23 Aug 2014
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Dealing with Toddler-on-Parent Aggression

What can parents do when their toddler regularly attacks them?

Dealing with Toddler-on-Parent Aggression

My hands bear numerous nicks and small cuts. Most don't bother me, but some, on the knuckles and cuticles, sting. On the meaty bit below my thumb, scabs form an oblong constellation from where my son bit through the skin. Several days old, it still aches when I touch it.

The tot's temper has taken yet another turn. Oh, he still flails, kicks, and bangs his head against the ground—a perpetual lump, a stack of lumps, lump upon lump, rise from his forehead. Now he's added assaulting mom and dad to his list of tantrum terrors. Biting. Scratching. Hitting. Pinching. Kicking. Headbutting. He goes medieval on us, while sporting this creepy crooked smile. A sociopathic grin.

An improvement, the altruist in me thinks, from when he used to take his anger out on his peers. But not much of one.

There can be a method to his madness. He fights to resist nap, or potty break, or because he sees piping hot cookies on the counter but can't eat them yet. He hates when my wife and I talk about grownup concerns like menu plans or NPR, or when we excuse ourselves to use the bathroom. He demands an inhuman amount of attention from us.

But just as often, the attacks come on as random as last week's earthquake. We're pretending to cook and I put a plastic egg in the wrong place so he maws me. I can't comprehend his babble and he goes for my legs. He whacks me just to see what I'll do in response.

In his most frantic, violent moments, I experience a loss of equilibrium. I fear that he's going to hurt me, or hurt me bad enough that I react impulsively and hurt him back. His attacks destabilize our relationship, turning the parent-child dynamic upside down so that I shrink when he reaches for me. My stomach tightens when his movements take on that manic edge. I dread spending time with him sometimes, instead of delighting in it.

To put it bluntly, he scares me a little.



After a few weeks of his extreme aggression, I turn to the Internet. Searching the term “parent abuse” leads to sites about teens beating up their folks. Is this what I have to look forward to? “When toddlers attack” yields YouTube videos of tantrums, posted in a spirit of hilarity, it seems. I don't find them funny. Otherwise, I find lots of advice about tot-on-tot conflicts, but only the briefest of mentions about toddler's targeting their parents.

I close the browser thinking dire thoughts, as I often do when seeking an answer to life's great mysteries on the Internet. I surmise that most kids must not behave like this. What's wrong with our little guy?

Before the baby my wife and I had a tomcat. He clawed holes in our screens, came and went when he wanted, dragged in bird corpses to munch in the bathroom, and sometimes clawed up our ankles. Perhaps we're the cause.

Maybe, lively, zesty folk as we are, our energies somehow encourage violence in lesser creatures. It could be that our added neuroses—and my wife and I are nothing if not consummate neurotics—adds up to one big mess of crazy. The cat and the tot perhaps just pick up on it with more acuity, like a canary in a coal mine.

This thinking gets me nowhere, so I ask my dad for advice. He suggests that if I “lose my cool,” and let my son see that he can't cross certain boundaries, the behavior will stop. I interpret this to mean “hit him back,” but it only takes a couple of skirmishes to see that tactic does more harm than good. I inadvertently add a new form of attack to his repertoire—a light, openhanded slap, the kind you'd use on a hysteric—which he in turn unloads on my wife in the middle of his bedtime routine.

I try the opposite approach, relying solely on words and gentleness. Turning the other cheek. Taking deep breaths and searching for a higher, zen-like calm in the face of adversity. With this attitude, I manage to maintain an even tone of voice as I repeat, “Stop biting daddy, that hurts,” even as his teeth puncture my skin. There ends that little pacifist experiment.

Onto Facebook, where a question about toddler aggression garners a few commiserating responses, all of which end in an ellipsis, which I read as the online equivalent of a sigh and a shrug. Toddlers are nuts; we all know this.

One brave mom messages me about her son, who bit her butt so hard he left a mouth-shaped bruise. She suggests several of the techniques we'd been trying, in addition to the more extreme ones I mention above. But none of them—bolded below—have worked so far.

Immediate time outs pose two problems. The first and most immediate being, how do you swoop up the feral toddler and deposit him in his room? When seized, he magically makes himself both limp and spastic at the same time.

The second related issue is that bringing him to his room increases the anger. He spits, convulses, and rains fury against his door until he hurts himself. Once I'm lured in by his cries of pain, he continues his tantrum anew, sometimes adding new injustices to the behavior that landed him in the clink to begin with.

Venting frustrations on a pillow sounds great in theory, until he throws the pillow across the living room. I'm constantly afraid he's going to knock over the TV. Also, as I learned firsthand, hitting begets hitting. When he turns from the pillow to the hard, wooden arm of the futon, he injures himself and gets all railed up again.

Talking about treating others with kindness has made “no hit” a common phrase in our household, but we're yet to see the hellion walk the walk. After attacking me, he'll run to his mother and tell her how he just scratched or socked Daddy in a tone of half-confession, half-pride. Sometimes he rattles off a hit list—“Hit potty. Hit book. Hit mommy.”—until we tell him to cut it out. It's almost as if talking about it increases his obsession with violence.

My mommy friend suggested that the best remedy might, as usual, be time. He'll outgrow the aggression, or at least learn how to better control or sublimate it. This intense energy could end up being a boon to him when he's older. Many geniuses have notorious tempers. 

Or so I tell myself, anyway, as I rinse off my wounds.



Besides the few comments I received on Facebook, I've learned from asking around that Attack of the Toddler is far from uncommon. Some kids attack a little, others make it a habit.

Why, then, the dearth of material out there on the subject? Perhaps because it's a scary thing to witness, raising alarms about autism or amorality. Perhaps, like many forms of abuse, the abused feel somehow implicit in the behavior, wondering what they've done to bring it upon themselves. Or the grown-ups may feel such an extreme loss of control that they worry about being considered bad parents. I fall among the latter.

It could also be that, like sleeping, eating, potty training, socializing, and all the other developmental conundrums parents face, toddler aggression has no easy solution. The behavior will correct itself over time. We need only be calm, continue providing unconditional love, and not succumb to pessimism.

I remind myself that my son is a good kid at heart, going through a rough period. It must be frustrating to be so small and relatively powerless. So when you see us on the playground, please don't run away in fear of my little maniac. Commiserate, sure. Everyone's kid has some crazy to 'em. Buy me a drink? Please. But don't pity me. This will eventually pass.

After a recent outburst of aggression that ended when my son hurt his foot kicking the bathroom wall, I held him close to me. His body shook in my arms from the depth of his cries. “Are you alright?” I asked him. 

He whispered in my ear: “Scary.”

“What just happened—all that anger—did that scare you?” 


“Me too, buddy,” I told him. “But you know what? It's going to be okay. You'll get through this. Trust me.”

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror as I said it. This pep talk was as much for me as for him.

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