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Positive discipline when toddler hits baby?

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I just read your article "Positive Discipline" and have to completely disagree. And I'll explain why. For instance, you say, "As a result, kids who are physically disciplined are not only more likely to repeat problem behavior than other kids, but are more likely to exhibit increasingly worse behavior, including deception."

My nephew is two and has never been spanked. Yet he routinely hits, kicks, knocks his brothers over and worse. With all the the praise and positive reinforcement, you'd think this kid would be begging to be good but at least once a day, he acts in a manner he knows is going to hurt someone else. He's 99% sweet. 1% terror. But that 1% almost seriously injured his brother when he purposely knocked the highchair over, sending his infant brother landing on his head. He could've sustained very serious injury.

However, his choice is #3 in your list--He knows but doesn't care.

He comes from a good home with two very stable parents who love him, give him plenty of attention and one-on-one time. But he wants more. But at some point, a child has to learn that they can't always get what they want, when they want it, but that doesn't mean their parents don't love them. I can't tell you how many times they have lovingly and gently taken this little boy on their lap to talk about how we are supposed to treat our family members with love etc. etc. but it never changes the behavior. And I could not imagine saying, "Now Beth, the real problem is your "relationship" with Madison. You need to "repair" it."

I've seen moms who ignore kids and this isn't one of them. What I see is a mom who puts more energy into a relationship with her firstborn than seems humanly possible and still has a child who acts in a manner never even witnessed in the house or any place else. The only TV he watches is Thomas the Tank Engine. The kids he plays with are well-mannered.

What many people are actually describing when they speak of spanking in negative terms, is a parent who has lost control and strikes out in anger, out of exasperation. Some people also mistakenly spank for age-appropriate behavior. They expect too much from one who is still learning. That being said, a child who blatantly disrespects his parent's authority while young, will be unmanageable when a teen. To compensate for the total lack of guidance earlier, many parents will then try to stifle all freedom at an age when they should be giving their child more freedom. This only creates a deeper wedge in the already damaged relationship.

Spanking is also guidance and not to be confused with violence. Spanking used as guidance is used with a rule created, then explained to the child, then the parent explains the consequence-whether it be spanking or something else. Then, third, an assessment has to be made as to the intent of the child. Anger is not apart of the equation because of all the for thought that goes into the rulemaking and discussion with the child.

The goal is to gently let a child go, they older they get until they are ready to face the world on their own. But often in the teen years, after a child has been raised permissively with an "open borders" approach, the parent begins tightening the reigns when he should be doing the exact opposite. That child has every right to be bewildered when, out-of-nowhere, a parent begins to impose boundries where there weren't any before.


I can see why you say that the problem here is not the lack of relationship between your sister and her son, since his parents give him lots of loving attention. Without knowing the people involved, I would be inclined to agree with you. The core problem is a common one: a two year old naturally panics when a sibling is born, and tries to get rid of them. As my son said about his baby sister "Can we send the baby back?"

However, I disagree with your conclusion, which seems to be that if your sister would spank her son, he would be less likely to hit his brothers. I don't suggest that kids who aren't spanked will be angels. They will still have to learn to control their angry feelings. But there is more chance of that if they are not spanked. Hundreds of studies now show that spanking always makes hitting worse. Seriously, do you think that hitting can teach a child not to hit? Kids learn from what we do, not what we say. When we hit, we show them that it must be ok, since mommy and daddy do it too.

Spanking is always felt as violence to the child who is being hurt by the parent. Every study done in the past three decades confirms that spanking has negative effects on child development and once the child is grown. For more info, please see this article: Should I spank my child?

So what can we do in this all too familiar situation when a little one clobbers the baby?

First, let's consider your nephew's perspective. He is not a monster, although when we hear he has attacked a defenseless infant we feel monstrously towards him. He is acting this way because he is too young to verbalize perfectly normal feelings that we all would have in his situation. He has had a mother and father all to himself. Then, suddenly, he has to share them with a sibling -- or, apparently, two?  Naturally he feels devastated. He doesn't have the words or self-awareness to express his sadness, fear, and anger. So he strikes out.

Of course, our first intervention is to protect the baby. Two year olds need fairly constant monitoring, and infants need constant protection from two year olds. MOST two year olds will pinch a baby sibling if no adult is around. That doesn't make them "terrors" as you said, it makes them two! A four year old might have the same impulses, but they have much better impulse control.

Our second intervention is to connect with the child so that he doesn't feel abandoned, and to help him to understand his tangled up angry feelings, so that he feels less ugly inside. Just knowing that his parents understand his hurt and fear will relieve a lot of his frustration and reduce his acting out. Guilt, by the way, is unlikely to be very effective. Humans defend against guilt by shutting down their feelings, both positive and negative. We need the toddler to be in touch with those positive feelings for the parents if he's to follow their guidance.

Our third intervention is to set very firm limits. This is where many parents have a hard time. They need to communicate to their children that feelings are given to us like arms and legs, but we are always responsible for what we do with them. We name the behavior and reinforce repeatedly that it is off limits. "No pushing. Pushing hurts!" Of course, those limits need to be enforced with empathy, not anger, because our child will only obey those limits to the degree that he feels connected to us, and anger erodes the connection.

Let's start with relationship. If your nephew is only two, and has one or even two younger "brothers" whom he knocks over, it sounds like these kids are spaced pretty close together. When children are spaced close together, it means the second one is born while the first is still very young--essentially a baby himself. Naturally, he is jealous that a new baby is on the parents' lap. So if a two year old has two younger brothers, that would definitely be a challenge for everyone involved, and I can't imagine any parent having the energy to really be there for all three kids, despite their best efforts.

