Question of the Week:
I have fraternal twin boys who are 16 months old. Recently one of the boys has become super aggressive. He steals his brother’s toys, hits, bites, throws food and bangs his head on the wall or the floor. It seems like nothing I can do will make him happy or calm him down. Any advice you can give me would be great.
Answer: Toddler anger and aggression is caused by frustration and in many cases is not only normal but healthy. Biting, hitting, throwing food, and yes, even head banging, are all common ways for a frustrated toddler to behave. Although I’m sure that’s comforting news, it certainly doesn’t help your level of frustration at this point in time! But in order to help your son deal with his aggressiveness, you’ll need to try to understand it first.
Many factors contribute to a toddler’s feeling of frustration. For instance, your son may grow increasingly irritated at the beginning of a new developmental stage such as mastering his fine motor skills. If he’s struggling with his shirt buttons and then collapses onto the floor in a pool of tears, don’t react negatively but rather show patience and understanding. Practice the new skill together when your son is calm and open to learning. Or perhaps he’s not quite developmentally ready to take on sharing toys with his co-twin. As parents of multiples, we all know that young twins must learn to share their toys a bit more often and a bit sooner than singleton children do. Yet sharing is not innate but a learned skill. Help your son master the art of sharing by congratulating him when he does (and ignoring the times when he can’t). You can even try incorporating “trading” in your twins’ play day. (“Hey, why don’t you trade toys with your brother? You give him your truck and he gives you his ball!”) You can award pretzel sticks or stickers each time your son politely shares or trades a toy. And don’t forget to teach by example as children watch their parents’ every move. (“Look! Daddy is sharing the newspaper with Mommy. Thanks Daddy!”)
Biological factors may also be a contributing factor to his negative behavior. He could naturally be more inflexible than his co-twin. A speech or auditory disorder may be at play as well. At 16 months old, your twin son may be frustrated in trying to verbally communicate his needs and wants to both you and his co-twin. Some studies have shown that speech delay and aggression in children may be related. In fact, a study published in 2003 in Developmental Psychology, found a link between physical aggression and lack of expressive vocabulary in 19-month-old twins. Have your son’s speech evaluated for no charge through your local school district.
And finally, think about your home and/or daycare environment. Overcrowding, not enough toys or even a lack of adult attention may cause some of his negative behavior. Take some time to simply observe your child in his environment and watch for his trigger points—is he tired? Is he hungry? Is he lonely? Make accommodations where you deem change is needed.
It’s important to remember too that your goal is not to repress your twin’s anger—he’s allowed his feelings—but rather to help him channel his frustration in a more constructive way. However, if he continually hurts himself or his co-twin, or you feel his behavior is out of control, he may need to be evaluated by a professional as it could signal an emotional problem.
More Tips to Calm an Aggressive Twin:
- Carve out alone time with each twin separately every day. All children crave one-on-one time with their parents, especially twins who often don’t get enough. Positive parental attention and affection often curtails negative behavior.
- As long as he’s not hurting himself or others, try to ignore the negative behavior but not the child. Catch him when he does act in a kind, caring or cooperative way and praise him enthusiastically. (“Wow! I like how you gave your brother that cookie. That was so thoughtful!”)
- When a child hits or bites his co-twin, respond immediately and firmly tell him that the behavior is unacceptable. Be specific. (“No. You may not bite. Biting hurts.”) Then turn all your attention to comforting the victim.
- Help your child express himself and his frustrations verbally. (“You seem angry that your brother is riding the tricycle. Do you want a turn? Let’s ask him nicely for a turn.”) And if you suspect that your twins’ speech is not on target, get him evaluated by a professional.
- Offer ample opportunity for some physical exercise. Engaging in large muscle activity—running, skipping, bike riding—releases tension and negative emotions.
- Keep your cool. Diffuse tense situations with humor or try distracting your son with a book or toy. Offer lots of affection in the way of hugs and verbal praise.