Parenting: How to deal with an aggressive toddler

(by Katie Jett Walls)
Oct 23, 2019

Meghan Leahy, parenting coach, author and advice columnist, joined On Parenting editor Amy Joyce to discuss parenting children of all ages.

Good morning to you all. Meghan's here and ready to discuss all things parenting with you.

Today's column was a question about what to do about a "deadbeat dad." I found Meghan's advice incredibly helpful for me, even though I'm nowhere near that experience in my own life. That's because she made it about how much a child can handle, and how to help them do that. It's really an interesting read. Take a look.

Okay, let's get chatting, shall we? Lots of questions await. As always, feel free to pop in with your own advice, updates about things Meghan has helped you with and how it's gone. And remember: If your question isn't answered here, she may answer in one of her columns, which give her more room to, er, advise. 

Hi Meghan, our 17-month-old has been in full-time daycare since she was 4 months old. Generally she has loved it and adapted well, and her infant room teachers all praised her. Now that she is in the toddler classroom, we have been told she has hit other children without provocation, pulled hair, etc. (thank goodness no biting...yet) and becomes upset when others play with what she views as "her" toys. It's the first thing one of her teachers always tells me during drop off - what she did the previous day that was wrong. (The other teacher only praises her, so maybe they've adopted a good-cop/bad-cop approach.) We have been working at home to share and praise sharing, and to practice "gentle hands" with others. However, she has always been a very exuberant, feels-everything child who loves physical play (she loves nothing more than being swung around or wrestled with, though we certainly don't play-hit or allow that). How do we encourage better behavior around others (particularly little children) when we don't really see any of the physical aggression at home? How do we also make sure we don't over-correct? I don't want to excuse it all as normal toddler behavior if there is a real concern we need to be addressing.

If you could see, I am giving this note some major side eye.

Not because of you, you sound lovely.

But I get a tad cranky when I listen to daycare providers do this to parents, especially at drop-off and pick-up. Like, what are you supposed to do? Their comments just serve to panic and worry...and I don't hear one speck of solution in here. Hmph.

Here is what I don't know: your child loves to be wrestled and swung around...and that is totally typical for 17 month old kids! They play and learn through MOVEMENT...and you may want to keep an eye on SPD stuff as you child ages. If it seems like your daughter is only increasing in her need to be very physical and she doesn't seem aware of this need, it is worthwhile to keep in contact with your pediatrician and keep an eye on it.

Don't spin out...just keep an eye on it.

In terms of what is happening in daycare, IT IS NORMAL. 17 month olds are not interested in sharing, nor do they see the toys are everyone else's. These kids are emotional creatures, they want what they want when they want it, and they are not able to empathize with other's feelings.

So, this daycare needs to be proactive, period. They need to EXPECT that these children will be possessive and react with that knowledge, as well as set up play that helps the children succeed.

Call a proper meeting with these providers and create a plan FOR THEM. Please list everything you are doing at home, and also bring in a list of typical behaviors for this age.

Good luck.

Hello - Every night our three year old son gives us a run for our money at bedtime. Everything from getting him out of the bathtub to putting his pajamas to brushing his teeth is a stand-off, chase around the house, or tantrum. The kicker is that he's actually willing to go to bed and to sleep once we've been through his obstacle course. Do you have any tips on how to reign this in?

Okay, I know this sounds a little nutty, but go ahead and set up a visual list of what is going to happen at bedtime.

1. PLAYING in bathtub until you prune.

2. RUNNING around house naked

3. CRYING in bedroom

4. READING and SNUGGLING.

It may seem like I am green-lighting shenanigans, but I am just suggesting some good ol' fashioned fun to combat this silly little power struggles.

It is OKAY to welcome some fun, it will take all of the air out of the struggles...less chasing him, more giggling.

Will you put on a timer and will you eventually make him go to bed? Yes. Will there be tears? Yes. But my hope is that there will be FAR LESS...

;)

How much physical activity is the kid getting at daycare? Outdoor play, dance parties, 'yoga', jumping, etc. I moved my kid to a 'school' that prioritizes outdoor play and things got a lot better. Sleep, mood, appetite. Easier for everyone.

Such a good point. My kids are older and it STILL matters. (And I'm grateful my 7th grader still has recess every day, no matter the weather. Makes a huge difference for everyone.)

I meant to add... RUN HER LIKE A PUPPY! Lol.

Yes. Yes. 

My daughter is in 6th grade (11.5 years old). She has been asking me for a while for permission to be dropped off at the mall with her friends. I'm friends with the moms of some other girls in her class and they say that they drop their kids off with $20, let them shop with friends, and then pick them up 2 hours later. My daughter is responsible and I trust her, but is 11 too early? I offered to bring her and her friends to the mall and give them "space" but basically still supervise them and she said that would be so "lame." Am I being too helicopter-y? I do want her to have some independence and her allowance is about ready to burn a hole in her pocket but for some reason I worry that 11 is too young...

Are you worried because you think your daughter is too immature to handle this alone time?

Or are you worried in a more general way, like pedophiles and kidnapping and whatnot?

You say she is responsible and trustworthy, so I am guessing that you are just a normal parent, nervous about this next step.

