Anger and frustration in toddlers

Helping toddlers with emotional regulation and working through anger and frustration.

Most toddlers can be aggressive. Biting, kicking, pulling, shoving, hitting and throwing things like their toys and food are very common behaviors among children in this age group. These aggressive behaviors often stem from being frustrated about not having power or control over their environment or from not being able to use words in a way to express what they want or feel. However, aggressive behavior while normal for this age group needs to be redirected and toddlers will benefit from learning more pro-social and productive ways to handle their anger and frustration.

It’s important that while learning about alternatives to aggressive behavior, the underlying emotions of what the toddler is feeling should not be ignored. The emphasis should be on appropriate ways to express the feeling – whether it is frustration, anger, sadness or disappointment in an appropriate way.  Is there stress in the toddler’s environment that may be contributing to her feeling angry or sad? The emphasis should not be on punishment, as this tends to increase the aggressive behavior and lead to more frustration on the toddler’s end (Joseph and Strain, 2008).

Just like adults need help in identifying triggers for their angry and aggressive behavior, parents and caregivers will benefit from knowing what is upsetting the toddler and causing her to behave this way. For example, do the aggressive outbursts happen right before meal time or during transitions? When parents and caregivers can plan for what may be setting a toddler off, they can help prevent it from occurring. Being able to anticipate behaviors in this way, can almost guarantee success for the toddler.

When a toddler does act out aggressively, it’s important for parents and caregivers to remain calm and in control. For an adult to spiral out of control would role model to the toddler that adults cannot handle their own emotions. It could also make a toddler feel even more insecure and out of control if the adult caregiver cannot maintain control in the situation (Brazelton, 2005).

Aside from maintaining control, here are some other helpful adult caregiver responses when toddlers behave aggressively:

  • Observe the child when she is calm and look for clues as to what might lead her to behave out of frustration or aggression. Children as young as age 2 will benefit from positive reinforcement when they are behaving appropriately or responding in pro-social ways to potentially upsetting situations. Talking and exploring with very young children when they are calm may give insights to what upsets them before they act out. Example: “I know it took a long time to prepare your snack, but I’m proud of how patiently you waited.”
  • Set limits. When young children behave aggressively, it’s important for them to know that the behavior is unacceptable. At the same time, it’s important to notice and help them name their feelings, but guide around the unacceptable behavior. Example: “I know you’re unhappy about leaving the play area, but you can’t kick Mommy.”
  • Be responsive and address the behavior immediately after the aggressive behavior happens. An unhelpful response would be to hit, yell or strike the aggressive child, as it would reinforce the aggressive behavior. Time outs for children over age 2, limit setting and firm redirection can be helpful.
  • Use a low tone when dealing with the behavior and use direct eye contact with the child.
  • Use humor when you can to make the situation more bearable for you or for the child when appropriate.
  • Use positive reinforcement. Look for opportunities when the child is expressing themselves or handling their anger and frustration in appropriate ways and give them positive feedback. For example, “I know leaving the play area can be hard, but you did it today and you should be proud.”

Toddlers can present challenging behaviors for parents and caregivers, especially when it comes to expressing their frustrations – and they are going to have many since they don’t know how to express their frustrations with language and because they do not have a lot of control over their environment. Helpful responses and appropriate role modeling from adults can make the difference between a toddler that learns to express themselves in an appropriate way and one that does not learn to regulate their frustration and anger. Parents and caregivers have a lot to look forward to since by age 3, most toddlers will have acquired the language and coping skills they need to curb aggressive behaviors and express frustration in appropriate ways (Early On Michigan, 2010).

For more information on emotional regulation, early childhood development or parenting, please visit the Michigan State University Extension.

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