Frequent Destructive Behavior in Toddlers

A destructive toddler is an aggressive one. Destructiveness at this age can take many forms, including temper tantrums, biting, attacking other children, knocking items over around the house, being argumentative, hurting the family pet and general resistance to authority. Frequent destructive behavior might indicate your toddler has a disorder such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder 2.

About the Disorders

A child with oppositional defiant disorder is typically negative, defiant and disobedient with adults. He is often angry and deliberately wants to annoy others. Toddlers in preschool with ODD tend to have frequent social conflicts with the other kids and with teachers. If left untreated, the condition usually worsens, according to Conduct disorder is extreme ODD. The child is more aggressive and might start abusing animals. Children with ADHD might exhibit destructive behaviors such as fighting with you and other children. The excessive energy kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have often leads to disruptive behaviors, which serves the purpose of letting off steam 2.

How to Know

Just because your toddler displays frequent aggression doesn’t mean he has a behavior disorder. Toddlers are often destructive or aggressive just because they’re toddlers. The intent and the frequency of the aggression are key. Occasional playful fighting and aggression are not indicators of a behavior disorder, but frequent aggression with intent to harm might be. It’s often difficult to tell with toddlers, however, if the intent of throwing a toy at you, for example, was meant to hurt you or if your toddler was just tired and cranky at the time, according to a paper in the February 2005 edition of the "Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry."

Might Come from the Home

Toddlers who are frequently aggressive and destructive might have a home environment that plays a role. Risk factors for having an aggressive toddler include alcohol and drug use in the home, an antisocial history in the mother or father, and fighting between parents. The way the child is raised can also lead to frequent destructive behavior. For example, a mother who is not available emotionally, doesn’t teach her child to self-regulate and gives only negative attention when the child misbehaves fosters destructive and aggressive behavior, according to the "Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry" paper.

Exposed to Trauma

Children exposed to trauma or abuse at an early age tend to be more destructive than peers who aren’t exposed to trauma or abuse. Abused children tend to be destructive to others or to objects, and sexually abused children tend to be destructive to themselves, according to findings reported in the "Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review.” 3

Early Intervention

Recognize the signs of destructive and aggressive behavior as early as possible, because the critical window for intervention is during the toddler years. If nothing is done, the behavior is likely to continue when the child becomes older. If you suspect your child has a problem with destructive and aggressive behavior, seek the help of a mental health professional who specializes in toddler behavioral problems.