Neighbor's Preschooler Hitting and Bullying My Toddler

My daughter (age 2) routinely plays with my neighbor's little girl (age 3). We switch days babysitting for each other. Recently, the neighbor's girl has began to be bossy, possessive of toys, and even hitting my daughter occasionally. When they are under my supervision, I always deal with the situation immediately, putting the other girl in time out, telling her it's mean to hit, be bossy, possessive whatever the situation may be. I make her apologize and they make up.

I always talk to her mother afterward and tell her exactly what happened and the concerns I have about the new trend. We have both agreed to be consistent in correction of the problem. We've both told her daughter that if it continues she won't be able to play with my daughter anymore.

My husband is ultra concerned about the bullying (he was bullied when he was younger). He is adamant that the neighbor's girl not come over anymore. I feel that the problem is under control. We know there's an issue, we both agree on the correction, and measures are being taken to correct it.

However, I'm no expert on parenting and correction of children this age. I feel that it is probably a good life lesson for both girls to see how to deal with bullying, rather than shun the friendship, and we are working to fix the problem.

Am I on the right path, or am I being naive? I figure that this is probably pretty typical of childhood squabbles, and in fact the shoe is sometimes on the other foot when my daughter doesn't want to share. She has also been corrected for the occasional hitting/bossy incident, but not as frequently. I don't want to be naive and tolerant of bullying, but I don't think that's the case here. Any thoughts? -- Jess

Dear Jess,
Virtually all three year olds to go through a bossy phase. And most toddlers go thru a brief biting or hitting phase that ends after a few incidents when the parents express their shock and dismay.

Two and three year olds are still trying to figure out what is socially acceptable behavior. It takes a long time for humans to learn that abusing power (including the power differential between 3 and 2 year olds) loses them more important things, including friendship. Three year olds are just beginning to reconcile their natural empathy for others with their desire to get what they want. They are also just beginning to develop the impulse control that will help them to grow out of this aggressiveness. So you are completely correct that your neighbor child's behavior is normal.

That said, it is your responsibility to protect your daughter.

Some things you and your husband might want to consider:

1. Is your daughter physically safe? In other words, is your intervention quick enough to prevent real harm to her? Is your neighbor's supervision adequate to prevent harm?

2. Can you and your neighbor work together to stop the hitting asap? Hitting doesn't mean she's a bad person, just a three year old, but it is never permissible, even with a young child. So how do you stop the hitting?

Research shows that timeouts do not effectively prevent hitting. Actually, timeouts backfire with kids for two reasons. The first is that two and three year olds love to experience their sense of power and agency in the world, and timeouts teach them they can get a big reaction from the grownup, so they repeat the misbehavior. Second, timeouts set up a power struggle and undermine our relationship with the child, so they are less likely to want to please us and more likely to repeat the misbehavior. Click here for more on timeouts.

Research also shows that children who are spanked by their parents are much more likely to hit other children, so if this is a discipline strategy in your neighbor's house, you'll want to alert your neighbor to this fact. Of course, if your neighbor's child ever sees anyone else hit, it will be hard to eliminate her new habit. Finally, research shows that kids who see any kind of hitting on TV, including cartoon hitting, are more likely to hit others, so eliminating any violent TV will be important.

Here is the most effective strategy to stop hitting:

*Be present during the girls' playtime. Hitting occurs when a three year old is frustrated and sees hitting as the way to solve a problem. If you are there, you can see the problem brewing and facilitate a more socially competent way to resolve the problem. You can give them language to express themselves verbally, and solutions like taking turns. Most two and three year olds are simply not socially developed enough to play without supervision for long.

*Your first response when hitting occurs should be to sweep in and tend to the child who has been hit. If the attention goes to the hitter, even negative attention, the hitting is more likely to recur. If the hitter is initially ignored, while attention is showered on the child who has been hit, the hitting is less likely to recur.

* Stay calm. Angry responses provoke more anger from children. Hysterical responses provoke more hysteria.

* Once the child who has been hit is calm, put her down with a drink of water or a stuffed animal, and turn your attention to the hitter. Stay calm. Say "The rule is no hitting, no matter what. Hitting hurts. Did you see how your friend was crying? I know you were angry, but we don't hit. You can call me if you need me to help, but you can't hit. Because you hit, playtime is over."

Then end the playdate. I realize that is probably impractical if you're trading babysitting. You may have to actually engineer a weekend playdate so that you can follow through with this. A timeout is really insufficient to teach the lesson you want here. If hitting is followed by an immediate separation that lasts all day and maybe longer, she learns that hitting means she loses the company of her friend.

* Work with your neighbor to help her child develop empathy. Point out to the child: "Did you see how your friend was crying? Hitting hurts." Apologies, which feel like punishment to kids, can backfire. It's actually most effective to help her empathize. Encourage her to make the victim feel better by bringing her blanket, or ice, or a toy. Also be alert for every other opportunity to empathize with both kids, because receiving empathy from adults is what develops kids' ability to empathize with others, and that is what will ultimately prevent her doing harm to her friend.

*Have confidence in your neighbor's child to change. She isn't bad, just three. Praise her when she handles herself well. If you feel negatively toward her, that will communicate itself, and she is more likely to act badly.

3. Let's assume the hitting is under control, but you still feel uncomfortable with what you see as bullying. What exactly do you think your daughter is learning? If she is learning that someone else has the right to bully her and no one will defend her, then your husband is right, and she should be protected from this situation.

However, if she is learning that sometimes friends are difficult, bossy, and possessive, but that she can stand up for herself and summon helpful adult intervention as necessary, and that she can navigate such an encounter and at other times enjoy the friendship, then she is learning something invaluable about human relationships.

What makes the difference? The quality of the adult supervision and intervention. Toddlers need an adult nearby to intervene and teach social skills, because every toddler is sometimes grabby and possessive with toys. So the real question is, can you be available and attentive in the same room when they play, at least for now? Do you have confidence in your neighbor to provide this level of supervision when you're not there?

4. Finally, can you and your husband separate out your own issues and needs from your daughters'? It may be that your daughter would experience the cessation of this "friendship" as a tremendous loss, while experiencing it would have taught her a great deal. Or it may be that she is suffering and needs protection. You and your husband can only make that judgment if you set aside your own issues. Your husband may well be over-reacting because of his own past. Or you may be minimizing your daughter's distress because you don't want to give up the babysitting arrangement and because you have more of a relationship with the neighbors. This is a hard call, but it's an essential part of the discussion. 

You might also be interested in the article on this site on helping toddlers learn social skills.
I wish you much luck. Let me know how it goes!
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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