Mom of 2-year-old is on edge at play time

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  February 9, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

My 23-month-old can be like Jekyll and Hyde. Sometimes he is the sweetest little boy to other kids, giving hugs and kisses. Other times he hits, pushes, and throws toys at kids for no reason! He will walk up to a kid and just hit or push them down. I have tried telling him hitting is "naughty" and giving time outs for this behavior, but nothing works.

How do I get through to him at such a young age? His behavior has me constantly on edge when we are socializing with other children.

From: Sarah, Natick
Dear Sarah,

As I read your email, I can't help but think of the posting last week about bullies. Inappropriate or a-social behaviors are typical to young children; they are ego-centric and impulsive and often can't help themselves. Over time, with parents' patience, repetition, and appropriate modeling, children learn how to identify their emotions and how to more appropriately channel them in ways that are pro-social, cooperative, and collaborative. I'm not saying poor parenting creates bullies. We all know that nothing is that black and white. But I do think it's a healthy thing when children learn at an early age how to channel their frustrations.

Perhaps the best response to impulsive behavior is to look for ways to praise the positive.

He's way too young for time-out. Keep your expectations low. This is not an age when children can share, so don't expect that. Instead, teach about turn taking by anticipating/heading off inappropriate behaviors before they happen is the best you can hope for.

When he does something inappropriate -- he hits or pushes or crushes a child in a bear-hug -- intervene asap. Tell him calmly but firmly, "Pushing is no," and remove him from the activity. Forget reasoning with him or trying to explain why. Too many words. Just be direct, calm, and firm. Once he calms down, ask him, "Would you like to try and play with your friend again?" If he pushes again, do the same thing again. He will get frustrated, yes, but he will get the message.

One of the issues here, as you say, is your own anxiety. Try to let it go. Every mother of a young child knows that her kid could be the one who acts out the next time. Most women I know are not into the blame game; we're all in the same boat and all want the same things for our kiddos.

So here's how this might play out:

 If past experience tells you that when he enters a new situation, he is likely to go up to someone and push (which just could be his way of saying, "Hey,  let's play!"), talk him through it, staring before you walk in the room: "When we get there, let's stop when we go inside the door. That way, you can see what you want to do." Hold his hand. Pause with him. "Do you want to play with John? Let's go over to John together." Guide him through the introduction. If you can feel him trying to break away, respond to the body language: "I can see you are so excited, you want to hug John. Let's ask John, 'John, do you want a hug?'"

The point is to guide him in appropriate behavior. Even though hugging and kissing is "nice" behavior, not all kids like it and it's not always going to be appropriate any more than pushing is. Learning to read body language and a person's signals comes instinctively to many children, but it's a learned behavior as well.

Once you start to model and guide him in one interaction, you'll see how you can do it in others. Just telling him what to do, however, or saying something vague like, "Play nicely," isn't going to cut it. Young children need concrete examples and literal help.

If impulsive behavior and an inability to read social cues seems to be more the pattern than the exception for your son, It is possible he may need professional intervention. Here are some websites that can help you evaluate impulse control and what psychologist Linda Budd calls the  active, alert child.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.




Some children act on impulse as a way to get attention, so whenever possible, try to give them the attention for good behavior rather than bad. what might make him frustrated -- "I can see you'd like a turn with that toy. Let's ask John if you can have it next." Being attentive and
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1 comments so far...
  1. I like Barbara's advice, but I wonder if there's any kind of pattern to the aggressive behavior. Is he tired or hungry? Is it always with the same child or at the same place? Is it more common when he's with one child or a group of children? Is the other child playing with a toy he wants? I'd try to pay closer attention and see if there's some common cause that you can address. As Barbara mentioned briefly, if you see him resolve a situation himself in a positive way (asking for a turn with a toy, etc), definitely let him know right away.

    I also think that when you remove him from a situation after he misbehaves, you should explain why - pushing is mean, hitting hurts, throwing toys can hurt someone or break the toy. Not a 20 minute explanation, but more than the 'Pushing is Not OK' that you give as you remove him. If he resumes the misbehavior after the first removal, I think you need to leave the situation completely. "Since you can't play nicely, we'll have to leave. We'll try again tomorrow/next week."

    Posted by akmom February 9, 10 09:26 AM
 
1 comments so far...
  1. I like Barbara's advice, but I wonder if there's any kind of pattern to the aggressive behavior. Is he tired or hungry? Is it always with the same child or at the same place? Is it more common when he's with one child or a group of children? Is the other child playing with a toy he wants? I'd try to pay closer attention and see if there's some common cause that you can address. As Barbara mentioned briefly, if you see him resolve a situation himself in a positive way (asking for a turn with a toy, etc), definitely let him know right away.

    I also think that when you remove him from a situation after he misbehaves, you should explain why - pushing is mean, hitting hurts, throwing toys can hurt someone or break the toy. Not a 20 minute explanation, but more than the 'Pushing is Not OK' that you give as you remove him. If he resumes the misbehavior after the first removal, I think you need to leave the situation completely. "Since you can't play nicely, we'll have to leave. We'll try again tomorrow/next week."

    Posted by akmom February 9, 10 09:26 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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