Ask Kara-How do I help my pushing/hitting toddler learn to interact with his/her peers?

I was chatting with a friend the other day who asked my advice about how to help her toddler (almost 2) who is aggressive with other kids. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a toddler, but I have to admit that both Sofia and Gabe went through  hitting/pushing/toy stealing stages right before they turned two and a little into the twos (maybe for about 6 months of intensity). There were periods with each of them when I absolutely hated being in social situations with their peers, because I knew that my kid would be a bully. I am happy to report that both Sofia and Gabe outgrew this and neither of them are aggressive anymore (if anything they are on the really really sensitive side). I am no longer worried that I may be raising future assault felons :). I am definitely not an expert on the subject, but I do have a few ideas to share (as I perhaps prepare for another hitter in about a year if Miriam is like her siblings)! I would love to hear what has and has not worked for all of you as well!

  • A big part of why toddlers hit is because of their lack of communication. They are just learning to express themselves, and because they can’t always fully express themselves, they need us to help give them language for how they are feeling (or how another child is feeling after they’ve been hurt). I love this series of books:

The repeated line in this book is “Hands are not for hitting. Ouch, hitting hurts!” It talks in the book about what we can use our hands for. When Gabe went through his hitting stage, I would repeat, “Hands are not for hitting. Ouch, hitting hurts.” There is also a “Teeth are not for biting,” and “Feet are not for kicking” depending on your child’s preferred weapon.

  • From my experience, my kids were the most aggressive with kids their own size or a tiny bit smaller. While you endure this stage, it is natural that kids will be around peers their own size, but it is nice if you can on occasion let them play with kids who are older (who don’t hit). Your kid will get to play and have fun, and you won’t have to stress out, because most little kids are smart enough to know better than to hit a kid way bigger than them. On the same note, it is nice if you can find a peer who your kid does play well with so you can relax and let your child play without always feeling like you are “on them.”
  • Speaking of being “on them”, it is hard with toddlers to know how to discipline sometimes. It can be hard to play with an aggressive kid when you feel like the parent never does anything about it. You don’t know what your boundaries are in helping the kid when it seems like the parent does nothing. On the flip side, it is hard to be the parent of an aggressive child when you feel exhausted and like your kid is being labeled.
  • When your kid is repeatedly hitting, I think that it can make a point to pick up and drop whatever you are doing and leave. I probably should have done that more, and I admire when parents do that (I remember admiring you when you did that once Tonya after just arriving somewhere when Will was throwing a big fit when he was little). Depending on your child’s personality, it can show that we don’t get to stay places when you act like this.
  • Along the same lines, when your child is little, it is important to consider what time of the day your child is happiest and most easy going. It may not work to do a play date too close to a nap time. You should see me when I am overly tired sometimes :)…. it must feel really bad to be dragged around all day by adults when you are tired. Also, this may sound like a total “duh,” but think of the last time your child ate if they are acting out. They may be hungry.
  • Also, I think that not over scheduling kids and making sure that they have plenty of down time to play alone is important. Especially for kids who may be more introverted or over stimulated easily.
  • If  you are running short on patience and solutions, you may just consider staying home more. With attention, love, and a little guidance, your child will most definitely overcome this… and it may make life less stressful just to wait out the storm in the comfort of your house. Stay home and play in the yard and play with play-dough. Do what you need to do to keep your sanity. Who knows, some home time for awhile may be just what your child needed.
  • However you choose to deal with hitting, it is good to be consistent. I should have been more consistent sometimes. It is also important to stay calm (I also could have stayed more calm at times, I’m sure).
  • While it is very important to communicate and work with your hitting child, it is also important for the parent of the child being hit to teach their kids to say “no” and to learn to communicate their feelings.  Also, it is important to realize that even if your child isn’t aggressive, they aren’t perfect, and they may act out in different ways. Maybe they are very verbal and good at teasing or provoking. Hitting is not okay, but sometimes a child is so frustrated with how another child is teasing them, that they can’t think of any other way to handle the situation. I’m just saying to all of the parents who think that they have the “perfect kid”, your kid doesn’t poop flowers.
  • Although there have been times when I have really felt  like spanking (or “hitting”) a child with bad behavior, I still am of the belief that hitting probably isn’t going to teach a kid not to hit.

Okay, I would love to hear all of your ideas. Please share!!! I know you all have opinions on the matter. Was your toddler the one who hit… the one who got hit…… How did you handle thing??? It is nice to be on the other side to know that things work out, but I know that it is very stressful at the time dealing with this.

Amanda N. - September 28, 2011 - 11:03 pm

I have had to leave a few places due to naughty behavior. It’s difficult at times because it seems more like a punishment on the parent than the kid, but it works. The next time Chance started acting up, I simply said…”remember we had to leave Gigi’s house because…xyz”? — stopped him dead in his tracks.

Parenting is hard. And sometimes it’s a struggle to know what you’re doing because it takes time to see results.

Kara - September 28, 2011 - 11:14 pm

Amanda, this parenting gig is hard!!
Here are a couple of comments that I got on facebook too:
Jennifer said:
Another awesome article Kara and I can’t wait to check-out this series of books! While small children hitting small children can be common, I think it’s crucial to pay close attention to the duration. Meaning-if the behavior is sticking around past the “typical” age-range, it can be a red flag (not always of course but it can). Sometimes children hit because they have vestibular/spacial and even vision issues. Again, like so many others, hitting can be a sensory issue that often goes undetected and therefore can be a continual problem. BTW…I laughed so hard at your “poop flowers” comment! That was a good one! Thank you again for the fantastic information!

Jenn said:
another idea that may work for some and not others is something I did which was paired up with a mom in corvallis who has a daughter the same age as Maeby and who were both aggressive and we more or less let them figure it out with each other. We never let the aggressiveness go too far, but letting them wrestle and play rough with each other within some boundaries let them get it out of their system. It actually kept them from hitting or being aggressive with other kids because we could say “no, you save that for playtime with Lilly” and she’d stop. It could just be how things worked out for us, but sometimes letting kids kind of work it out (obviously without letting it go too far) helps them figure out a lot of other things too especially social skills and their own physical limitations.

juliette - October 1, 2011 - 8:21 pm

What? What was that lovely floral aroma in the bathroom this evening after my perfect daughter pooped (in the toilet, of course…she would just NEVER poop her pants!)