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Ages & Stages

10 Tips to Prevent Aggressive Behavior in Young Children

toddler aggressive

There are many times when your child's behavior warms and embraces your heart. But there are other times when it probably drives you a little crazy.

As a toddler or preschooler, your child may lack the self-control to express anger peacefully. Instead, they may naturally lash out, perhaps hitting or biting in frustration.

While occasional outbursts are normal―especially during temper tantrums―there are things you can do to shape your child's behavior.

  1. Teach your family's rules. Children don't understand rules until they're taught them. So, set clear rules and expectations for behavior. See "How to Shape & Manage Your Young Child's Behavior.")

  2. "Control yourself." They can't yet. Remember, young children have little natural self-control. They need you to teach them not to kick, hit, or bite when they are angry, but instead to express their feelings through words.

  3. Avoid threats. Rather than saying, "Stop it or else," it is always more effective to teach alternative behavior. Briefly ignore the minor misbehavior, then tell your child what to do instead.

  4. "Great job!" For discipline to be most effective, it should take place on an ongoing basisnot just when your child misbehaves. Tell your child how "grown-up" they are acting when they behave in appropriate ways, rather than hitting, kicking or biting. Give praise and genuine affection when your child behaves in ways you like, such as being kind and gentle.

  5. "We don't hurt each other." Supervise your child carefully and watch for conflicts with playmates. If a dispute is minor, keep your distance and let the children solve it on their own. However, step in if children get into a physical fight that continues even after they're told to stop. The same applies when one child seems to be in a rage and is hitting or biting the other. Pull the children apart and keep them separate until they have calmed down.
    If the fight is very violent, you may have to end the play session. Make it clear that it doesn't matter who "started it." Explain that there is no excuse for trying to hurt each other.
  6. Instead of fighting. Teach your child to say "no" in a firm tone of voice, to turn their back, or to compromise instead of fighting with their body. Through example, teach them that settling differences with words is more effective--and more civilized—than using physical violence.

  7. Use healthy distractions. While teaching your child appropriate ways to respond, there's also nothing wrong with distracting them when they are starting to get upset. Getting them involved in another activity can help calm them down. Just avoid "bribing" them to behave differently.

  8. Use time-outs sparingly. There's also nothing wrong with using a time-out when your child's behavior is inappropriate. Time-outs should be a last resort, however. See How to Give a Time-Out for more information.

  9. Control your own temper. One of the best ways to teach them appropriate behavior is to watch your own temper. If you express your anger in quiet, peaceful ways, your child probably will follow your example.

  10. Stay strong. If you must discipline your child, do not feel guilty about it and certainly don't apologize. If your child senses your mixed feelings, they may decide that they were right all along, and you are the "bad" one.

    Although disciplining your child is never pleasant, it is sometimes a necessary part of parenthood. Your child needs to understand when they are in the wrong. Teach them to take responsibility for their actions and be willing to accept the consequences.

What's the difference between discipline and punishment?

While many parents think that discipline and punishment are the same thing, they are not.

  • Discipline is a way of teaching and a way of enhancing a good parent-child relationship. When you discipline, you should provide your child with praise along with instruction in a firm tone. Your intent is to improve their behavior.

  • Punishment is negative; you are dispensing an unpleasant consequence when your child does or doesn't do something. Punishment is a part of discipline, but only a small part.

Until age 3 and sometimes later, children simply don't understand the concept of punishment. Setting limits is a much better approach than punishment. Most children will respond to clear, calm and sure limit-setting.

When to call the pediatrician

If your child seems to be unusually aggressive for longer than a few weeks, and you cannot cope with their behavior on your own, consult your pediatrician. Other warning signs include:

  • Physical injury to themselves or others (teeth marks, bruises, head injuries)

  • Attacks on you or other adults

  • Being sent home or barred from play by neighbors or school

  • Your own fear for the safety of those around him

The most important warning sign is how often the outbursts happen. Sometimes children with behavior disorders will go for several days or a week or two without incident. They may even act quite charming during this time. However, few can go an entire month without getting into trouble at least once. Keep in close contact with your child's teacher, school and other caregivers to monitor their behavior.

Your pediatrician and other mental health specialists can help you find several effective ways to reward good behavior and discourage bad. These can be used to establish an approach that works both at home and away. The progress may be slow, but such programs usually are successful if started when behavior disorders are just beginning to develop.


The best way to prevent aggressive behavior is to give your child a stable, secure home life. Provide firm, loving discipline and full-time supervision during the toddler and preschool years.

More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age Five 7th edition (Copyright © 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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