Relationship also means empathizing with feelings to help your nephew understand his own anger and learn to manage it: "You seem very angry at your brother. Sometimes you feel so angry it makes you want to be mean, and hurt him. I wonder if you worry that mommy and daddy spend too much time with the baby and you want us to yourself. Lots of kids feel that way when they have a new baby in the house. Come and tell me whenever you feel that way. I love you and I always want to hear how you feel. Whenever you need me, you tell me, and I will find a way to take care of you."

That kind of talk is indeed one of those sweet talks when you take your child on your lap. It does not include admonitions to love their sibling, which cannot, of course, be mandated, since love does not grow from guilt. It may well include observations designed to start developing empathy: "It really hurt the baby when you knocked him over this morning. Did you hear him cry? Poor baby. Remember when you fell on the playground, and cried, how much that hurt? The baby hurts, too, when he falls."

But this kind of talk by itself is ineffective if not also accompanied by firm limits. Most two year olds are somewhat in a panic about their new competitor and would like to eliminate them from the planet. They have to work hard for their developing compassion to trump their murderous impulses. Parents need to help them by setting very firm limits. That means a loud, clear, "No hitting!" rather than a sweet taking onto the lap.

All kids need attention. Two year olds with a younger sibling or two need lots of it. If we wait until they do something wrong and then shower them with attention, we give precisely the wrong message. (And it doesn't fill that empty place, as anyone who has ever asked a partner if he loves her knows.) If we give attention pre-emptively, with generous amounts of "snuggle time" with both parents, our child feels "full" and has less need to knock his brother over. Spending one on one "special" time with each child invariably calms them down and makes them happier.

But I don't mean to sound as if the only intervention is the relationship. The other intervention, as I said above, is appropriate limits. My advice when an older sibling hurts the baby would be to pick up the baby and comfort him, for the moment ignoring the toddler. After the baby is calm and ok, put the baby in a safe place.

Take a deep breath and turn your attention to the toddler. Move in close to the toddler, look him in the eye, and say "People are not for pushing. Pushing hurts. You must have been very upset to hurt the baby." If your toddler is not too defended, he will burst into tears. That's good -- he's letting out all those tears and fears that are driving him to lash out.

If he doesn't cry, though, you will need to help him cry by setting a calm, kind limit. In other words, if the child feels safe, and the adult stays compassionate, the child's worries usually come bubbling up to the surface so they can be expressed and healed.

Sometimes, though, the child will push those feelings down by lashing out again--this time at the parent--or by going glassy-eyed (he's running away inside) or simply by running away. It's the parent's job at that point to stay as compassionate as possible and to stay with the child, making eye contact and helping the child to "show" her his feelings. "Sometimes you feel so upset about the baby...sometimes you wish the baby wasn't even here..." Most toddlers will agree angrily, or move closer to tears at that point.

The amazing thing about feelings is that once "felt" they evaporate. So if your toddler feels free to "show" you his tears and fears, he'll no longer be driven by them, and the hitting will stop. (What if he doesn't cry at that point? Kindly help him get in touch with his feelings by reminding him: "Sometimes you wish you could have me all to yourself...I know...I miss our special snuggle times too."

Redirecting the child is also really helpful. Your nephew can't yet control his impulse to hit, but maybe he can redirect it. His mom might say "People are not for hitting. I know you feel angry right now. Can you show me how angry you are by stomping your foot?" When he stomps, say "Wow! You are showing me how mad you are! I see! You are very very very mad!" Having a witness who understands will help him work through the emotions enough that he doesn't have to act them out.

Another way to help a toddler redirect the feelings is into fantasy. Sometimes playing a game with his trains, in which the big brother train engine gets the mommy train to himself, helps. The parent simply observes, noticing the storyline and supplying narration as the child initiates the action. The parent can set up the story by saying "How about this is the mommy engine, and the boy engine, and this is the new baby engine." The point is not to create fratricidal plays, but to let the child express his feelings and acknowledge them with empathy.

Art is also therapeutic. You might ask a child to draw a family picture, and when they leave out the baby, suggest that sometimes they wish the baby had never been born so they could keep mom and dad all to themselves. Reading books about toddlers with a new sibling is also helpful. Again, we respect kids' feelings at the same time that we strongly enforce limits on what kids do with those feelings. Kids need the reassurance that we will always keep them safe, and that we will help them to control their anger and not hurt others.

There are many more ideas about how to help your child adjust to the new baby in my book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings. Spanking is not on that list because it will increase your child's tendency to hit and it will make your child more resentful of the baby, which can ruin your kids' relationship for life.

One last point about two year olds. Developmentally, they need a lot of control over their lives. This stage is often a challenge for parents. So some of your nephew's acting out may simply be a result of his age. The toddler section of this website has lots of ideas about relating to toddlers in ways that encourage cooperativeness.

If your sister has three kids under the age of three, she needs a lot of support. How terrific that her husband is very involved with his kids, and that she has a loving sister to support her. That means there are other adults to be with the little ones while she gives focused attention to her two year old on a regular basis. I hope, however, that you don't encourage your sister to spank her child. What your sister needs is empathy and more arms, both of which she is lucky to have a sister to offer her.  

I wish you, your sister, and her family blessings,
Dr. Laura

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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