We all have feelings of anger and aggression and so does your child. These impulses are normal and healthy. Some children are naturally aggressive in ways that begin to show during the second year. They want to take charge and control everything that goes on around them. When they don't get what they want, they may turn their energy toward violent behavior like kicking, biting, or hitting. When this happens, you need to take control for him and help him develop judgment, self-discipline, and the other tools he needs in order to express his feelings in more acceptable ways.
How can you help your child gain mastery over these impulses and feelings? The most important step you can take is to set firm, consistent limits. This will help him understand what is expected of him and what behavior is, and is not, permitted. As part of setting firm, consistent limits, be sure that everyone who cares for your child agrees on the rules he's expected to observe as well as the response to use if he disobeys. Whenever he breaks an important rule, he should be reprimanded immediately so that he understands exactly what he's done wrong.
It's also important to help your child find ways to deal with his anger without resorting to violence. Teach him to say no in a firm tone of voice, to turn his back, or to find compromises instead of fighting with his body. Through example, teach him that settling differences with words is more effective and more civilized than with physical violence. Praise him and tell him how "grown-up" he is acting whenever he uses these tactics instead of hitting, kicking, or biting.
Your youngster has little natural self-control. He needs you to teach him not to kick, hit, or bite when he is angry, but instead to express his feelings through words. It's important for him to learn the difference between real and imagined insults and between appropriately standing up for his rights and attacking out of anger.
In some families aggressiveness is encouraged, especially in boys. Parents proudly call their little child "tough," which he may take to mean that he has to kick and bite in order to win their approval. In other families, a toddler's aggressive outbursts are considered an omen of future delinquency. Believing they have to come down hard on this behavior as soon as it appears, the parents spank or hit the child as punishment. However, a child treated this way can begin to believe that this is the correct way to handle people when you don't like their behavior, so this reaction may just reinforce his aggressiveness toward others. The best way to teach your child how to hold his aggressive impulses in check is to be firm and consistent when he misbehaves. Also, give him a good example to imitate with your own behavior and that of his siblings.
Despite all this, it is very normal for youngsters to have occasional outbursts, especially during temper tantrums. Most children get angry at others only when they are provoked. Unless they are very tired or overstressed, they usually can be distracted or consoled, and will quickly forget their anger. They may cry, argue or yell, but they resort to violence only when they are extremely frustrated.
Some children are supersensitive, easily offended, and quickly angered. Many of these youngsters have been tense and unusually active since birth. They are often more difficult to soothe and settle as infants. Beginning in the preschool years, they show signs of becoming violent toward other children, adults, and even animals. They often lash out suddenly and for no apparent reason, and may seem to be touchy or irritable most of the time. Even if they hurt someone in their anger, they rarely are sorry, and never feel responsible for the incident. Instead, they blame the other child for "making me angry," as if this excuses their own actions.
Your child might go through a brief period of this kind of behavior if he's particularly worried, tired, or overstressed, but if it continues for more than a few weeks, consult your pediatrician. If it becomes a routine daily pattern for more than three to six months, it should be viewed as a serious problem.
One of the best ways to teach your child nonviolence is to control your own temper. If you express your anger in quiet, peaceful ways, he probably will follow your example. If you must punish him, do not feel guilty about it and certainly don't apologize. If he senses your mixed feelings, he may convince himself that he was in the right all along and you are the "bad" one. While punishing your child is never pleasant, it is a necessary part of parenthood and there is no reason to feel guilty about it. Your child needs to understand when he is in the wrong so that he will take responsibility for his actions and be willing to accept the consequences.
Excerpted from "Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5" Bantam 1998