18 month old "bully" pushes other kids down

Dear Dr. Laura,
My 18 months old son is a bully. He has been this way for 2-3 months now. It first started with smacking other kids when they are in his way, or just near him. He would smack them for no particular reason, just out of curiosity or when he seems like he is bored. Then it escalated to pushing, he is strong and very physically active, so when he pushes, children fall. I feel horrible, we tried giving attention to the other child, saying "no", taking him out of the situation immediately, but he does not seem to understand or care - one second he would enjoy playing with his friend, the next he just pushes him. Is there a way to help him or me? Thank you.

As I'm sure you know, many toddlers go through a hitting phase. It's nerve-wracking and embarrassing for the parents, but it is completely normal and he will certainly outgrow it.

And he's not actually a bully, even if he's pushing other kids aside to get what he wants. He isn't doing this because he wants to see someone else suffer. Little ones are still learning the rules. They don't have a well-developed sense of empathy. And they are learning how to have an impact on the world, which means they are learning how to use power. So they experiment with physical force, to see what happens.

Add to this a child who is physically larger than his peers, and you get a kid who is likely to experiment with using physical force against others. And then he sees a big reaction. They fall! How cool! He doesn't know it hurts. Even if they cry, he doesn't really get it. But he's excited that he can have such a big impact on the world. What a powerful feeling for such a little person, who so often feels pushed around by the world.

Discipline makes this all more complicated. Children who are themselves subject to discipline that involves physical force are more likely to act it out on others. That's because they learn that physical force is okay, since grownups do it. And they learn it's effective in winning what they want.

Happily, it sounds like you do not spank your son, or use any physical force with him, so he's not learning that from you. Unfortunately, all of us sometimes have to resort to moving our toddler physically -- out of danger, or simply to get him into his carseat when he's resisting and we've tried everything we can think of and we have another child to pick up. Sometimes that can't be avoided, but timeouts are an example of using force to get a child to stay in one place that we can and should avoid, because, again, kids experience this as someone pushing them around, and they are more likely to then push others around.Humans learn both sides of every interaction. That's how they learn nurturing, as well -- by having us nurture them. So EVERY toddler feels pushed around sometimes and gets very excited to feel powerful in this big, overwhelming world.

You say that your son does not seem to understand or care. I think that an 18 month old does care about your approval, and does understand that pushing is not ok with you. But when he has these big feelings, he can't regulate them very well, so he acts on them. He just doesn't have the impulse control not to, yet. It looks to us like we're not getting through, but really, when he is "under the influence" he just doesn't yet have enough frontal lobe development to control himself.

Your responses of attending to the other child, saying No, and removing your son from the situation immediately are all great responses. Punishing him won't help the situation because it just teaches him that bigger people can use force on smaller people, which is exactly what you're trying to show him is not ok. There's not much more you can do after the fact, but there may be much more you can do to prevent these occurrences.

If we knew what was causing your son to push other kids, we might be able to do more to prevent it. You say that your son may smack another child who is in his way, or is simply near him, or may push another child down for no reason. I suspect there IS a reason, but we don't know what it is.

For instance, maybe he is playing happily but then he becomes over-excited. Because he is so young, he has a low tolerance for frustration and little impulse control. When he feels uncomfortable, he can't tolerate those feelings. So he lashes out. Pushing the other child relieves his tension. His empathy is not yet well-developed, so hurting another kid doesn't yet bother him. He just doesn't get that the other kid has feelings. That doesn't make him bad, it makes him 18 months old!

Luckily, we don't really have to know why your son is pushing to prevent his behavior. We just have to prevent it! How?

1. Every time your son plays with another child for the next few months, stay right by his side. That connection will help him feel safer, which means he'll be more relaxed and less threatened, which should translate into less aggressiveness with other kids. But if he does lunge, immediately step between him and the "victim." Both your son and the other child need to know that you will protect the other child.

2. Immediately pick your son up and remove him from the situation. Maybe he just needs a break. Maybe he needs a little connection with you. Maybe he is over-stimulated, and removing him will make him burst into tears, and he will need some time to cry in your arms. In any case, removing him gives him what he needs and protects the other child. Your son learns that when he has these uncomfortable feelings, his parents help him process them. This builds the neural connections in his brain to manage his feelings rather than act out. He stops using aggression as a way to deflect the feelings.

3. If the aggression is related to a toy, or the kid being in your son's way, you can teach social skills and taking turns with the toys. If you don't know what the aggression is related to, you can say to him "You pushed your friend. Were you upset?" Soon he will learn to say he is upset when he has that feeling, which is the first step in learning to manage the feeling without acting on it.

4. Be aware that playing with other kids is often over-stimulating to little ones. The child has to navigate socially and compete for toys, and there's enough commotion that they often feel a little disconnected from mom, which stresses them out. (We know kids get stressed by play group situations because their cortisol levels shoot up, but it's only common sense that they are also stressed by one-on-one play.) Unfortunately, stress and disconnection make kids feel less safe, so they are more likely to hit. So limit group play situations, and if he must be in such a situation, stay as close to him as possible. He is not ready to play with other kids independently quite yet.

5. It will increase the chances of things going smoothly, if before he plays with other kids, you describe what will happen. “When we get to Joshua's house, there will be two other boys there, named Michael and Devon. You and the other boys will all play together in the wading pool in the yard. Mommy will be right there if you need me. You can splash in the water and it will be a lot of fun, and we will all keep our hands on our own bodies. If you want a toy, you tell me and I will help you talk to whoever has the toy so you can have a turn with it. If you get mad, you tell me, and I will help you, ok? If you forget and push, we will need to stop having fun and leave right away. So let's remember to keep our hands on our own bodies and have fun with the other boys, ok?” The reminder/warning is helpful, but it is probably most helpful to him to know what to expect, so that he feels safer, and understands that you are available.

