Tips to deal with toddler aggression and tantrums

Toddler with hat

If you’ve been following me, you’ll know that our soon-to-be-4-year old J seems to have a few aggression issues. He’s a very gentle, kind boy so when he started to hit, bite and throw tantrums it wasn’t easy to reconcile his two personalities. I assumed it was normal (which it is, to a certain extent) and it did just seem like a phase he went through and then he was back to his sweet little ol’ self.

Until he wasn’t anymore.

We had a VERY rough patch with him 6 months or so last year and we tried everything to try to get our heads around it, so I would share the advice we were given by our paediatrician. Maybe you are going through something similar and this might help you, maybe you know someone this could help, or maybe you have some advice for me! But here goes.

Toddlers and tantrums

Obviously there is no one-size-fits-all anything when it comes to children. What could be one child’s tantrum is another child’s quiet play, so even though this is what happened with J, it does not mean that all toddler aggression looks the same.

For us, J had a few tantrums when he was 2 but we thought we had gotten off lightly. Then the tantrums came back. These could last 10 minutes or 45. There was no reasoning and he clearly didn’t know what to say – “Stay with me, no go away. Sit here, no don’t sit here” etc. Usually I would take him to his room and stay with him (without talking to him) while he shouted it out. But then he started to throw his toys and books – sometimes at me – and he would try to hit and bite and kick me.

mom with toddlers

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the world’s best mother. Some days I would sit it out. Other days I would leave his room and put him back in whenever he came out. Some days were worse than others and I would end up in tears, which I feel is not a good look in front of your 3-year old but there you have it. It was just so frustrating because it felt like whatever I did was the wrong thing.

His aggression started to come out at school too. We’d had the obligatory biting phase last year but that didn’t last long and it was mostly me who bore the brunt of it. This time things started to get a bit tricky because other kids were involved. Apparently there was kicking, hitting and pushing, and eventually one day his teacher called us to take him home. 3 years old and we’re already being called in to see the teacher!

Toddlers and sleeping

It was around this time that his sleeping got a lot worse. He had stopped napping during the day and so bath and bedtime was at the same time for both boys. Seb is 2 and still naps but he is still happy going to sleep early. Bathtime was usually at 6 and both boys would be in bed by 6.30pm. Now J began to need us to stay with him until he fell asleep, which could take up to an hour. If we didn’t he would come out of his room (which made watching Love Island awkward, to say the least). Then during the night he would wake up four or five times and come to our room and either try to climb into our bed or ask one of us to take him back to bed and sit with him. And this was happening every night.

sleeping toddler

When this first started happening I understood he might be a bit anxious and possibly having bad dreams. Immediately we banned TV on weekdays and before bedtime on weekends. In other words, the boys were watching much less TV and much earlier in the day when they were. We also gave him a nightlight, which he used every night. The bad dreams became better but he was still waking up.

This went on for months and months – bad sleep, bad mood, bad tantrums. When we were called in to the school we decided we needed to do something about it. The school recommended play therapy but I was hesitant to jump into that so the Beard and I went to chat to the boys’ paediatrician.

And we found out some very interesting things.

What could be causing his behaviour?

  • Sleep problems
  • Change
  • Lockdown
  • Communication

Toddlers and sleep problems

While we were obviously worried about the aggression and the tantrums, as soon as Dr Page heard about the sleep issue, she got this knowing look in her eyes. If we sort out the sleep, we’ll sort out everything else, she told us.

Not enough sleep or not enough good sleep can have disastrous effects on our kids. If you think about how you as an adult feel when you’ve had a bad night or went to sleep too late, you can just imagine how your little kids can feel when they’re tired. And they don’t know that they’re feeling the way they are because they are tired. Instead, they are just irritable, emotional messes.

Toddlers and change

Kids thrive on routine. It provides them with predictability and helps them feel safe. If circumstances change in their everyday lives, it will affect them without you even realising. This can be from something as simple as inconsistent bedtimes or a more major life change.

Poor J had so many changes in 2020 (didn’t we all).

Obviously 2020 has had a lot to do with it. When Lockdown Stage 5 was announced, we decided to ask the nanny and her daughter (11) and niece (4) (who lives with her) to move in with us. I still think it was a good idea for many reasons, but we are now bearing the brunt of that decision. J at the time was still napping during the day but the 4yo had already dropped her nap. When J realised in the second week that she stayed awake during naptime, he obviously wanted to do the same – so he stopped sleeping in the day. When that happened I simply thought he had outgrown his naps, which we had been expecting to happen for a while.

Fastforward a few months and Seb started going to school, which might not sound like a big deal but he is now at the same school that J is at. J has always been the big boy and Seb the baby but now that Seb was at school he was also a big boy and I think Seb stole a bit of J’s thunder. So even though J wasn’t acting out against Seb at school he was processing this change in other ways.

