Q: How should I respond to my 16-month-old toddler who has started to swing at me when she doesn't get her way?
A: It ain't easy being 16 months. Toddlers have really strong feelings but lack the ability to use words to clearly let others know what's on their mind. How frustrating is that?
The fact is that learning to express oneself begins in the early years. Some actions are benign, like a 12-month-old raising her arms up to show Mom or Dad that she wants to be picked up. Others, such as hitting, kicking, and biting, are distressing. But they are all efforts on the part of the child to communicate. In this case, we can guess that your child is mad that she is not getting something she wants. She cannot say, "Mom, I am so mad that you won't let me have that fourth cookie!"
Teaching Rules and Limits
The best way to respond to her swinging is to firmly -- not roughly -- hold on to her arm and say something like, "No hitting. I know you're mad, but you cannot hit. Hitting hurts." Your child is not purposefully misbehaving, so it's important that your tone sound clear and firm but not angry. You're teaching rules and limits, not punishing. This response is showing your child that you recognize her feelings are not the problem; what she does with her feelings is the challenge she needs help with. Your job in these emotional moments is to let your child know what is and isn't acceptable and then to teach her how she can express her feelings in an appropriate way.
After you have stopped her behavior and validated her feelings, you can show her alternative ways to vent. While most parents agree that hitting is not an acceptable way to show anger, they differ in how they feel anger should be conveyed. Some are fine with their children shouting in the air as loud as they can to get their feelings out. Others suggest stomping feet, scribbling with a red crayon, or hitting an object that is safe and can't be hurt, such as a pillow. It is up to you to decide what feels comfortable. The bottom line is that you are acknowledging your child's feelings and helping her learn nondestructive ways of expressing herself.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2006.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.