Parents Frustrated by Aggressive Toddler

How should I handle a three-year-old toddler who is mean and aggressive with other children? He's fine at home where there aren't any other children around. But when he's at church or with another family that has children his age, his behavior becomes ugly. On occasion his aggression takes a physical form – hitting, kicking, and biting. But most of the time he's just loud, won't play nicely, and is generally disruptive and uncooperative. What should I do?

Some of the behavior you’re describing is not uncommon among toddlers, especially boys. Your son may simply have the active and energetic type of personality that wants to be in control and needs an extra special amount of parental direction and discipline. It’s also likely that he’s finding it hard to communicate with his playmates. You may be able to ease the frustration he’s feeling and eliminate most of the aggressive behavior by concentrating on teaching him positive communication skills.

Supervised play visits would be a good way of accomplishing this goal. Take your son to the home of another family with children. Explain to the parents beforehand that you’re making an intentional effort to teach your son how to get along with others. When you get there, sit down with the kids and engage in some kind of activity with them. Model good behavior and play skills for your son as you interact with the group. If you see his hostility or anger beginning to flare, stop him immediately and say something simple about being kind to others and sharing attention with them – for example, “That’s not the way we treat our friends.” If the behavior continues, take him aside to a quiet, boring place for a short two- or three-minute time-out. Stay there with him until he’s cooled off, then return to the play group and start over. He should understand before he even arrives that he only gets three strikes before he’s out. After the third meltdown, thank the other family for their hospitality and willingness to work with you. Then tell your son that playtime is over, pack up your things, and go home.

You can also have a powerful impact on your toddler’s behavior by inventing ways to recognize and highlight his positive actions. We’re not thinking here in terms of rewards, which can promote selfishness if offered in excess, but rather of family celebrations. A good way to do this is to place a glass jar in a prominent place and allow your child to put a marble in the jar every time he succeeds in playing nicely with other children. Then, when the jar is full, you can celebrate by taking the entire family out for ice cream or another fun activity.

If neither of these approaches has the desired effect, you may want to have your boy evaluated by a professional. It’s possible that his aggression and hostility could be attributable to a medical condition. It would also be a good idea to ask yourself if there are any family dynamics at work that may be contributing to the problem. What kind of interpersonal communication does your child observe at home? Remember, it’s a matter of the utmost importance to model what you teach. If you want your son to learn kindness, be kind. If you’re attempting to extinguish aggression, it doesn’t make sense to be harsh and aggressive yourself. If you decide that your family does have issues in this area, we strongly recommend that you work them through with the help of a trained Christian marriage and family counselor.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss this subject at greater length with a member of our staff, we’d like to invite you to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded)

Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care

Have a New Kid by Friday

The New Dare to Discipline

The New Strong-Willed Child

Boundaries With Kids: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life

Other books on Discipline

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership

Family and Home Network


Effective Biblical Discipline

Toddler Misbehavior


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