Is Aggression Normal in a Three Year Old?

Updated on July 26, 2013
L.B. asks from Sacramento, CA
25 answers

My husband and I just experienced something terrible. Our almost 3 year old son tried to hurt a 15 month old. It was awful. We stopped at a store on our way to the beach. In the store, our son started playing with 15 month old twin girl. Big sister who was 15 was there along with their mom. All was well until one of the babies crawled into their car stroller ( one like you rent at a mall) which our son claimed as his. In a split second he grabbed the baby BY THE FACE and started violently shaking the baby's head!!! My husband saw the whole thing and pulled our son off the baby. I just heard the older daughter gasp and say," OH MY GOD!" I ran over to my son who was now in my husbands arms and calmly talked to him about using our words and never our hands I asked him to apologize to the crying baby and her mother which he did. He seemed remorseful but he didn't cry. I'm not sure he understood what he did. His language is advanced but still, I'm sure he doesn't realize he could seriously hurt someone. He has shoved toddlers off play equipment and pushed little ones away from toys. My husband and I realize that this is normal toddler behavior but this last incident really shook us up. He was tired and hungry as we our on our way to the beach but I have a feeling that he would have still reacted that way even without those factors. Does his recent behavior seem normal? Has anyone else experienced this? Should we be concerned?

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answers from Dallas on

No, I don't think it's "normal." I think it shows he doesn't have real consequences, Did you really just tell him to use his words? Is that REALLY the only consequence he had? If so, no wonder he's being aggressive. He hasn't been given a good enough consequence, to teach him it's wrong!!!

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answers from Honolulu on

Is he in Preschool?
Is he around other kids much?

I have 2 kids, and they never did stuff like that at 3 years old and I have a boy and a girl.

3 year olds are not fully socialized yet and their communication is still not sophisticated and they are not an older child and they still have trouble with "sharing" etc.
But still, he was more than aggressive.
I would have punished him.
They know "cause and effect" at this age.

At that age, per my kids, they knew acting like that was "wrong."
They even could recognize mean or wrong behavior in other kids.
They were in Preschool.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

At three, not normal and yes you should be concerned and get a handle on it. Had that been my 15 month old I would have been upset. My kids would have gotten into serious trouble if they ever did that.

3 moms found this helpful

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answers from St. Louis on

Um, no, those are not normal behaviors. That is the behavior of an out of control child.

Other than talking what punishment did he have for hurting that child, the kids he hurts on the playground?

8 moms found this helpful


answers from Sacramento on

Extreme, impulsive, aggressive behavior like that = talk to the pediatrician now!

The biggest red flag of our son's ADHD was the aggressive behavior. That's what got him kicked out of preschool. He had zero impulse control at three and was hurting other kids and even adults.

Be concerned. So many people would tell me he was just "active" or "being a boy" and it was far more than that. Extreme behavior of any kind warrants a talk with the pediatrician. You can get referred to specialists, if needed. At the very least, the pediatrician can tell you all is normal and give advice on the best ways to put an end to this behavior.

Book the appt. now.

6 moms found this helpful


answers from San Diego on

Some amount of pushing and shoving is normal as they test what they can and can not do. But it sounds like your son is far more aggressive and being allowed to get away with it.
He's repeatedly been aggressive. If that were my child I'd be right over his shoulder at every moment when he is around other children making sure the aggression did not continue. He wouldn't breathe without bumping into me.
He needs to be taught that this is not acceptable behavior. Quietly, sweetly telling him no and sending him on his way does absolutely nothing. While it was nice that you make him apologize, to him it's only lip service. It means nothing to him. It is only words that allow him to get away with it.
You are not going to hurt him by being stern with him, giving him consequences. A time out, a loss of privilege, no trip to the beach or having to sit on the towel.
Him being hungry and tired isn't an excuse. If my kids are like that they get my extra, right there, hands on attention to prevent something like this from happening.
I am glad that baby is OK. If that had been my baby you would have heard an earful about your son's behavior.