The first time I watched my daughter disappear into a crowd without me, I simultaneously panicked and died inside...even as I knew this was the way forward. It felt like Kindergarten drop off all over again...

It's hard.

So, yeah, let her go.

AND, you can STILL be in the mall. She says it is lame? Well, tell her she can sit at home and feel lame there, 'cause these are the rules.

Find the food court, bring a book, get a coffee, and meet them there in two hours. She will be fine with it and you will feel good about your parenting.

:)

My 11yr old has ADD (without the hyperactivity). Her medication isn't working as well as it used to, so she's been struggling since school started. We're working with her doctor to find the best medication & dose. I've also been reading a lot about ADD. Do you know if there's a good book out there for her to read, that will help her to understand ADD more, and also to learn some coping strategies? She reads at a post-high school level, so reading and understanding adult books wouldn't be a problem, but I'm looking for something that's suited for her maturity level. Thanks.

I've seen workbooks for kids with ADHD. That might help her understand what's going on and what she has control over with time and practice. And you might want to look at Driven to Distraction if you haven't yet. It may be beyond her maturity level, but it's really informative. Meanwhile, "What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew" may be a good one for you. I'd also check with your pediatrician/therapist/school counselor for suggestions. 

To the parents who have bedtime shenanigans: Our 3-year-old responds very well to "defying" us. This is ridiculous, but we tell him, "Do NOT get in the bathtub!" He runs to the tub. "Do NOT brush your teeth!" He laughs hysterically while brushing his teeth.

Making it a fun game! Nice. 

Our 8 year old son is a good, smart, kind kid who is always loved by his teachers. He also has truly atrocious handwriting- like pre-K level when he is now in third grade. He also has trouble completing his assignments. He is in a split classroom with one teacher being primarily math and the other primarily reading. Both say he demonstrates he knows the material but he won't finish the assignments. He has trouble paying attention during math instruction and is slow to complete his work. He won't do his writing assignments at all sometimes and will turn in a blank paper. Both teachers say that if he is in smaller groups and gets more personalized attention he does better. His math teacher is going to stat having him participate in both small groups to make sure he gets his work done and has been working with him before school to wrap up what he doesn't finish. Finally, his desk is a disaster and he can't keep it organized. The messy desk issue has been one from day 1 in elementary school. The handwriting and not being able to put his thoughts on paper for a writing assignment is was an issue in 1st grade, not as big a deal in second (maybe just a teacher difference) and is now an issue again in third. He's capable of all A's smarts-wise. It's dawdling getting his work done and being disorganized that's earning him C's. The teachers reached out to me but I don't know how to help other than he having him do a handwriting worksheet each day in order to "earn" his screen time and having him write a letter each weekend to tell someone (his choice) about something he did this week (also his choice). It's too soon if having him do these things at home is helping. I am at a loss for how to help him though the teachers seem to think there's something I could do. I just wish I knew what it is. I hate to see a smart kid fail and potentially set himself up as an adult who is disorganized and under achieving.

Sounds to me like it's time to talk to your pediatrician, if you haven't. When there's a gap between what you think your child knows (or what he demonstrates) and how it's translating at school, there's something to figure out there. Your pediatrician may want to test him for ADHD (which can mean he's got attention issues, not necessarily hyperactive... and it doesn't mean he needs medication. Sometimes, this just means he needs adjustments at school in how he is taught, where he sits, etc.), or executive functioning. There are so many things you, your school or your doc can do that can ease things for him. You need to do some detective work, though, and it does take time. This won't fix itself right away. Meghan? 

ALL kinds of red flags here.

See your doctor, stat. From handwriting issues to attention issues to other learning disabilities, your son needs support. The school sounds really involved and caring, so meet them halfway by meeting with some experts.

Are there specific social milestones I should keep an eye out for in our toddler(2yo)? She doesn't seem to want to play with other kids. Is this normal? There's another toddler a few months older whose mother tells me frequently asks about our child when they're not together and when they are together our child is more interested in playing by herself. At daycare, during group activities, she's often doing her own thing or with the group but maybe on the outside of it. I was(and still am) shy and I would describe her father as introverted, so if that's what she is, I'm not someone who sees introversion as something bad that needs to be fixed, but I also want to make sure I'm not ignoring any red flags either.

I love this list for milestones...especially emotional.

And YES, if you are shy and you married an introvert, the likelihood that you have a little introvert is very high. And that's great! Read "Quiet" by Susan Cain if you are wondering about all the great attributes of quiet children...there are many.

Also is it not developmentally appropriate for 2 yo's to "play together." They are more playing side by side, so don't worry about that at all.

I am essentially telling you to not worry. ;)

 

This was ME as a child. Literally. I was gifted! And nobody recognized this until I was in middle school and had an attentive teacher. Then, years down the road, when I was a senior in high school, i was also diagnosed with ADD. So yes, see your doctor and discuss these possibilities. I would have benefitted so much with some earlier intervention.

