Inside: If your toddler acts angry and aggressive toward you or others, knowing these three triggers may help prevent their intense, rage-driven behavior. While anger and aggression in toddlers is very common, it can be easily tamed by limiting these three simple things.
I could see it happening again.
The storm brewing behind her clear blue eyes. My 3 year old clenched her fists tight, her face contorted with rage.
I took a moment and thought to myself: something is not right.
Sure, my girl had her moments, but this was beyond. I Googled and Googled and found many positive and practical ways to deal with this behavior but what I couldn’t for-the-life-of-me figure out was what caused this behavior.
I considered every possibility – wondered what could be fueling this mystery rage. And it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks.
Later that night after the kids were in bed, I told my husband my suspicion.
It was time to cut back on 3 very specific things.
The common theme with my 3 year old’s behavior was that it always happened at the same time of day, around 3 PM – after I let her watch TV and eat an afternoon treat. Not 30 minutes later she would transform into the worst version of herself.
Initially, I wrote this off as the afternoon crazies (AKA toddler who doesn’t nap anymore) and figured that’s why she was acting so intense. But after I really stopped and considered, I realized I had been more relaxed about things lately.
My daughter had recently been sick, which meant we sort of fell into the trap of watching more and more TV.
I had also become too relaxed about sweets, figuring that since she was a good eater for a toddler, it was fine.
When faced with reality, I knew her angry, aggressive behavior was not fine.
So I tried a little experiment to see if I could tame my toddler’s angry and aggressive behavior, and mama, I urge you to do the same.
Why Is My Toddler So Angry?
You may be relieved to know that anger in toddlers is very normal. Think of your child like a river. Some days it’s smooth sailing and calm waters; other days it’s curling waves and churning waters. On the worst of days the water is spilling over and flooding the shores.
Anger is simply an outlet and a release for pent-up emotions.
If you stop and think of your toddler’s behavior in terms of your own, you may start to feel a little less worried. I get angry, don’t you? Even as an adult, I know my triggers (not enough alone time, not enough sleep) but can’t always avoid them or control my anger. – and I’ve had 30 years to practice!
Note: You are the best judge of your toddler’s anger. If at any time you feel their anger and aggression has reached a point that it feels out of the realm of “normal” – talk to your pediatrician. Anger and aggression in toddlers is common and most children will experience these behaviors in their own way, but it never hurts to seek the help of a professional if you feel it’s gone too far.
Here’s the funny thing about toddlers, though, whatever they appear to be angry about is usually not what they’re actually angry about.
Again, think of their anger in terms of your own. Has something ever happened to deeply upset you, only, instead of facing that anger you store it away for another day, only for it to come spilling out at an unfortunate time?
Toddlers are the same.
Are they really raging about not getting the blue cup… or are they showing you how upset they are about something that happened at preschool two days ago?
As parents in the trenches, it’s almost impossible to remember that it’s not about the blue cup. It’s easy to get swept up in their current and forget to check yourself and your own anger. And that’s okay; as parents, we’re learning too.
Anger doesn’t typically act alone, though. It’s usually accompanied by it’s close friend, aggression.
What Does Aggressive Behavior Look Like in Toddlers?
- Destroying property (toys, books, etc.)
- Saying hurtful things
You might also notice that your toddler’s features turn aggressive and their face becomes tight, hands fisted, heavy breathing, etc.
To be certain, aggressive behavior goes beyond that of a normal tantrum. This sort of behavior tends to show its face during a full-on meltdown or when your toddler has not dealt with their anger. Often, you can almost feel it coming.
In this case, anger and aggression go hand-in-hand, one fueling the other.
In her life-changing book, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham shares Preventative Maintenance tips for how to connect with your toddler and invite lesser meltdowns before the rage-y ones happen. Just trust me on this and buy the book, it changed the way I parent my toddlers 100%.
This begs the question: can you prevent anger and aggression in toddlers? The long-and-short answer is NO. Toddlers are humans, not robots. Like adults, they have feelings often beyond their control, that WILL spill out whether we are perfect parenting warriors or not.
That being said, you can work to mitigate or lessen their angry and aggressive behaviors by focusing on The 3 S’s:
3 Simple Ways to Tame Anger & Aggression in Toddlers
Oh, boy. I’ve opened a can of worms here, haven’t I? Everyone has their own opinion about sugar. Some parents claim sugar-related problems are a myth while others are hyper-restrictive. Whatever your viewpoint, I encourage you to consider this as a potential trigger for your toddler’s angry, aggressive behavior.
Sugar, or more specifically, white refined sugar, is in almost EVERYTHING. It can be seemingly impossible to avoid, even for the most well-meaning parents. Like any addictive substance, sugar can fuel your toddler’s behavior in a very negative way.
Children with ADHD and Autism are encouraged to avoid sugary foods to help regulate their behaviors, so why shouldn’t this apply to toddlers who struggle with anger and aggression?
So what “counts” as sugar?
