Jan Faull, MEd, on how to stop toddlers' aggressive behaviors.
Q. I have two sons -- a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. My 2-year-old is pushy and obnoxious. He beats up on his older brother, hits adults, and runs away laughing. What am I supposed to do? I am a single mother who works full time while my mother takes care of my boys. Does that have something to do with his terrible attitude?
A. Many toddlers exhibit aggressive behavior in the form of hitting, kicking, pushing, and throwing objects. Realize that children between the ages of 18 months and 2 1/2 are on the go with no inner controls -- you and his grandmother must provide the control he lacks. Your older child can even learn to protect himself by putting up his arms to block a hit or push.
That being said, it's your job to protect the older one and consistently be available to step in and stop a hit or push if Big Brother can't ward off the attacking toddler himself.
If you can sense when little brother is about to hit or push, you can divert his aggression with another physical activity such as swinging, running, climbing, and jumping. Playing in water, sand, mud, or with play clay sometimes quiets a toddler's aggressive ways.
Another option (if your older child is willing) is to stage a daily timed and controlled wrestling match between the two with you as referee. By providing these options, little brother puts his natural tendency toward aggression in activities that are safe and not hurtful.
When little brother catches you, Grandma, or his older brother off guard and manages to make aggressive contact, first compose yourself. Take a deep breath and check your emotions; you want to proceed firmly by holding the child's arms and saying sternly yet briefly, "No! I can't allow you to hit." Make sure you don't meet your child's aggression with your own aggression. You need to stop him, but not manhandle him. Also, give him only the amount of attention necessary to stop the aggressive action; too much attention focused on the aggression will most likely escalate it.
Once you've stopped the hitting or pushing, guide him to one of the positive activities mentioned earlier, but stay near him so he doesn't return to his negative aggressive ways. In fact it's best if you take five minutes and engage in a physical activity (running, swinging, jumping, climbing) with him. If it's a tactile activity (water, mud, sand, clay) you guide him to, participate in this activity with him as well. If you allow a wrestling match, make sure you're right there watching and are ready to step in if either child turns overly aggressive or emotional.
Your main goal is for your toddler to learn to put his aggressive tendencies into positive actions. You don't want aggression to become a habit that carries over into the preschool years. Your task is to stop him from hitting or pushing -- giving him as little eye contact and attention as possible -- while redirecting his aggression into a socially acceptable activity.
Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.
Originally published on HealthyKids.com, February 2005.