Three-year-old Caden Branchflower is occasionally guilty of hitting his younger brother, Ridge. This might seem like bullying -- after all, he's a big boy hitting a smaller child. Luckily for Caden, that's not how his mom, Erin, sees it. "He doesn't know how else to express himself at this age, so I just step in quickly," says Branchflower, of Fort Collins, Colorado. "I explain that we don't like that behavior and it's not okay."
She has the right attitude. While many parents of hitters, biters, and spitters panic when their toddler acts out, they shouldn't feel too bad. Technically, a child this young can't be a bully. "Two- and 3-year-olds don't yet fully understand their emotions or anyone else's, so they don't intentionally hurt someone's feelings," says Edward Carr, PhD, leading professor in the department of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Toddlers are constantly testing cause and effect -- "If I do this, what will happen?" They're also using the only tools they have, says Theodore Dix, PhD, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. "They don't have the skills to get what they want in a reasonable way, so they may act pushy or overly defiant," he says.
Still, that's not a free pass to sit back and let your child be mean. If you don't intervene now, he may become a real bully as he gets older because he won't know another way to express his needs. Here's how to end aggression now.
If you've ever seen a child mumble a halfhearted sorry, you might think that it's pointless to ask your toddler to apologize. After all, will she really mean it at this age? Maybe not -- but even if she doesn't today, she will someday, and it's a good idea to start practicing now. "Your child will come to understand what being sorry really means," says Dr. Edward Carr. "And it's helpful to encourage her to say it now." Do be empathetic: Tell your child that you know saying sorry may be hard for her because it means she's done something wrong. "Explain that it feels bad to know you hurt someone, but it's important to tell people we're sorry when we do."
You've probably seen her at the playground: the clueless mom who doesn't seem to notice that her kid just sank his teeth into your child's arm. While you can't come out and tell someone to discipline her child, it is possible to get an oblivious parent to step in -- without putting her on the defensive.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the January 2008 issue of Parents magazine.