Q: My 2 1/2-year-old goes to child care a few days a week. His teacher has been telling me that my son hits and is very aggressive with the other kids. He's not talking very much yet, so it's hard for me to know what is going on with him and to discipline him. What can I do?
A: Aggressive behavior in toddlers is not uncommon. They have strong feelings that they express in many different ways, often through action. Aggression can be the result of many different things—frustration that they can’t do or have everything they want, difficulty managing strong emotions, recent changes in their lives (new baby, parent on a business trip)—and countless other reasons. Key to effectively addressing the behavior is understanding why your child is feeling angry and “acting out” at this time.
One hypothesis, based on your description of your child, is that his behavior is connected to his language development. By age 2 1/2, most children have a growing vocabulary and can string several words together, such as, I want truck! to communicate what they are thinking and feeling. Sometimes children this age don’t have the words, but are able to communicate through gestures (such as pointing) and vocalizations or single words (such as, “Mine!”), which lets others know what they want.
Children who are limited in their ability to communicate with words often use actions to express themselves, like hitting the child who has the truck he wants. In addition, when a child is unable to let others know what he needs, that in itself can be frustrating and lead to aggressive behavior. The classroom environment can also be a factor. For example, sufficient open space, multiples of similar toys, and teacher availability are critical for helping a child learn to wait, use his words, and manage frustration. Spending time in the classroom to see the situation from your son’s point of view may help you determine the next best course of action.
If you are concerned about his language development, you may want to consider seeking an assessment by a speech therapist who can help determine whether your son’s behavior is related to a delay in language development. You can get referrals to a speech therapist from your child’s health care provider or from a local child development center. Typically, a speech therapist will assess a child through play and other activities. You should be an important part of this process—sharing your observations of and ideas about your child (indeed, you know him best)—and be present in the actual session(s). These assessments can be very useful in identifying if your son needs help in developing language and for making a plan to help him learn good communication skills that will hopefully lead to his learning to “use his words” to express his anger in non-aggressive ways.