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answers from San Francisco on

How do you react/respond when he pushes and shoves? Are there consequences? Meaning you should not ONLY be telling him NO, we use our words, but he should be immediately removed from the activity.
Our children rely on us to teach them impulse control.
If you are in fact giving him consequences but he's still not learning then you should talk to his pediatrician about this. My youngest is ADHD and has always been very impulsive but even she did not shove or hit when she was frustrated, even as young as two when she started preschool a few mornings a week.
Sorry, doesn't sound "normal" to me, especially going off on a baby in a store, a complete stranger, and a very vulnerable one at that :-(

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answers from Chattanooga on

I think it's normal-ish. It could be that he didn't realize that he would hurt the baby (especially of he hasn't been around them before...) however...

He is old enough to be taught better. It is normal for them to act somewhat aggressive or try to test limits, but they NEED to be taught boundaries as these behaviors develop. The first time my DD pushed another kid at the playground, we left after she apologized. After leaving the second time she tried it, she hasn't done it again. (Accompanied by a talk about how pushing makes other kids feel bad, and she can hurt them...)

He also needs to be taught respect for other people... That it is ONLY appropriate to touch (and be touched) in certain ways. No pushing, hitting, shaking, biting, etc. Only use soft hands and hugs, and stop if the other person doesn't like it. Ask permission for more contact.

Just because it is developmentally "normal" doesn't mean it should be allowed.

Honestly, a calm talk doesn't always cut the cake. Especially at this age. He needs consequences to go along with the talk.

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answers from Chicago on

Well, it's not completely abnormal for a still 2 yr old. If you don't want it to continue, you need to nip this in the bud. Calmly talking to him and making him apologize is great, but you should have led him straight out to his car seat and told him you'd be going home for the day. No beach for little boys who hurt other kids.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Washington DC on


I'm sorry! I've not experienced this level of aggression in my children. So from my perspective? It's not normal.

Please call your pediatrician and talk to him/her about this incident as well as the pushing children off play equipment and toys.

If he has advanced speaking skills, then he shouldn't be using aggression - he has words and he can use them.

Good luck!

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answers from San Francisco on

I agree that some aggression is normal at that age because they don't have verbal skills or self-control. But this seems a bit over the top to me.

I also agree that "calmly talk[ing] to him about using our words and never our hands" was definitely not enough. And the apology was definitely lip service on his part. Probably the only thing he was really sorry for was daddy stopping him before he got that cart!

I agree that he should not have been taken on a family outing that day. He should have been taken straight home, deposited on his bed or in his crib and suffered a time out and then limited entertainment the balance of the day. He really needs to learn that physical aggression is not okay and calmly talking to him is not going to do it. You didn't even get his attention with that.

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answers from Washington DC on

hm. i disagree with the advice to hit an already aggressive little fellow to 'teach' him to be less aggressive, but i also agree with those who are rolling their eyes a bit at the tactic of taking the little gremlin into daddy's gentle arms and having a calm conversation about 'using your words.'
something this egregious should elicit an immediate snatch away from the victim, a loud 'NO!' and immediate removal from the situation. i'd be apologizing profusely to the horrified family myself, over my shoulder, as i propelled my shocked and chastened child away from them. and that child would be taken home immediately and put to bed.
every time he shoves a toddler off play equipment, rather than chalking it up to 'normal behavior' (it is) and letting it go, we'd stop on a dime and go home.
no fun for pushy boys. aggressive behavior means the fun stops NOW.
you can talk about it (briefly, sternly and using small words) when everyone has calmed down, but simply using logic with a kid who is hurting another kid badly, then expecting him to apologize with any degree of sincerity or understanding are misjudging the cognitive skills of a 3 year old.
your son is probably okay, but needs to be parented with clearer boundaries.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from San Francisco on

One incident is not abnormal, but the number of incidents you describe indicate a particularly aggressive nature in your son. I haven't had an aggressive child, so I'm not sure what to recommend other than lots of love and attention, combined with swift and consistent consequences for aggressive acts.

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answers from Dallas on

Yeah, I'm calling normal. Not good. Needs work, but normal.
It's that 3 yr hormone surge. There are more questions about 3 yr olds than any other age. Just search for 3 yr olds on Mamapedia.
Should you be concerned? Yes.
Should you believe he is a serial killer, no, lol!

This is where parenting really meets the road. Find a strategy and stick with it. Love and Logic has a good book and website.

