When it comes to play, a toddler's lack of impulse control, combined with his burgeoning motor skills, can lead to rough moments. He may bite a sibling out of frustration, shove a pet that gets in the way or tackle a friend on a playdate. Even though it's both typical and developmentally appropriate for the one to three set, a toddler's aggressive behavior during playtime can lead to bigger problems if left unchecked.
Tame the Triggers
Toddlers typically lash out because they still lack the communication tools to fully express their feelings of anger or frustration, according to Ask Dr. Sears. While this is normal, these behaviors can foster anti-social behaviors in older children, such as bullying or taunting. The next time you see your child act out during play, make a mental note of what was happening. If she was hungry, if it was close to nap time, or if her sister took a toy from her, that might have triggered the reaction. As the saying goes, the best defense is a strong offense: Try to identify what is triggering the inappropriate behavior, and then adjust accordingly. Schedule playdates after naps when she's feeling refreshed. Create guidelines to share toys.
Nip it in the Bud
To teach your toddler rough play won't be tolerated, take swift corrective action with calm yet firm words. According to Ask Dr. Sears, a simple "We don't bite. Biting hurts" is a first step. If she continues to repeat the aggressive behavior, have her sit in time out—one minute for each year of her age. If her aggression was directed toward you, a friend or a sibling, have her apologize for her behavior. Consistency is key, states the national nonprofit Zero to Three; discipline must be reinforced each time she engages in rough play so she learns to associate actions with consequences.
A parent is a child's first teacher, so if you don't want your child to display aggressive behavior during play, don't model it—and certainly don't encourage it, suggests Ask Dr. Sears. In other words, if you typically handle conflict or frustration with yelling or physical aggression, then your child will, too. Likewise, if you have older children who are allowed to hit each other or play aggressively, your toddler will think that's appropriate and acceptable. He could transfer it to his own playtime and even to preschool.
Hug it Out
If your tot seems to prefer throwing dolly down the stairs over rocking her to sleep, try redirecting her. You could ask, "I think the dolly needs a hug, don't you?" or try engaging her in creative play: "I think dolly would really like it if we read her a story and rocked her to sleep." If your little one is bent on destroying the new book Grandma brought over, sit down with him and explain that books are meant to be read, not torn apart—and then read it to him. If these measures don't seem to have any effect, talk it over with a pediatrician. This type of acting out can be a sign of a more deeply rooted anxiety or anger issue, according to Ask Dr. Sears.
Promote Good Behavior
According to Zero to Three, positive reinforcement and the praise of good behavior can go a long way toward encouraging your toddler's self-control. When you see your child in an act of kindness, heap on the praise. For older toddlers, Ask Dr. Sears suggests creating a concrete reward system, such as a sticker chart, where your child can earn a sticker for each "good deed." Once the chart is finished, reward him with a small toy or trip to the ice cream store.