Why are toddlers so aggressive?
Hayden was about to turn two when he began to be aggressive. First he started biting. After getting in trouble for that, he began lashing out, hitting his mum – particularly in the face – and had recently begun kicking and throwing things.
Hayden’s behaviour became even more aggressive when his dad got him in trouble. If either Mum or Dad smacked him, he would respond by screaming at them and would then try to hit them back. He would then holler and scream, waving his arms and kicking his legs as he was carried to his room for a time-out.
Physical aggression in toddlers is thought to be related to two central sources. These are parental modelling, and language development.
Since the 1940s, researchers have identified that children are more physically aggressive when they experience language problems. This is true whether the child is a toddler or a teenager. Around a decade ago, researchers discovered that physical aggression problems don’t really begin until language develops – somewhere around 18-24 months.
In a recent large study, 2057 French-and-English-speaking Canadian children were followed in a longitudinal research project that began when the children were 17 months old and concluded when they were 72 months old (i.e. 6 years old). Parents evaluated the frequency of physical aggressions and the language abilities of their children at four time points during the study: at 17, 29, 41, 60, and 72 months. The parents’ behaviours were also assessed to understand whether they were punitive (punishing and angry) or affectionate.
The researchers found that children who had low language skills at 17 months committed more acts of physical aggression at 29 months. It appeared that poor language skills are a significant contributor to aggressive children.
The researchers also found that aggressive behaviour at 29 months was associated with lower language skills at 41 months. So it seems that children who are aggressive may, in fact, struggle to develop strong language skills. However this association was quite low, and the fact that it disappeared at 41 months could be explained by the fact that the 17-to-41-month period was marked by a significant development of language abilities and a high frequency of physical aggression.
In short, the researchers suggested that aggressive behaviour is likely not caused by language delays (or vice versa). While they are associated, there appears to be something else driving the aggression.
The researchers also looked at the parenting behaviour assessments and found that parents who were warm, loving, and affectionate had children with low aggression levels and good language development.
Similarly, parents who were punitive, harsh, and angry had children who were aggressive and who had lower levels of language development. In other words, the results lean towards the suggestion that when parents are warm, responsive, and compassionately attentive toward their toddlers (even when they are being challenging), they actually facilitate language learning and the learning of acceptable alternatives to physical aggression.
Because of the nature of the analysis, it is also possible that low aggression levels and good language development in children encourage parents to be affectionate toward them. It’s very easy to be soft, kind, and gentle with a child who speaks well and is ‘well-behaved’.
Will my toddler stop being aggressive?
The good news is that the frequency of physical aggression peaks between two and four years of age, before steadily declining through to adulthood – with a small spike during adolescence. These changes are associated with neurological development that helps children learn language, see the world from another’s perspective, regulate their behaviour, and manage their emotions.
Researchers believe that in addition to language development and parenting, some toddler aggression is related to genetics, temperament, and other neuro-development.
In other words, most toddlers will lash out. But it does seem that the gentler we are, the better they behave.
This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson for Kidspot.com.au and has been adapted for Kidspot.co.nz