Jeremy and Seb

Toddlers and lockdown

I really thought J was handling everything so well, But Dr Page says we can’t underestimate the effect lockdown has had on our young ones. I assumed that because both J and Seb were so young when it happened, and because it meant we were home more (which I thought was a positive change), I thought they would be spared the emotional affects that older children might experience.

However, any change has consequences. The fact that we were now at home all the time, Ester and her family were living with us, and that we stopped going out seems to have made an impact on the boys. They have never had a problem with masks or anything obvious like that, but J clearly picked up on the anxieties and weirdness of the situation as it was becoming obvious through his behaviour.

Toddlers and communication

This, thankfully, was the one issue which we don’t think is affecting J but which can affect many toddlers. J has always been a very verbal and communicative child so while many children get frustrated if they cannot communicate what they are feeling or wanting, and this can lead to tantrums, J has always been able to make us very aware of his feelings and the reasons for them.

So great, only 3 out of 4!

mom hugging toddler

Now, how to deal with all this?

  • Medical check
  • Sensory check
  • Sleep solutions
  • Consistency

Medical check

So the first step was to find out if there were any medical issues that were affecting his sleep – stomach cramps or ear problems or something like that which could make him angry or unhappy or interfere with his sleep. We sent his stool sample off to get tested for parasites or any nasties – but that turned out to be clean. And we dewormed him. So glamorous, this parenting is.

Sensory check

Then Dr Page asked us if we had noticed if J did certain things. Did he always want to be hugged and picked up? Did he enjoy jumping on the trampoline and being held upside down? Did he headbutt people? Yes, yes, and (weird but true) yes. We’ve always noticed that J is a bit sensitive when it comes to loud noises but I never thought it was extreme enough to label it a sensory issue.

But that’s because we didn’t know about tactile sensory issues.

If a child has a tactile sensory issue, they are sensitive to touch. Some kids are hyper-sensitive, which means they are very often overwhelmed by touch. These kids often won’t wear scratchy clothing, or won’t want to go on the swings, or might not enjoy hugs. Others, like J, are hyposensitive. They have a constant need for touch, love jumping/spinning/swinging, are fidgety, and enjoy serious hugs. They probably use touch and movement to regulate themselves and calm themselves down. When they feel overwhelmed they seek out touch, and if they don’t get it they can lose control.

Now that we knew that we could use that to help him calm down when he got angry and hopefully divert his behaviour before it escalated to a tantrum – push the reset button, so to speak.

Now, when we notice that J is getting a bit manic or aggressive or sensitive (all probably because he’s tired), we ask him if he wants a hug and spend a loooong minute giving him a strait-jacket hug. It’s often enough to help him choose not to hit someone or throw something. Even randomly during the day we try to give him big, hard hugs so he can benefit from the touch which really does seem to calm him down. When we’re sitting with him we’ll make sure we rub his back or his arm or leg. We spend a lot of time outside climbing, jumping, spinning.

Sleep solutions

The best solution for sleep issues is consistency. We realised we needed to be stricter on bedtimes, even on weekends. Because our boys are so similar in age, it’s always been a bit of a guessing game to see if we can get them to bed at the same time. Every day we need to make sure we are doing the same bedtime routine and at the same time.

Because of this sensory issue, Dr Page suggested we get a weighted blanket. This is a blanket specially made for the weight of your child. It’s a small but heavy blanket – J’s is 2kgs for his 15kg. He’s been using one for a week now and his wakings are slowly becoming fewer. Of course we’ll never know if it’s the blanket or just because things are changing due to time but he likes it so we’re sticking with it.

Dad throwing toddler in the air in forest

Consistency

As I said, consistency when it comes to a bedtime routine is key for healthy sleep habits. But consistency is also important when it comes to discipline and boundaries. This is especially somewhere the Beard and I struggle because we are very different parents and we like to do things differently. We’ve had to sit down and be very clear about the different steps we take when one of the boys starts acting out, but then we need to regularly check in with each other and reconnect to remind each other what we decided.

So where are we now?

The weighted blanket is in the cupboard.

J still wakes at night, sometimes once or twice, sometimes 5 or 6 times.

J still has tantrums but they are so few and far between I like to think we are diverting a fair amount of them.

We are more sensitive to his sleep patterns, so we know when to expect more tantrums or aggressive behaviour.

We make sure we spend a lot of time on the trampoline, on the swings, giving hugs, climbing and jumping over things – anything that incorporates movement.

We are still tired. He is still an at-times-angry kid. But things are better.

Let me know if you have tried any of these or if any of this resonates with you. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.

family portrait in the forest