Maybe you need to change your tone of voice with your displeasure. He should "get it". No, oh, sweetly, we mustn't do that. Stop It. No attention. Back to the car.
Good luck with the 3s!

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Hartford on

It has nothing to do with people thinking they're "perfect parents" by advising no spanking and offering other suggestions. If that's what you take away from it then you're missing the point. If you're seeing judgment in suggestions that are valid, you're missing the point.

I have a very spirited ADHD, ODD eldest child. She has always been very verbally defiant and is one of the biggest challenges in personality I have ever met. I do not hit her. It's not effective. She is so sensitive that she would crumble upon being hit.

I have a "perfect" child in my youngest. Hitting her would break her spirit.

My middle child is autistic. That brings along a whole separate set of issues that are unlike most that ANY of you have ever seen. Hitting her even with a slight slap is akin to beating her due to Sensory Processing Disorder.

My children aren't aggressive because of their discipline. They know what the consequences would be. There has been running commentary since they first started swatting as babies over the fact that hitting is not acceptable. It's non-negotiable. They know this, and they accept this. They know that there will be unpleasant consequences... and they don't have to be hit in order to be unpleasant.


He doesn't need to understand what he did.

"We do not hit." Issue a consequence that has immediate meaning and effect. You do this each and every time he does something to harm someone else physically aggressive or even verbally aggressive.

"We do not ____." + consequence.

Have the consequences established ahead of time so that you're not trying to think of something on the spur of the moment.

"If you hit/kick/push/_____ whatever unwanted behavior again then you will be _____." or ".... then you will not be allowed to _____." And follow through immediately when he does the unwanted thing.

If you threaten a disciplinary tactic, you have to follow through with it. If you don't think you can follow through then don't make the threat. Don't threaten anything extreme. Don't threaten something that ends up punishing yourself, like missing an important family function. Don't threaten things that have to do with birthdays or holidays if you can help it. Because if you do, you still have to follow through.

Screw the whole, "I ran over to my son who was now in my husbands arms and calmly talked to him about using our words and never our hands" thing. That is a running discussion and you bet he knew not to do it already. That conversation is for telling him why he's being disciplined and asking him to explain why he was just disciplined. The immediate apology was appropriate whether he meant it or not. Likely not.

It is NOT normal toddler behavior. Most toddlers are NOT that aggressive. However, I don't think he needs some sort of diagnosis. He just needs a really firm hand.

Have you considered removing synthetic food dyes and high fructose corn syrup from his diet? Things like Red 40 and other artificial colors can have really dramatic effects on childrens' behavior and moods... especially GMO foods. Our children are sensitive to these things, some much more than others, and the sensitivities show up as behavioral and emotional disturbances and problems.

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answers from Dallas on

I think how you handled it AFTER was good, but when my child was too rough I used the firm "barking" tone of voice - not a yell, but not quiet - you know, the tone that makes a kid look up REAL fast with the "uh-oh" look on their face. They need to hear and feel they did something wrong. The soft words come later after they "get" that they just did something wrong.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Tulsa on

It's normal for a not well behaved 3 year old. You know what you need to work on now, at least. He needs some serious ramifications for physically hurting others, he needs to know that that is NOT ok. I'm not quite getting why you would be heading to the beach with him when he's tired and hungry, that seems like you were setting yourselves up for a tantrum. Talk to him after he's calmed down, and tell him what will happen if he uses his hands on others and then stick to it! In this case, back home he would go and the beach would have to wait for another day.

2 moms found this helpful


answers from New York on

It sounds like you were not effective when you reacted to him previously "shoving toddlers off play equipment and pushing little ones away from toys" Apologizing means NOTHING to a two yr old. It's an easy out. Do raise your voice! Do not rely on adult logic, and words. Do not expect him to understand the other children have feelings. Show him with the sound of your voice and your face that this is very upsetting to Mommy and Daddy. If you cant let him know in a toddler appropriate way that this is unacceptable, you will have to keep him away from other children, he could have caused brain damage!