6. If you are in a playgroup situation with other moms and kids, explain to the other moms that your son is going through a stage where he gets aggressive and pushes other kids, and that you are trying to nip it in the bud by staying next to him. “I hope you won't think I'm rude, but today I need to really focus on him. I look forward to catching up with you next time.” Of course, it also means you'll get virtually no time to interact with the playgroup moms, but let's just agree that you'll find other ways to connect with other adults while he's in this phase. I promise it won't last.

7. If, despite your best efforts, your son smacks or pushes another child, take a deep breath and stay calm. If you are the only adult, ignore your son and tend to the other child. Once the other child is okay, hold your son while you apologize to the child he pushed. “(My son) is so sorry he hit you. He was mad and he forgot to use his words. We hope you feel better."

8. If someone else can tend to the other child, immediately pick your son up and hold him while you do the apology. This both makes your son feel safer and helps him get his emotions back under control, so hopefully he can watch receptively while you role model the apology. Then, tell your son as calmly as you can: ''Pushing hurts. We can't play with the other children when you push. Now we have to leave.” Then leave, no matter what. Of course he will cry. At that point, you can apologize to the hostess over the din (you can call her later), grab your stuff, take him into the car and hold him while he cries.

Are you punishing him? No. Your child is hitting because he can't handle the situation. Putting him back in the situation is wishful thinking, and is irresponsible to the other child. You remove him from the situation and help him with what's upsetting him. Yes, he'll be upset to leave. Crying will give him an opportunity to work through all those feelings that caused him to hit to begin with.

9. Don't reprimand him. He has already suffered the consequences of his aggressiveness. Now he needs your empathy so he can process his anger and sadness about what happened. He also needs to hear that he isn't bad, just little, and that you have faith in his ability to master this developmental challenge: “You are so sad and mad that we have to leave. But when you push, it hurts, and we can't play with the other children. I know that you got really upset. Next time maybe you can use your words, or get me to help. It's hard when you're little. But you're getting bigger all the time. Soon you'll remember.''

There are also a few things you can do with your son on a daily basis that will diminish the likelihood of him acting aggressively toward other kids.

  • Play the "Pushing Game"with him. Say "Let's play the pushing game. You can't push other kids, but you can push Mommy. Pushing doesn't hurt Mommy." Let him push against you hard. Let him push you, and fall down. Make it a game. Be very silly. He will laugh happily. Keep doing this as long as you can stand it, and repeat every day for as long as it makes him laugh. This will allow him to experiment with force, power, his desire to push, etc. He will probably love this game and want to play it a lot. That's a sign that it's really helping him work something out and you may find yourself doing it for a couple of months once a day until he loses interest.

  • If you can make it a constant practice to honor your son's feelings, he will begin to develop the emotional intelligence necessary to manage them. That doesn't mean you have to agree with him, or that you stop setting limits. It means you acknowledge his feelings and offer empathy. “You wish you could have that candy. It's almost dinner time, so no candy. I know that makes you sad. You can have some carrots if you're hungry, and I can give you a hug to make you feel better. We can snuggle on the couch and read your book. I see you're too sad and mad to read right now, you want that candy so much you're crying. It's hard to be so sad and mad. When you're ready I'll hold you and give you a big hug.”

  • The reason we don't hit other people is that we feel for them. Helping your son develop empathy is something you can do all day every day, just going through your daily life. First, by empathizing with him. Secondly, by demonstrating empathy for others. “Look, that little girl is crying in her stroller. I wonder why she's so sad?” or “Oh oh, Robbie fell down and got hurt. Ouch, that must hurt. Do you think it would cheer him up if we offered him a hug?” or “Kaylee sure is mad. She doesn't want to go home, does she?”

  • Explore with your son safe ways to express his frustration. For instance, when he's feeling good, say “Let's make mad faces. Then you can show me when you're mad.” Then, in a playgroup situation, you can say “Wow, are you mad. Show me how mad you are with your mad face.” Or offer him a squeeze ball and tell him to fill it up with his mad feelings. Or teach him to take a “calming” breath when he's frustrated (breathe in deeply through the nose, hold it a moment, and let it out very slowly through a small hole in your lips. Tell him to blow on his hand.) The trick with all of these things is to teach him while he's feeling good, then remind him when he's upset. You'll be amazed when you see him try one of these techniques when he's under stress.

This developmental phase is hard on the parents, but it's a perfect opportunity for you to help your son develop empathy and emotional intelligence. So the next time he clobbers someone and you're holding him while he has a meltdown, remind yourself that the high EQ you're fostering will be an asset for the rest of his life. Then take a deep breath, and give yourself a big pat on the back for being such a great mom.

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know how this works out.
warmly,
Dr. Laura

Dear Dr Markham,

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your response, I was so moved by it. You gave me a very deep insight. Now I see how playing with others can be overstimulating and intimidating for my sensitive and very lively boy. And in most cases I let him play around other children unattended, and he may feel threatened and by pushing or smacking he is protecting himself. I will try all your recommendations with deep empathy, honoring his feelings, he deserves it. I am a big fan of your work. Thank you again for the great work you are doing. The world will be a better place if more people know how to empathize.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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