Our two-year-old son goes to daycare with a sweet, blue-eyed little girl whom he absolutely adores. She greets him with a big hug the second he walks through the door each morning. They sleep beside each other at nap time. He even let me in on their favourite outdoor activity: “We have whispers together on the playground.”
As much as she is the object of affection, for some reason, she is the target for his aggression too.
About a year ago, he bit her and while that behaviour didn’t last, to this day, when he’s really, really excited, he’ll run up to her and squeeze her chubby little forearm with all of his might. Yikes. As a parent of the aggressor, I am mortified to receive occasional reports of abuse at the end of the day. I feel like sending her parents an advance care package with ice packs and bandages or – better yet – emailing them wholesome family videos so they don’t assume he’s copying behaviour he sees at home!
So what’s behind this toddler behaviour? And how can we understand biting, hitting, kicking and lashing out in general? Knowing other parents are struggling with the same thing, we went to parenting author and family counsellor Alyson Schafer for some context.
Laurel Gregory: Why are we commonly seeing that among toddlers? They go from sweet baby to – this switch happens?
Alyson Schafer: There’s absolutely a developmental process that happens as you enter the toddler years. You want more autonomy, you want more independence, you want more success and competency – yet you’re only two, three years old. You don’t have a lot of language skills. You don’t have a lot of problem-solving skills. You haven’t learned to socially finesse things.
There is much more frustration in the difference between the things you would like to accomplish in life and what you’re actually managing to pull off and that can lead to high, high emotions.
That can be tears, that might be anger, but the emotions rise up and they aren’t yet capable of [knowing] how to manage their emotions and solve their problems. There’s a bit of a developmental disparity happening.
LG: Based on the work you’ve done over many, many years, how common is it?
AS: I would say that every parent should expect that their child will have a tantrum, will experiment with a hit [or] will experiment potentially with a bite because when teeth come in, there’s a sensation that happens that makes them want to act out. The question becomes do they repeat it? That’s the more important piece. And the repeating of the behaviour comes from whether they were successful at accomplishing something. That accomplishment might be, “I wanted to retaliate because I’m mad at you because you said I had to go to bed and now I’ve upset you like you’ve upset me – ha ha ha ha!” It might be, “I successfully got the toy and the other kid acquiesced to me.”
I think it’s really important that we say what’s the child trying to accomplish, what was the goal, did they meet their goal through a way that is socially inappropriate? If that’s the case, we need to guide them towards how to get their needs met or their communication happening in a way that is more cooperative, more pro-social.
That is the work of the adults on hand, whether that’s the nursery school, caregiver, nanny or the parent. We have to step up and do the training.
LG: What are some common ways of handling this and getting the point across that that is not acceptable?
AS: I love being very simple with kids at this age. We don’t want to overwhelm them with information. So simple sentences like, “Hands are for hugging, not for hitting.” But then we also have to realize… as adults, we should never use physical aggression as a means of discipline or correction. You can’t tell a child not to hit a playmate to get a toy and then turn around and spank them because they have done something wrong at the dinner table. So I do not believe in corporal punishment at all. Instead, we might – if they are having a disagreement with a friend or they have snatched a toy from a friend – we might just drop to our knees, grab both kids under our arms and say, “It’s not OK to hit. Is there something you want to say to your friend? Do you want to say I don’t like that? Tell your friend I don’t like that, you would like a turn with the toy.”
You need to literally walk them through what the verbal protocol will be.
I’ve done this with kids that are pre-verbal. Even though they are not able to say the words, you are still instilling in them the scripts that as the language comes, they can imitate. So I might just say, “It looks like my friend wants a turn with the toy, would you be willing to share?” I’m helping model what would be an appropriate way to get a turn or get your way.
LG: So having a conversation would be No. 1 versus having timeouts or revoking privileges – that kind of thing?
AS: Well, again, we have to see this as a skills deficit and the child trying to creatively solve a problem. It’s not about a child being bad. I don’t really believe in this concept that there are good kids and bad kids. There are behaviours that get your needs met and some of those are pro-social and some of those are actually not pro-social.
You have to sit and think about what the child is trying to accomplish and see it as an educational opportunity. So each situation requires some analysis before you can decide on what the proper outcome is.
I think a timeout is appropriate in some situations. I might say, “We need to feel safe when we are all together so can you keep your hands to yourself or do you need to go play alone? We need to feel safe when we’re together.” And I might give them a short opportunity of seeing that it’s more fun to restrain myself and be with the group than it is to use my hands and the consequence for that is that I need to be alone. I also think there’s a piece that’s about emotional regulation. There’s nothing worse than trying to correct or discipline a child who is actually so emotionally aroused that this is not within their cognitive capacity. They can’t listen, they can’t understand. This is pre-conscious behaviour and being punitive or trying to educate a child when they don’t know why they do what they do is only going to leave them more discouraged and more frustrated instead of less. So it may be, as a parent, that we have to think about ways to help that child self-regulate themselves.
Are they tired? Are they hungry? Is this a bad time to go to the mall? Have we jacked them up on sugar? Has life been too stimulating because it’s loud?
Kids with sensory issues, for example, will get very exhausted just from the feeling of the waistband of their pants rubbing or their socks being itchy, so I think we really have to be curious and willing to seek out when our kids are overly aroused such that they can’t regulate themselves when life makes demands upon them. That demand might be simply, “No, we don’t get to stay at the park. We have to go home for a nap.” An over-aroused child will not handle that message as well as a child who can regulate themselves. As parents we have to teach and co-regulate with those kids so we have to stay calm. We can’t get angry ourselves.
I think I’m doing OK on that front. I rarely get angry or embarrassed. In the last couple weeks I’ve breezily picked up our son in the midst of a stage five meltdown at a public pool. I dealt with a similar epic tantrum where he swiped at me at the ice rink over the weekend. We’re working on a few different strategies to give him the tools to deal with his emotions. I think it will benefit everyone: my husband and I, our fiery little son and his sweet friend at daycare.
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