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answers from San Francisco on

These parents who judge and say your son is not normal because they have never had an aggressive child need to understand that their less aggressive children are not less aggressive because they are superior parents. Their kids just werent born like that. I have a 6 year old boy who is delightful and sweet and thoughtful and gentle and I congratulated myself on my superior parenting skills for years, blaming other parents for their poorly behaved children, assuming they were inconsistent with their punishment, lacked follow through, weren't tough enough.  If only everyone could be as fabulous as me. 

Then, when my perfect little Joe was 2 and 1/2, along came Benjamin and, um, well...suddenly my perfect parenting came in to question. I was treating him the same as I had treated Joe. Consistent punishment, harsh but fair, clear rules,  always followed through with consequences, and now Benjamin is 3 and 1/2 and he couldn't care less. He's a big fat ball of testosterone waiting to explode. He pushes kids, tackles them (rugby style), snatches toys and winds his poor brother up something chronic. He is punished, removed from the fun, no trampoline for the rest of the day, leaving the park (after apologies all around), and I agree with many of you that I would not have carried on to the beach that day, but he's just always been like this. He does NOT have ADHD. He's just an aggressive little monkey. I like to joke that he's the kid I wouldn't have let Joe play with because he was clearly not being brought up correctly. :-)

So to this mommy, Relax. Yes, if you are not consistent or lack follow through or (god forbid) you don't discipline him harshly but fairly following these incidents then please follow the advice here, but don't let the other parents on this site do you down with their superior parenting and finger pointing. You are obviously concerned or you wouldn't have written your note so do see your doctor if you think it could be ADHD or something like that, but trust your instincts and realise that he could just be trying out a new approach to see if it works and remember that people who push boundaries in this life often have the greatest success. I wish you and your aggressive little boy the absolute best. 

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answers from Chicago on

Normal. Totally unacceptable, but normal.

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answers from Washington DC on

This is too much. If my kid did what yours did, he would have been popped on the tail. Sorry, but that is VERY unacceptable and hurts others. If he is as advanced as you say, his behavior is very out of line. I'd talk to his doctor and go from there.

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answers from Pittsburgh on

Normal although certainly not desirable. You need to teach him how to interact with little ones. Show him gentle hands and what he can do. If he does it wrong, remove him from the situation. Set him up for success by avoiding situations when he is hungry and tired. He has absolutely no concept that he could seriously hurt someone. Anymore than he understands that he could be seriously hurt. He is only 3. Sounds like your husband was pretty much on top of things and handled it fine.

Punishing him after the fact will do nothing. In fact there is pretty good evidence that punishment is a completely ineffective way to teach kids, so I would skip that altogether.

1 mom found this helpful


answers from New York on

It's normal. You don't need to look down the path of clinical diagnoses or anything like that.

BUT, it needs a strong intervention on your part. He needs to know that this is absolutely out of line and unacceptable. Three-year-olds can understand this concept, though they can't always control their impulses. But you do need to find a punishment that's immediate and that will make a difference to him.

Examples include:

* Wherever you are, if he gets physical with another child, it's time to leave. Play time and fun time are over.

* Time outs

* Taking away a highly valued toy

Whatever you do, do not use spanking or anything physical. Your son needs to learn that you can't be physical with others like that. And preschoolers learn by example.

By the same token, if/when he gets out of line, don't act angry, act sad. At his age he'll model his feelings on yours, only he'll magnify them. You don't want him thinking "bad feeling = rage."

You sound like a wonderful mom, honestly, and like you're exhibiting an appropriate level of concern. Just from the tone of your post, I have a strong feeling that you'll react appropriately and that your son will learn to master these impulses and be absolutely fine.

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answers from Oklahoma City on

google toddler I'd stay on top of this behavior and teach him each time.

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answers from Los Angeles on

My nephew used to do this kind of stuff to my daughter when they we're both around 2 1/2 to just up to when he turned 3. He is just 2 months older than her. He would do it more out of love though but he would literally walk up to her and straight up strangle her. Or they would be playing and he would get over excited and just grab her face and mangle it. We had to monitor them very closely and my poor daughter was scared of him for like a year. I still think she is a little wary of him!

Honestly I am pretty sure the problem was that he was not around other kids early enough and often enough. He was born with a blood disorder and my BIL/SIL were always very concerned about him getting sick and that was really limiting his social opportunities in the beginning. They just worked on it with him and it got better.

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