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My toddler is aggressive, what went wrong?

I really like your website very much. I find it very inspiring. I started surfing the internet and reading all what I can find on babies and toddlers since I had my child. I feel so worried that I won't be a good mom, or my baby won't be as good as I wish.

My marriage is a big failure. But, I work so hard that my 2 year old son doesn't really feel it. I have a very good relationship with my kid. We play together, I take him to the club, we draw and color together, we work out puzzles. I read for him since he was 18 months.

The problem is that he started to develop an aggressive attitude. He hits me if I take something from him, or force him to do anything that he dislikes. He hits his friends when they start playing, sometimes out of jealousy or just anger. He is even aggressive when he holds me or plays with me.

I sometimes give him timeouts or hit him back to prove that it hurts to hit. I don't really know how to handle this and I seriously want to fix this problem before it aggravates.  So, what went wrong?
Salma

Dear Salma,
I am so glad you wrote. It is disturbing to have your child begin to hit. Most two year olds do experiment with aggression because they are still learning to control themselves. You are right to want to nip this in the bud, but please know that it is completely normal.

Many studies have shown that hitting kids, even to show them that hitting hurts, only perpetuates more hitting. When we treat our children with compassion and kindness, even when they hit others, they learn not to hit. When we hit them, they learn to hit. It is that simple.

I also have observed over and over that timeouts create power struggles and cause children to be more rebellious, even to the point of hitting. Timeouts are much better than hitting your child, but they do not encourage good behavior, in fact, they encourage bad behavior.

SO what can you do? First, of course you set the limit for your son that hitting is never ok. When he hits another child, you will need to immediately, kindly, attend to the other child (ignore your son for the moment) so that your son sees that he does not get attention by hitting, and so that he gets the message that indeed his hitting has hurt the other child.

Then, when the other child is recovered and being tended to by another adult, you will need to pick up your son and remove him from the situation. "We never hit. When you hit, we can't play with the other children." Be kind, but firm, and take him home. (If this is in your home, take him to his room. Stay with him, of course, while he calms down, before the two of you rejoin the others. It is best if you can have the others leave so that he gets a clear message that hitting ends play.)

He is likely to be be very angry, and you can empathize: "You wish you could play more. You don't want to leave. I am really sorry, but when you hit, we can't play with the other kids." Be kind: "Soon you will be a little older and you will remember not to hit. You will remember to ask me for help, or to use your words, instead." He needs to hear from you that he isn't bad, just little.

What do you do when your son hits you? You tell him "We never hit. I know you are angry. When you are angry, you use your words and tell me. You can show me how angry you are by hitting the pillow, or by yelling if we are outside, or by showing me with your crayons on the paper how angry you are. But we never hit." If he is hitting you, then your relationship with him needs attention. You set the limit, but you overcome your own anger at being hit, and extend empathy to your son. When we offer kids empathy and set the limit of No Hitting People EVER, they do learn not to hit, and what's more, they learn positive ways to handle their feelings.

Finally, I am concerned by what you say about your marriage. If you and your husband are fighting, your son could certainly be acting out the household tensions. And of course, if you son observes any parental physical aggression, it is bad for him, and I assume you know it is time for you to leave the situation. Even if none of this is so, and the marital issues are "quiet," I urge you to consider counseling. Divorce is hard on kids, and so is marital tension. It may be that your marriage can be saved, with some attention. Even if your husband will not go to counseling with you, it would be helpful if you saw someone yourself.

I hope this helps.  I think you will also be interested in the following articles on this website:

Toddlers

Positive Discipline

Timeouts

Empathy

Finally, there are other letters on this site about toddlers hitting parents or peers.  This is of course very common.  I think you might find my answers to those letters of value:

Toddler hitting mom

Toddler hitting other kids

All my best wishes,
Dr. Laura

Dear Dr. Laura,

I can't thank you enough for your prompt response and very useful advice. I believe you are right about hitting and timeouts. I am now trying to change my attitude with my son. I read most of the links you sent me, and I do find them very helpful. I think I need to work on my self and heal my wounds, and this will automatically be reflected in my son. I also took my son to a specialist to check his behaviour and advise me on this aggression matter. She said that he's ok and she can't say that he's aggressive, but she also thinks he needs more fun in his life.

I did go to counseling for my marriage, but it wasn't that helpful. Our marriage is quiet, I mean my son is not exposed to any aggression. But, the real problem is that his father is not intervening in any way in my son's upbringing, he's doing nothing. I believe I need to decide whether to accept my life as is, or to ask for a divorce. My main concern is my son and how to choose the best for him.

Thanks again.
Salma

Salma,
If there is any way you can get counseling to "heal your wounds" and sort out your marriage, it would help not only you, but your son. Ultimately, the parents we are able to be always depends on who we are as people.

And I'm betting you need more fun in your life also. Maybe you can make a list of "fun" things for you and your son? They don't have to cost anything, and part of the fun quotient will depend on your attitude, but I bet you could find a way to create more fun for yourself and your son.

I wish you blessings as you seek a healthier, happier you.
All my best,
Dr. Laura

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sharon commented on 30-Aug-2010 10:59 PM
Awesome question and response - thank you i learned from this too.
Anonymous commented on 09-Dec-2010 10:43 PM
This post really helped me out with the situation I am going through with my 2yr old child. I am working on disciplining my child the way you suggested and "talking with him" rather than punishing him. I too and working on my marriage. There are definite problems in mine as well that I hope to resolve with counseling otherwise my children will be exposed to a downward spiral. I have two little boys who I love dearly and only want the best for. Do you leave a marriage you are not completely happy in or do you stay in it because no relationship is perfect? Sincerely, confused mommy
Anonymous commented on 01-May-2012 03:37 PM
I am at my wits end of dealing with my 3 yr old sons hitting, it has now started becoming a problem in school. He only hits at school and has been switched from class to class only to be left with the autistic class as a haven to have more attention from
teachers. He has gotten kicked out of after care and still hitting class mates. his mother and i are separated but we both try not to show no aggression toward each other. we monitor his programming, no violent shows or radio. there is no aggressive behavior
in either household and i fear the school will be pushed to expel him in the future. i've tried talking to I'm asking him why he hits these kids but he cannot find the words to tell me. i'm the strongest disiplinarian out between his mother and i. i just don't
know what else to do at this point. sincerely, frustrated father

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