- Honey, maple syrup, & agave (yes, even natural sweeteners count)
- Refined sugar (aka white sugar or brown sugar)
- Evaporated cane juice or cane sugar (natural sugar that hasn’t been bleached white)
- Artificial sweeteners: aspartame, high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, sorbitol, etc.
- Juice (even if it says “no sugar added” – the body still treats it as sugar)
- Simple carbs (aka white bread – the body also treats these starches as sugars)
While a toddler’s body will react differently to all of the above-mentioned forms of sugar, it still treats them as that – sugar.
Like adults, toddlers need a balanced diet that includes fresh fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, proteins, whole grains, and full-fat dairy. That being said, even the most vigilant or health-conscious parents may not realize how much sugar their toddler consumes in a day (especially when considering all of its various forms, listed above).
The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for a child 2-15 years old and no added sugar whatsoever for toddlers under two.
6 teaspoons is not a lot of sugar. It’s safe to say most kids eat way more than that. A good rule of thumb to follow is no more than one sweet treat (added sugar) per day for a toddler. You will know a product contains added sugars because some form of sweetener will be listed under the ingredients.
More on Toddler Nutrition
- How to Plan Your Toddler’s Meals
- What I Fed My Kids This Week
- How to Get Your Toddler to Eat More Leafy Green Vegetables
- What to Do When Your Toddler Won’t Eat
Let’s Be Real, Though. What About When “Real Life” Happens?
When I pick up my 3 year old from preschool I always bring her a snack for the ride home. Usually I pack a Larabar Kids since it’s easy on-the-go. While these are a favorite go-to snack (and naturally sweetened), it still counts as a sweet treat.
After devouring the entire bar, she was chatting with me on the ride home. I then learned that snack at school was Cheerios & Raisins (sugar and natural sugar…but still sugar) and it was ALSO someone’s birthday so the class had cupcakes (SUGAR) – I made a mental note that very minute to switch up my preschooler’s ride-home snack.
And it case you’re wondering, yes, she was an inconsolable insane person that afternoon.
We all have days like this with our kids; where they consume WAY more sugar than intended.
And that’s okay. We’re not striving for perfection here. My goal is simply to be more conscious and reduce my toddler’s sugar intake overall.
My purpose is not to scare you, or worse, to make myself sound like a control freak, but rather, to illuminate one aspect of your toddler’s life that could be contributing to their aggressive behavior.
To be clear, eliminating sugar or reducing your toddler’s refined sugar intake will not “solve” their anger issues. In most cases, anger and aggression have their own roots; but instead it might help to take them off the edge to begin with.
Before we move on to our second “trigger”, I’d like to share one final thought on the never-ending sugar debate.
This piece of information may either A) Very much surprise you or B) Not surprise you at all – Whatever the case may be, I totally believe it’s worth sharing.
Okay, this may be the surprising or not-so surprising part – published in 1976, YES, you read that correctly, 1976, in part of their series, Your 4-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful, Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D and Frances L. Ilg, M.D., write:
“…harmful food products, especially artificial colorings and flavorings, have been shown to produce dizziness, listlessness, fatigue, irritability, violence, and hyperactivity, and in school-age children, problems usually described as learning disabilities…if behavior is disappointing or unsatisfactory in major ways, and you can’t find the reason, at least consider the possibility that something in your child’s diet may be at the root of his difficulties (p.74).
Although they only mention artificial colors and flavors, as parents we know those two things are almost always accompanied by sugar. Whether it’s a birthday party cupcake or fruit gummy snack, children’s bodies are almost instantly affected by refined sugar, especially in conjunction with artificial additives.
I’m really starting to sound like I’m no fun. No sugar and now no TV??
Just hear me out.
My kids eat sugar and they watch TV – in moderation. And after some hard lessons learned, we don’t over-indulge in either.
Similar to sugar consumption, TV affects your toddler’s behavior in ways that may not be immediately apparent, especially where anger and aggression are concerned.
When discussing angry and aggressive toddler behaviors, sugar and screen-time are often ignored as possible culprits and yet, you may find that once you reduce or eliminate these two triggers, your toddler’s mood, behavior, and overall demeanor improves drastically – as if a virtual fog has been lifted from them.
Screen-time and sugar have one very important thing in common: they’re both addictive. The more your toddler eats sugar, the more they will crave sugar. The more they watch TV or play on a tablet the more they will beg for screentime.
As with sugar, in a toddler who acts out with frequent anger and aggression, screentime must be limited. Whether it’s on a phone, tablet, laptop, or the TV, it must be limited.
How to Limit Screentime for Toddlers
Do you worry your toddler watches too much TV? And how much is too much? We of course all have those days where one kid is sick and it’s raining outside and mom barely slept and a Daniel Tiger marathon is looking pretty good right about now. Remember, I don’t judge. I’ve been there.
For this purpose, we’re focusing on daily life, rather than on those “off” days where we let the rules slide.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Limit digital media for your youngest family members. Avoid digital media for toddlers younger than 18 to 24 months other than video chatting. For children 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them because they learn from watching and talking with you. Limit screen use for preschool children, ages 2 to 5, to just 1 hour a day of high-quality programming. Again co-viewing is best when possible and for young children they learn best when they are re-taught in the real world what they just learned through a screen.
