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26 month old hitting other kids

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Dear Dr. Markham,
My son is 26 months old, very verbal and very bright. For the past 6 months he has been very aggressive with children who are smaller or younger than him, never with older children.

This aggression seems to increase when I am not giving him 100% of my attention. A couple of months ago we were at the park and I was speaking with another mom. My son kicked another little boy, I intervened, telling my son that we don't kick people while I ensured that the little boy was alright. I removed us from the situation and we continued playing.

Later, I began talking to the same mom and my son went up to the boy and grabbed his neck, it was awful!

Then I was talking to a man and my son started chasing his son waving his arm to hit him. We talked about what he needed at that time and he said "me need mommy", so I told him that if he feels like hitting he should ask me for help.

For the next couple of months he would come to me saying he needed me instead of hitting. Which was great, but at the same time it seemed like I couldn't even talk to other people because he would feel aggressive whenever I did! Just the other day we had friends over and my son tackled a 1 year old. We had a time out together, and when my son was ready to say sorry we returned, only to have him swipe again at the little boy. He gets a very angry look on his face just before these episodes, so I try my best to intervene before hitting occurs.

The other mom said "he doesn't know who is boss, you need to yell at him, my kids know who is boss" *sigh* This type of behaviour happens at nearly every playdate or playgroup that we attend. I am a stay at home mom and my son is used to getting all of my attention. I think that might precipitate jealousy on his part.

Also, my neighbour's little girl (4 1/2 years old) used to always hit my son and her little sister, so I wonder if my son internalized that behaviour. We no longer spend time with them due to her aggression. I try to anticipate his aggressiveness, remove him from the situation, and have him say he is sorry when he is ready to go back...but things aren't changing. What else can I do? Thank you so much, I appreciate any and all of your advice so much!


Dear Jodie-
What you are doing is perfect. I suspect that your son is indeed used to having all of your attention, and that he gets frightened when he feels you're focused elsewhere. He can't bear that feeling of losing you, especially when he is out in the wide world with so much stimulation coming his way. You may think he's fine playing, but he's really checking back to be sure his foundation (you!) is there at all times attending to him. When you get absorbed in someone else, he gets your attention back the quickest way he knows how.

Are you spoiling him by attending to him? No, you are meeting his need for security.

Would it be better for him if you "showed him who's boss"? No, that would make him more insecure. He might not hit while you're watching, but he will feel even more worried about losing your love, and he will feel ugly inside, which will provoke all kinds of other behavior. Moms who show their kids "who's boss" do it through the threat of violence and loss of love. That may work temporarily, but long term it has all the opposite effects of what we want for our kids. That mom on the playground may have kids who obey while she's a lot bigger, but that won't last for long. She will have problems with her kids as they get older that will make your current problem look small. Fear is a temporary motivator. Love is a stronger motivator the older our kids get.

I think you are probably correct that your son internalized hitting from being hit by his former playmate, but he might be hitting anyway. It's very common for this age group.

The answer is just what you've been doing, as well as trying to intervene pre-emptively. In addition, to keep him from becoming a pariah on the playground, I would consider removing him from the playground immediately when he hits. Not in a punitive way, just in a "The rule on the playground is that kids don't hit, and when they do, they have to leave. I'm so sorry, Sweetie. We'll have to come back tomorrow and maybe we can remember better then."

As your son becomes older and more verbal, work with him to give him language for those scared feelings that precede the hitting. That will help him to manage them by coming to you immediately. I know this means you have to attend to him constantly on the playground right now. But he's being very clear that he needs your full presence to feel secure for the time being. Don't worry. It isn't a permanent condition. In just a few years, you'll wish he wanted more of your attention!

For more on how to prevent hitting, please check out this answer I gave to another mom: If you have more questions about this, please consider registering for a short coaching session.
Dr. Laura

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