How to Deal With an Aggressive Toddler – 3 Calming Steps

How can you deal with an aggressive toddler in an emotionally healthy way?

Few behaviors bring up so much emotion and potential confusion as aggression in our kids.

We want to keep our cool, but often inside, alarms bells are ringing, flinging us into an unhelpful emotional state ourselves.

Challenges we face when handling an aggressive toddler:

  • Aggression can tip off our own reaction, making it hard to stay calm.
  • This might be the first time you're handling challenging behavior from your child, making it feel scary and overwhelming.
  • Toddlers have limited verbal skills, so “using your words” only goes so far.

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Today we have a guest excerpt by Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, registered psychologist and author of Parenting Right From the Start.  She gives us 3 steps to deal with an aggressive incident with your toddler in a way that allows for healthy emotional growth.


3 Steps to Handling Aggression in a Toddler

When your dealing with aggression in a toddler, who may not have great verbal skills, how do you stay calm for them and help them get calm too?

  • 1. Start by responding to any aggressive incident with connection.

This is not a time to focus on behavior but a time to focus on connection and relationship.

This might sound like, “I really see how upset you are! Oh, my girl, I know! It is so frustrating! I am here. You are okay. We are good. We will get this sorted.”

The message you send with this response is, I SEE you, I HEAR you. Instead of rushing in to teach a stern lesson, be present to the truth of who your child is—a little human who is doing exactly what they need to grow. 

  • 2. Drop a Flag

Part of safely containing your child during an aggressive outburst is to let them know what must happen. This is where you “drop a flag”.

Not deliver a lecture. Not teach a lesson. Just drop a flag.

Flag drops are all about getting in and getting out, so the art of brevity is paramount. I recommend making flag-drop communications less than five words: “That must stop.” “Gentle.” “Hands are not for hitting.”

If you drone on about the lesson, your child will feel as if connection has been shut down; they sense you do not understand where they are. As soon as they catch a whiff of lack of understanding from you, the door to co-operation slams shut because that is how the attachment brain works.

This shuttering of co-operation is what Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank called “counterwill.”

When connection is high, resistance will be low. And when connection is low, resistance will be high.

You reduce connection when you fail to see and hear your child in their moment of struggle. They just want and need you to see that struggle and help them through it.

The time for teaching the lesson is later, when everyone, including yourself, is calm. Only then, after you have created a sense of connection, can you enter in with some teaching and cultivating of good intentions for next time.

  • 3. Invite Softness and Tears

When a young child has gone on an aggressive attack, the way to bring them back to a place where they can be calmed is to dance them to their tears. Yes, your job is to help your child cry.

But this is a special kind of crying, one made of soft, sad tears rather than hot, angry tears. And the way you dance a child from big, aggressive anger to soft, sad crying is by being soft yourself.

When you empathize with their big feelings as you contain their aggressive behavior, your child will eventually soften, moving from explosive attack to surrendered sadness.

Over time, the more practice your child gets with the loop of mad to sad, the better they will be at self-regulating and the more successful they will be at avoiding the aggressive behavior altogether.

Around age five to seven years, a child will start to find their way through low-intensity kinds of challenges without meltdowns and outbursts.

If you are growing an orchid child, this settling may take longer—even five years or more—as the orchid child has more intense feelings to cope with and must have a more mature brain before you see evidence of its prowess with self-regulation.

With practice, this brain will eventually support the child with more adaptive energy rather than attacking energy. How do I know that will happen? Because that is nature’s design, and when we support it rather than try to stamp it out, growth occurs. 

For more on how to have a caring and healthy presence for your child in the baby and toddler years, check out Dr Lapointe's new book, Parenting Right From the Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler Years. I find Dr. Lapointe's advice to be clear, non-shaming and confidence building.

Along with how to deal with an aggressive toddler, she uses her psychology background to explain why certain practices are best for optimal development in general. You're left able to make choices that align with the way your child's brain is growing and that will help you have a connected, loving relationship.