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21 month old hitting other kids

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Hello Dr. Laura!
I'm a stay at home mom to my 21 month old, Cole, who was born awake and hasn't stopped moving since. I'd say it's only been recently that his general crankiness has settled down at home and he's become a much happier little dude (he was a difficult newborn and hit the "terribles" pretty early). He's really been doing well at home lately! Really settling down, sweet, cuddly, happy, busy. Tantrums are slowing down (thankfully), and he's so helpful and just all around great.

Cut to playtime with others. Sigh. I'm about ready to quit our play group. In the half hour before I left with him this morning he managed to hit just about every kid there. Mostly because they were playing with something he had his eye on. They're starting to guard their toys and run away when he comes. It breaks my heart. I mean, I know he needs to learn somehow, but come on...these parents don't come to play group so my child can hit them! I just don't know what to do. I follow him from toy to toy so I can intervene with the inevitable chaos he causes. It's exhausting. Everyone else sits and visits while their child plays...

I go so we can be less isolated, yet I don't even know these people's names because I can't talk to them for longer than two minutes before having to chase down Cole. I get down on his level, I teach, I show, I remove him from the situation so he can calm down...nothing is working and it seems to be getting worse. He hit a kid because he actually willingly gave him the toy he was playing with.

I'll also admit, I'm a bit embarrassed by it all. DH and I don't hit him, and we don't let him get away with hitting us either. I never thought I'd be the parent of the one who hits everyone. It's so I just want to stay in my house with him until he grows out of it. I was already thinking of quitting playgroup for the fall anyway, as I doubt I'll have the energy to care for a newborn there and chase him around too. I hate giving up (already quit Kindermusik because he was so unruly), and know he needs to learn, but the frustration is really getting to me.

What else can I be doing? Would you still go to playgroup? I don't even want to continue with the lunch playdate I have arranged for my Mommy friends here this week...who wants to bring their kid so they can get abused by my child? I can't imagine what he'll be like with the toys he actually owns! I should probably warn my friend with the toddler. He's OK with the babies...since they don't play with his toys.

My query for you is two fold. #1 what should I be doing about his hitting? Is it considered "normal" developmentally and will he grow out of it with gentle guidance from myself? He does great around adults and older children...those his age are difficult for him to navigate socially. And #2, what do you feel about the importance of play group type settings? I want him to learn how to get along with others and to socialize, but it seems like he's just not ready right now. I worry that staying at home with him (i.e. not having him in daycare) is adding to the problems. But he genuinely seems happy at home at the moment. I admit, some of this is for my benefit. Being home with him can be isolating, for sure. I live in a large city, so social and play opportunities are ample, but I've had trouble with just about every one I've tried with him.


Cole sounds like a great little guy, and it must be so rewarding for you that after his early crankiness he's settling down into such a cooperative, cuddly kid.

As I'm sure you know, many toddlers Cole's age go through a hitting phase. It's nerve-wracking and embarrassing for the parents, but it is completely normal and he will indeed outgrow it, just as he outgrew his newborn crankiness. Your job as the parent is to help him come through this phase feeling like a good person who can manage himself to create positive relationships with others, rather than a bad person who can't control himself and hurts others, and then feels terrible about himself.

Cole is obviously an intense and sensitive boy with big feelings. Because he is so young, he has a low tolerance for frustration and little impulse control. When he wants something, his desire feels so strong that he will do whatever is necessary to get it, and no substitute will do. His awareness of the needs of others is not yet well-developed, and doesn't feel as urgent as his awareness of his own needs, so if other kids are in the way, he'll run right over them, literally. That doesn't make him bad, it makes him 21 months old!

So what should you do about his hitting, and about participating in playgroups? Let's take these two questions in reverse order.

Playgroups can be great for toddlers and preschoolers. They allow kids to develop social skills, and they give parents a chance to interact with other adults. But playgroups are also stressful for little ones. There's noise, and lots of people, and they have to navigate socially with the other kids, and compete for toys, and mom is usually busy chatting with someone so they often feel a little disconnected from her and a little un-looked after, which stresses them out. They finally get their hands on a toy they want and another kid tries to grab it, so they don't feel safe and relaxed. Sensitive toddlers can easily get emotionally triggered and overloaded by the stimulation of a playgroup. (We know kids get stressed by these group situations because their cortisol levels shoot up.) Unfortunately, stress makes kids feel less safe, and when humans feel less safe, it is harder for us to be generous with others. So kids who get along well one on one usually find it harder in a group.

