Dealing with an aggressive toddler

By Drum Digital
03 June 2014

What to do if your toddler starts hitting you. Two experts give advice for the “terrible twos”.

Has your child begun to bite or hit you? A mom wrote to us about her 22-month-old son who has taken to hitting her and her husband. She’s at her wits’ end.

“I have talked to him and explained that it’s not nice and is naughty to hit us, and I’ve even given him a light whack on his hand and bottom but nothing works. The more I whack him the more he hits me back. I don’t want him to grow up with the idea it’s right to hurt others. Please help!”

Melanie Prinsloo, a Pretoria clinical psychologist, says this behaviour is typical in children of this age. “Many parents refer to this stage as the ‘terrible twos’, when children suddenly discover the word ‘no’, become stubborn and throw tantrums. It’s at more or less two years of age that children realise they have a will of their own and it’s normal for them to test various forms of behaviour to determine where their parents draw the boundary.”

Marisa van Niekerk, an educational psychologist of Pretoria, says parents must realise this behaviour isn’t necessarily meant to hurt.

“It’s usually to get hold of something, such as a toy, or to annex a certain area. Children are usually less aggressive from the age of six. They’re less self-focused and can communicate better,” says Van Niekerk.

Prinsloo says it’s important parents handle the situation correctly and take control.

“If parents take the behaviour personally a power struggle will result, which will reinforce the behaviour. Remember, the behaviour is part of a developmental phase. Hitting the child back can make the situation worse because it sends conflicting messages. The child is taught not to hit but the parent is hitting them.”

What to do

Prinsloo has two suggestions – ignore the behaviour and if that doesn’t work make eye contact, tell the child why their behaviour is wrong and tell them what the consequences will be. She suggests a suitable method of discipline in this situation is the use of a “naughty chair”.  The child can spend one minute for each year of age in the chair.

“In ignoring the behaviour just carry on doing what you were busy with. Keep calm. If you’re angry focus on your breathing or go to another room for a minute or two.”

If that doesn’t work try the following: “Go down on your haunches and make eye contact with the child. You might also hold their hands gently. Say something like, ‘Hands are not for hitting. They’re for picking up things, clapping and for waving. If you hit me again you will go to the naughty chair for two minutes, but if you stop now we can do something else’.” Then suggest you continue with what you were doing or suggest an alternative to divert the child’s attention, such as playing with the dog, playing with blocks or watching TV. Remember to be firm about the naughty chair if the child still won’t listen.

Reinforce positive behaviour

Van Niekerk says an important part of a child’s learning process that can also help eradicate aggression is the reinforcement of positive behaviour. “If your child does something right give them a smile, a hug, words of appreciation, extra attention or a special privilege. Do this regularly and consistently; it will help them feel they’ve achieved something and they’ll feel good about themselves.”

How do I know the aggression isn’t a sign of a bigger problem?

“Although aggression in toddlers is normal, some children may display hostile aggression (with the aim of hurting someone) and/or overt aggression (which is openly aimed at a target),” says Van Niekerk.

She says general causes of aggression are violent fantasy play, exposure to aggressive adults or violence, rules that keep changing, parents whose rules differ a lot from one another’s, divergent parenting styles or aggressive friends. “In such cases it’s important to take your child to an educational psychologist and consider family therapy where both parents work together to address the cause as well as the behaviour.”

-Dalena Theron

Extra source: A Child’s World: Infancy through Adolescence Papalia, Olds and Feldman

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