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Aggressive Toddler

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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 have 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 aggrevates. 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.

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.

The bottom line is that children lash out when they are hurting inside, so the way to stop hitting is to help children with the feelings that are driving the hitting.

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 immediately attend to the other child, so that your son sees 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. If you stay in the situation without helping him with the feelings that drove him to lash out, he is likely to hit again. So you say "When you hit, we can't play with the other children." And you remove him. Be kind, but firm, and take him home. (If this is in your home, take him to his room.) Your goal is to help him with whatever is going on that drove him to hit.

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." If you can stay kind and compassionate, he will probably cry. Great! Those tears are what were behind the hitting. Showing you that upset will heal it.

Once he feels better, you can rejoin the other kids, if you are still where they are. But remember that removing him is never a punishment. 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 "Hitting hurts. I know you're angry. Use your words and tell me. You can show me how angry you are by stomping, like this. 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 your 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. Have you read the section on this website on How to Manage Your Toddler So You Can Enjoy Him?

Here's an article on preventing hitting on playdates.

Finally, the section on this website called Parenting Tools has articles on Positive Discipline and Timeouts that you might find very useful.
Blessings to you and your son,
Dr. Laura

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