Playgroups are also complicated because parents have different ideas about sharing. Toddlers tend to be very possessive about toys, and sharing as a concept doesn't work very well yet, so it works much better to teach kids to take turns. But forcing preverbal toddlers to take turns often backfires and triggers hitting. How? They don't really understand what's happening very well, and the more they have things taken from them without being able to express their outrage over having to give up the toy, the more likely they are to grab things from each other.

In other words, we think we're teaching our kids to share, or at least to take turns, but when we force our child to give a coveted object to another child, or wrest it from his grasp, we're teaching our child that he really isn't safe in this situation, because someone may grab his toy away at any time -- even his usually trustworthy mommy! At best, he will find it more difficult to feel generous about sharing. At worst, he may become aggressive towards others, since he clearly has to look out for #1 in this threatening situation.

So what can we do? My preference is a playgroup rule that the child with the toy can use it as long as they like. In other words, the child determines how long her turn lasts. If the other child has a hard time waiting, the adults "help" the child wait by helping him express any upset and then finding something else to do. Once children understand this rule, they no longer feel so possessive of things because they know they're in control of how long they use it. The adults aren't modeling "grabbing" things from them to give someone else a turn. So the children become more generous. In fact, they get the actual experience of how great if feels to be generous, because when they're actually done with a toy, they give it to the child who is waiting. That warm interaction reinforces their tendency to generosity.

But if that isn't the rule at your playgroup, is it a lost cause until he gets older, gains the ability to express himself verbally, and develops some impulse control? That will certainly help -- there is light at the end of the tunnel -- but there's a lot you can do right now to ease the situation and get him through this stage faster. Here's how:

1. Most highly sensitive preverbal kids do better with one on one play. As they gain the ability to express feelings and negotiate, they will feel more comfortable navigating group situations. So you probably want to reduce the time Cole spends in playgroups for awhile. The ideas below will also prove useful in avoiding aggression during one on one playdates.

2. Prepare him. It will increase the chances of things going smoothly, if before Cole plays with other kids, you describe what will happen and reassure him that he has backup. "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 hit, we can't play, so will need to stop having fun and leave. So I will be right there to help you if you need me, ok?"

3. Stay close. When you get there, explain to the other moms that Cole is going through a stage where he grabs toys from 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."

4. Then, stay emotionally present -- and within arm's reach -- while Cole's playing with the other kids. 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. 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.

5. Model negotiation skills. The other benefit of your staying very focused on Cole while he plays with other kids, at least for the next few months, is that not only can you prevent most violence, you can teach him social skills. You'll see when he's about to clobber someone, and why, and you can intervene. "You really want the dump truck. Devon has it right now. Let's ask Devon if you can have it when he's done. Devon, can Cole use the dump truck when you're done? Thank you!"

6. Help him learn to negotiate with other kids by offering solutions. "Devon has the dump truck right now and it will be your turn soon. I see it's hard to wait. Do you think we could offer to trade Devon for the snow plow? He might say no, but we could ask." Then model how to offer the trade to Devon.

7. Reassure him. If Devon doesn't take the deal, empathize with Cole's disappointment, positively affirm that he isn't hitting, then reassure him that waiting is worth it and that you're there to help: "You love that dump truck. It's hard to see someone else playing with it. It's really hard to wait. Devon says he will give you the dump truck when he is done."

8. Try to help him learn the critical skill of managing his attention so he can manage his impulses. "Let's wait for your turn. I will help you wait. While we wait, let's use the snowplow and make a road that the dump truck can drive on."

9. Be ready for a meltdown. If Cole is too upset about not having the toy, and can't be distracted, and just ends up crying, that's ok. Your job then is to hug him and let him cry, while you tell him you understand. "You really wish you could have that dump truck. It's hard to see someone else playing with a toy you want so much. It's hard to wait." To us, this is no big deal, but to him, he wants that toy more than he has ever wanted anything in his life. So when he cries and you comfort him, he's not getting the dump truck, but he's getting something much more valuable: a chance to express the depths of his despair while he is understood and accepted by the most important person in his world. He learns that the full range of who he is inside is acceptable, even lovable. That feeling of being wholly loved and lovable will extend, over time, into more generosity with others. The interesting thing is that once he cries, he may not even care about the dump truck, which shows us that his tears might not even be about the dump truck, but about his frustration with being so small and powerless in a big world.

