Anyone who's watched her preschooler pack a punch on the playground knows: Terrible doesn't stop at 2. Physical aggression, from shoving to kicking to biting, is still common at this age. "Just because a child can talk doesn't mean she's able to problem-solve or attach the right words to what she's feeling, so she may try to get what she wants by hitting or pushing," says psychotherapist Alyson Schafer, author of Ain't Misbehavin': Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues, and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors. Fortunately, there are a few ways to show your mini fighter how to express herself without fireworks.
It's a natural response: The instant you witness your child hitting another, your body tenses, your heart races, and even if you don't actually scream, you want to! The next time you catch your child in the act, try this approach instead: Exhale, and gently move your child away from the situation. "You need to be calm so that you're not adding more anger and irritability," says Cheryl Erwin, a licensed family therapist, parent coach, and coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. Next, get your child to chill by suggesting he take deep breaths or run off some energy outside. (You'll need him calm for the talk you'll have about his behavior later.)
Of course, keeping your cool may take some practice -- for both of you. "Sometimes when he's exhausted, Miles will just smack me in the face. It's so infuriating," says Chicago mom Laureen Monarrez of her 3-year-old. "But when I get upset, I've found that it just makes the situation worse. I try to remind myself that I'm the adult. Between the two of us, I'm the only one who can make things better."
Once your preschooler's simmered down, explain what she did wrong. Start simply: "We don't hit [or pinch or bite], because hitting hurts." However, don't stop at what she can't do -- spell out what she can do.
For example, let's say she got in a tussle with another child on the slide. "First, help her identify what she wanted by saying, 'Did you want a turn on the slide?'" Schafer suggests. "Then, tell her the nicer thing to do than pushing her way past is to say, 'May I have a turn, please?'"
Even though it feels appropriate to make your little beastie apologize on the spot, experts say that a forced apology is meaningless. (However, you can apologize on her behalf -- and "I'm sorry" will sound more sincere, and set a good example, if it comes from you.) Instead, you can build empathy by asking your preschooler to think about what might make the hurt child feel better, whether that's hand-delivering an ice pack to place on a bite mark or coloring a picture to give her. Let your child know that if it happens again you'll have to increase the consequence. Perhaps you'll need to leave a playdate prematurely, for example. Assure your child that you'll try again another time, when she's ready to play nicely.
There's an upside when aggression happens repeatedly around a certain issue: It is easier to brainstorm specific solutions. If sharing toys is always a challenge, allow your child to set aside "special" things before the playdate, with the understanding that whatever remains is for everyone to enjoy. If turn-taking is a frequent problem, help him to set a timer, so that he and his friend can rest easy knowing they'll each get their fair five minutes. Be sure to ask your child for help in coming up with solutions too. "It will teach him problem-solving skills, and he'll get better at having playdates," which, aside from fun, is one of the reasons we make playdates in the first place, points out Schafer.
Prevention can be especially helpful if you have a biter on your hands. "Biting really upsets parents and causes all kinds of problems in preschools and child-care centers, but it's really common," Erwin says. If you can pinpoint what's likely to set your child off, you can better manage the situation. Does biting tend to happen in larger groups of kids? Are overstimulating environments like birthday parties a problem for him? With strict supervision, you can ideally physically intervene before those little chompers connect. And acknowledge when he does make an effort, by saying something like, "Thank you for being kind" or "That's great that you shared your toy."
While a preschooler's aggression is understandably maddening, in the vast majority of cases it's a normal and fleeting part of growing up. So reports Dana Kassel, of Minneapolis, whose daughter, Frances, has evolved from a 3-year-old who hit and threw things daily to a 5-year-old who rarely acts out. "When she does, it doesn't affect me as much anymore, because she's obviously learning how to work through her frustrating moments," says Kassel. "You'll see her brows knit and her eyes flare, but she'll usually think first and blurt out, 'I'm frustrated!' That sounds a little silly, but it does bring relief, to both of us."
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Parents magazine.