This weekend I took my toddler to an indoor play area. He was happily playing by himself when a little boy walked up and with no warning threw some toys right at my son's head. We were both shocked and I told the boy, "no!" and turned to comfort my son; the boy went away. Later, he came back again and before I could react, again with no warning picked up some toys and threw them at my son's head! I started to scold him more firmly and his Responsible Adult finally came and took him away. She did not seem surprised that he had been aggressive but she also did not apologize. A similar situation happened previously at a public play space at the mall where another kid laser-locked on my son and started pushing and hitting him repeatedly. Of course his Responsible Adult was nowhere to be found. In both cases, my son had not interacted with these kids at all. My child can be impulsive - grabbing another kid's toy or pushing past someone to go down the slide - but he is not aggressive. My spouse thinks I'm overthinking this but I am wondering why these kids have locked on to my son to harass him, and if there's anything I can do to head this off in the future. For what it's worth, I think I am a reforming people-pleaser who has been metaphorically pushed around in my life so I am eager to help my son avoid that in his own life.

You are overthinking this. LOL.

But listen, it totally stinks to watch kids rough up someone you love. And it is totally normal to feel "Mama (or Papa) Bear" when someone throws toys at your kid's head. 

Do I think this bruts are locking on to you toddler and targeting him? No, I don't. And the reason I love playgrounds, etc., is because it gives our children opportunities to tussle around. Children are PHYSICAL and while they shouldn't be allowed to beat each other up, the playground is a great place to learn natural consequences and resilience.

You cannot head-off bullies in the future. That's not your parenting job. Your job is create an environment for your son where he can steer clear when he needs to, and push back when he has to. Bullies serve as excellent examples for how to develop compassion and boundaries.

Don't be eager to help your son avoid issues...embrace them and keep moving forward. Avoiding pain is not living.

 

Good luck.

I could have written this letter a few months ago. Turns out the daycare teacher that would speak negatively about my son's behavior was showing how she was unable to handle the behavior. Call that meeting ASAP. The teachers should get a plan together to manage your child in the classroom, this is all age appropriate behavior. They may need more training or help. The facility should be able to easily handle this. They should be saying "this is what your daughter did today, and this is what we are going to do to deal with it" and you should walk away with a warm feeling that everyone is working together to help your child and protect the others in the classroom. For my son, it was more physical activity and being engaged in play-tasks. He would hit or bite when bored. In my case it I didn't recognize the signs that the daycare worker wasn't handling the situation right, she was overwhelmed and out of tools to deal with him. It took her reacting in an unprofessional manner to his behavior for me to realize this was a bigger deal and to bring in the daycare leadership. I'm not saying your situation will devolve so extremely...... But now we have him with teachers that have a plan that is written down, communicated to me, and i can copy their techniques at home. After that plan started, he's not had an incident at school since.

Hello, Thanks for taking my question. My 6.5-year-old is a super great kid. One of the things he's struggling with lately is having a hard time with disappointment. Even the most minor thing (think: a sticker breaking, it not being his turn to pick a tv show) leads to sobs pretty quickly. How do I help him get to right-sized reactions without invalidating his very real feelings? I feel like I'm so worried about making sure he knows it's okay to feel disappointed that I can't find my way to helping him be an appropriate amount of disappointed!

Just wanted to show you this:

Typically, a 6-year old:

Behavior

  • is expansive and out of bounds
  • is dramatic and loud
  • likes to show off
  • can be very affectionate
  • can be extremely enthusiastic and adventuresome
  • asks a lot of questions
  • is demanding, contrary or combative
  • is competitive – needs to be the fastest, best, the winner
  • may be aggressive
  • is stubborn
  • cries easily when hurt physically
  • tends to fling clothes all over the house
  • often loses shoes
  • suddenly seems clumsy and uncoordinated
  • may go through parents’ private stuff

Emotions

  • has a hard time dealing with any failure
  • cannot bear to lose or be criticized
  • loves to be flattered and praised
  • can be ambivalent, may have trouble making choices
  • is easily hurt emotionally

Six can be hard!

So, here is what is REALLY hard: you don't get to tell him what he has the right to feel disappointed about. Stickers and shows are his world...and there is a lot of developmental changeup at the half ages, so....

Really get on a routine and make sure FOOD, SLEEPING, and OUTDOOR PLAY is most importantly.

Welcome the disappointment without qualification. Hug and say you get it, and then YOU can move on. Meaning, you don't have to sit there and keep feeding the disappointment, so hug and walk away and get busy with something else.

Good luck.

Well, that does it for today, folks. Thanks for joining us. Want more parenting content? Sign up for our newsletter (packaged nicely and sent right to your inbox twice a week). And you can always check us out at washingtonpost.com/onparenting. Have a good week! 

In This Chat
Meghan Leahy
Meghan Leahy is a D.C.-based parent coach. She holds a master’s degree in school counseling from Johns Hopkins, taught high school English, and was a Parent Educator with PEP. She is the mom of three girls.
Amy Joyce
Amy Joyce has been at The Post, well, for a long time. Her first foray in to online chats were related to work. Now she's happy to chat about fun (but would like to believe the two can be one). She has been a Business reporter, editor for Weekend and the Going Out guide, and is now editing and writing for On Parenting. When not at work, she can be seen unsuccessfully dodging wiffle balls in her front yard.
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