10. Should you let him lose it right there in the playroom? Depends on how self conscious you are and how much other space there is to flee to. It can make a child feel less safe and more upset to remove them from the scene. On the other hand, you don't want the other moms to think they should grab the truck away from Devon to stop Cole from crying, because then Cole will assume that crying will get him the toy, not to mention it will make Devon ornery towards Cole. You might want to pick him up and carry him to the next room.

11. What if the other moms think you're indulging your kid by comforting him in his disappointment? You're not. Clearly, ignoring his deep desire for the dump truck won't make his feelings go away, it will just make it more likely that he'll use the nuclear option and clobber the other kid for the truck. Just say "I find that if I acknowledge his big feelings, he doesn't have to act them out as much. It's okay. He has to learn to wait for his turn." Tell them you're helping him develop empathy by offering him empathy. Then just hold him and love him. You will probably find that after he cries and you comfort him, he is much more relaxed and less aggressive with the other kids. He may not even be so fixated on the dump truck. Sometimes, what they needed all along was to reconnect with mom, or to let off stress. We all know we can feel a lot better after a good cry.

12. If, despite your best efforts, he hits another child, take a deep breath and stay calm. First, attend to the other child. Keep your arm around your son while you say "I'm so sorry....That must hurt....Cole is so sorry he hit you. We hope you feel better. Cole was frustrated and he forgot to use his words, didn't you, Honey?" If Cole is calm enough to help the other child, that's great. If not, don't force it. He's still in the grip of fight or flight.

Any child who hits has some big feelings going on that he needs help to process. Until he does, he will hit again. So it is my opinion that it's irresponsible to let him stay in the group and play. Instead, remove him to a safe, private place and help him cry, or even laugh, all those feelings out. After that, it's safe to let him go back and play.

13. Of course he will cry. If you don't feel comfortable letting him have his meltdown where you are, 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.

14. 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, and that you had to give Devon the dumptruck. But when you hit, it hurts, and we have to give back the toy and leave. It's okay to get upset, but it is NOT ok to hit. We use our words and we keep our hands on our own bodies. I know that you got really upset. Next time I will help you use your words. It's hard when you're little. But you're getting bigger all the time. Soon you'll remember.''

15. Reinforce all pro-social behavior, including the times when he barely restrains himself. "You wanted the dumptruck and you used your words to tell us! Wow! Good for you! You must be so proud! Let's see if Devon can give you a turn soon."

16. If you can make it a constant practice to honor Cole's feelings as you go through the day, 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, even while you set limits. "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."

17. The reason we don't hit other people is that we feel for them. Helping Cole develop empathy is something you can do all day every day, just going through your daily life. "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?"

18. Explore with Cole 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). 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.

Dr. Laura

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Dr Laura! I need to remind myself to help him label his feelings and find ways to work his way through them. He's always felt "big" emotions and sometimes seems genuinely at a loss with how to deal with them. I find myself at odds sometimes, as I'm a bit of an introvert, and his energy really confounds me sometimes! That being said, I think our calm home environment helps him to feel in control, things are very predictable here.

I'm happy to say that I had some friends over for lunch today, and he did very well sharing his toys with the other toddler who came. We had a couple of toddler moments, but they both got through it with some guidance! For some reason, he adores smaller (non mobile) babies...he gets on their level and tries to help them and give them things...hopefully that will bode well for what's invading our house in September!

Thank you again! I'm a youth and developmental disabilities counselor by training and prior work you think some of this stuff would come easy, but when it's your own child, I often forget all the good stuff in the moment!


It is always so much harder with our own kids!
And it sounds like you're doing a great job.
The fact that Cole likes non-mobile babies signals that maybe kids his own age make him nervous. As he gets more social skills and confidence about maneuvering in social settings, he'll become less aggressive. And the good one on one experiences will help him, too. Enjoy him. That will be the most important factor in him adapting well to the new baby.
Dr. Laura

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