Having a set screen-time built into your daily routine is how you avoid power struggles and endless TV watching.
I use TV as a tool, twice a day to help get meals on the table. For I cannot chase around two toddlers, mediate, referee or what-have-you, while also frying eggs to order. Supermom, I am not. Therefore, my girls watch TV while I cook breakfast and while I cook dinner. And that’s it.
TV is not just a thing that’s on in the background, or something they can watch whenever. There are two specific times of day it’s allowed, the end.
What TV Shows are Appropriate for Toddlers? AKA What Do My Kids Watch While I Cook?
These are the shows my girls (2 & 4) are allowed to watch:
- Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (PBS Kids or Amazon Prime)
- Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (PBS Kids or Amazon Prime)
- Sesame Street (preferably the older episodes, PBS Kids or Amazon Prime)
- Kratts Creatures (the actual guys, not the cartoon, Amazon Prime)
- Tumble Leaf (Amazon Prime)
Too Much of a Good Thing…
It is essential to choose quality shows, especially for young kids. But even if the shows you choose are high-quality and educational, TV time still must be limited.
You may wonder how a simple show such as Daniel Tiger could cause a toddler to become a raging mess – and it’s important to remember that it’s not necessarily about the show, it’s about the withdraw of being removed from the stimulation of TV.
Screentime has a sort of sedation-effect on kids. And that’s why I use TV when I need to be using sharp knives and cooking over a hot stove – I just do not need two kids to be a part of that.
It follows that once the TV is turned off, they’re essentially “snapped out of it” – and reality sets in. Enter the post-screen-time-meltdown.
If your toddler is consistently acting out with angry and aggressive behaviors, it’s time to get back to basics. Think of screentime in terms of your own childhood. If it wasn’t available to you, don’t make it available to your toddler.
My kids don’t have tablets or iPads. They use crayons and paper at restaurants. We play outside twice a day. As a parent, I make it a point to stare at my kids, and not my phone.
I like to pretend I’m raising my kids in the 90s, when TV was only available on the TV and we weren’t distracted by this fancy thing called the internet #oldschool. I don’t say this from some high-horse, or come from a place of judgement. This is simply to share what has worked wonders for my family.
After sugar and screentime, there’s one final ‘S’ to discuss.
Or more specifically, over-stimulation.
Our first two anger and aggression “triggers” we discussed were sugar and screentime, both of which are stimulants in some way; and both can easily cause over-stimulation in toddlers.
Aside from excess sugar and too much TV, what else can overstimulate a toddler?
- Not enough sleep
- Not enough downtime (ex: too over-scheduled with activities, errands, etc.)
- Not enough alone time (AKA quite time or independent play)
- Too many toys
These are just a few examples you may notice in your everyday life. Naturally, we can’t always control these factors, but we can certainly try.
It’s important to remember that all toddlers will react differently when overstimulated. Some may shut down completely, others may act manic or become hyperactive. In any case, however your toddler behaves when over-stimulated, it’s never a bad idea to re-establish balance in their daily life.
How to Prevent Over-stimulation in Toddlers
Sleep: This is a tough one, and often can feel out of our control. People are typically surprised to hear that our kids go to sleep between around 6:30 PM. When it comes to sleep for toddlers, more is more.
Here are some posts you may find helpful:
Downtime: Toddlers have the rest of their lives to be over-scheduled. Prioritize what matters most. As a stay-at-home mom of two, I delight in being “un-busy” and keeping our days simple.
Alone Time: This is a tricky one. Like adults, toddlers need time alone, but they could seemingly cling to us for every second of every day and be content. I don’t need to tell you that this isn’t healthy for you or for them. Toddlers need independent playtime to reflect, calm down, and sort through everything their little brain is processing.
Toys: Or more specifically, too many toys, especially electronic toys. If it makes noise, flashes lights or talks, get rid of it or put it up in the closet for another day. A toddler who is experiencing anger and aggression does not need toys that will overstimulate them. Get back to basics: blocks, legos, dolls, puzzles, dress-up, playdough, etc. – and keep everything to a minimum.
To be certain, there are MANY acceptable, positive ways to deal with anger and aggression in toddlers, however, for the purpose of this resource, we focused on 3 “triggers” that may be contributing to or causing your toddler’s anger or aggression in the first place. How you handle their angry or aggressive behavior is another topic for another day.
You Should Know…
I don’t lead some sort of crazy restrictive unrealistic lifestyle with my kids. My older daughter and I have a standing mother-daughter date at Starbucks where I let her pick out a cake pop – aka ALL the sugar for her -and all the caffeine for me 🙂
But one day I realized something was wrong. Something had to change. While I am not a pediatrician or a professional, I can speak from my personal experience with my kids and I can say with certainty that reducing sugar, screentime, and stimulation made all the difference in my toddler’s angry and aggressive behavior.
Have you discovered other “triggers” or causes for angry and aggressive behavior in your toddler?
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