Expert Opinion

Child’s Aggressive Behaviours

Why won’t my children listen to me and what can I do about it?

As a parent, it can be frustrating when your toddler doesn’t listen to you. It’s important to recognise that our responses to our child’s noncompliance can impact whether or not they listen to us in the future. If we let them get away with not following our instructions, they learn that there’s not much value or weight in our requests.

To encourage your toddler to listen to you, speak to them about the importance of following your instructions. You can also refer to the rules in the house (if you don’t have any – now’s the time to create some!) and the outcomes that come with following or not following them.

Another strategy is to apply natural consequences in a kind way. For example, if you’ve asked your toddler to put their helmet on to ride their scooter and they don’t listen, you could say, “I asked you to put on your helmet and you didn’t listen, so we will be putting the scooter away.” This teaches your child that there are consequences for not following instructions.

It’s also important to praise your child when they do follow your instructions. I often ask parents as the first strategy when they come to see me for behavioural strategies, to start noticing the positives. Sometimes we focus so much on what’s NOT going right, that we miss how many positive behaviours our child is displaying. This approach works in two ways. Firstly, it helps parents put the challenging behaviours in perspective – maybe the negative behaviours don’t actually outweigh the positives like they thought.

So, make a big deal out of any instances of positive behaviour that you notice, and show them that you appreciate their efforts. To make this more meaningful, try giving them easy instructions that you know they’re likely to follow. This could be something like coming to sit at the table for dinner or packing up the toys.

By using these strategies, you can encourage your toddler to listen to you and understand the importance of following instructions. Remember, it takes time and consistency, but with patience and effort, you can help your child develop positive listening habits.

How should I manage my child’s aggressive behaviours?

Firstly, we need to reframe the behaviour more specifically. Perhaps it is a communication difficulty, sensory processing response or problem-solving issue. Labelling it specifically rather than labelling it as aggressive lets us understand the root of the problem and is far more neutral in tone. When we hear that a child is being ‘aggressive’ it makes us think they are intentionally wanting to hurt someone else when in fact that is most often not the case with toddlers.

My go-to strategies start with being aware of your own interpretation of the situation and how this might be impacting your response. As a parent, it can be helpful to move beyond your emotional reaction to your toddler’s behaviour and focus on what they need at that moment. By doing this, you can respond to their needs and provide them with proactive tools to better manage similar situations in the future.

Once you’ve unpacked your own baggage, try to work out the cause of the behaviour – what is the function, or the underlying reason? Is your child hitting because they’re wanting your attention while you’re on the phone? Are they throwing sand at another child at childcare because they are upset that the child has taken their toy? Are they running into you at full speed when you get home because they enjoy the sensory input this provides? By establishing the reason for the behaviour you are now in a position to address it effectively.

So, your job is now to teach your child more functional ways of meeting that need. So, instead of throwing sand, you can teach your child to say “Hey that’s mine”. Instead of hitting you while you’re on the phone, teach your child to give a gentle tap. And if they’re sensory seeking, provide other ways they can get that input that doesn’t hurt anyone else.

The behaviour will still occur, particularly while the teaching phase is happening. So try some reactive strategies to respond to your child’s behaviour that don’t inadvertently meet that underlying need because that will accidentally reward your child for the behaviour. So, when they hit you while you’re on the phone, move away and don’t give them attention. Remove your child from the sand pit if they’re throwing the sand, and enter the house differently to avoid providing sensory input to your child at the end of the day. 

You can also put some proactive strategies in place to prevent the behaviours from occurring. For instance, if your child is hitting to get your attention while you’re on the phone, try having a special activity reserved only for times when you’re on the phone. This could be something that your child really enjoys and can engage with independently while you are unable to give them your attention. So get creative and think about ways that you can plan in advance to prevent the behaviour from happening while your child is still learning how to successfully manage the situation.

My child has started biting other children at daycare – why is this and what should I do?

Biting can be very confronting – especially if you’re not sure why it is happening and your mind jumps to the worst possible scenario. 

We often see children biting others because they don’t have the language to manage the situation in any other way. Or perhaps they are lacking the problem-solving skills to navigate a tricky social interaction. And of course, it is likely they’ve received a big reaction for the biting, which can unfortunately inadvertently reinforce this behaviour. 

To reduce the biting, think about how you can tackle this problem proactively by teaching replacement skills that your child can use instead of biting. This could be things like teaching your child to say “stop it” or to seek help if they feel frustrated. 

You’ll still need some reactive strategies to manage the biting when it does happen during the phase where your child is still learning the new replacement skills. 

It can be helpful to direct your toddler to more functional behaviours when they display any challenging behaviour – in this case, biting. 

Punching a pillow is a great strategy for toddlers who just need to release their emotions. This activity can help them “get it out” in a safe and controlled way, allowing them to calm down without causing harm to others.

Running up and down the hallway is another helpful strategy for reducing adrenaline levels. This technique can be particularly effective if your toddler is headed towards an outburst but has not yet reached their breaking point.

Finally, teaching your toddler to go to a calming space can be an incredibly useful tool. This will allow them to take a break from a stressful situation and calm down before returning to the task at hand. It’s important to make sure that your toddler views this as a positive tool rather than a punishment.

About the author

Amanda Abel is a paediatric psychologist, mum, and founder of Northern Centre for Child Development (NCCD) and Hawthorn Centre for Child Development (HCCD) – multidisciplinary paediatric practices in Melbourne. Working directly and indirectly with hundreds of clients each year, Amanda’s mission is for every child to achieve their best outcomes by equipping families and educators with the tools they need to help kids thrive.
Amanda draws on her own experiences of being a parent along with her extensive training and well-honed skill set to get families thriving. Having worked with families for almost two decades, as a psychologist for the past 11 years in a variety of settings, and a valued board member of the Autism Behavioural Intervention Association, Amanda loves building the confidence of the adults in the lives of children so that they can connect meaningfully, help them reach their full potential, and live a life that reflects their values.
Often appearing on Channel 7 and 9 News and regularly featuring in print media, Amanda is on a mission to make the world better for kids through her clinical work, consulting to some of the biggest global toy manufacturers and educating the digital media industry about making the internet safer for kids.
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