Hi Dr. G!
My question is: my 21 month old son is seemingly becoming aggressive. He tries to hit me in the face when he’s unhappy or angry at someone or something. At an indoor gym recently, he tried to hit kids and adults alike when all they did was say hi to him. Why is he acting out and what do I do to curb this behavior?
This is so frustrating for parents, but also developmentally normal. Which does NOT mean it’s OK, it just means you don’t need to worry that your child is suddenly a sociopath in training.
Why is he acting out?
From his point of view, he is just trying something new. Children in the second year of life have a particular problem. Their wants and expectations get well ahead of their abilities. What do I mean?
Well, as a baby your son had his needs met if he cried and sometimes even when he didn’t. Crying was his main tool to get what he wanted.
As a toddler, he is learning every day. He is learning about communication, watching older children and grown-ups talk and get what they want. He wants that also. He is absorbing an important idea: that he should be able to change a situation or make something new or interesting happen.
Most toddlers cannot use words to get all their desires across. With luck, he has a bunch of words and some sentences. But, even if he is extremely verbal for his age, his thoughts are getting ahead of his speaking skills. This leaves him looking for other ways to communicate.
I bet he has found some nonverbal ways to communicate that are great! He has probably learned the trick of laying his head on your shoulder to get comfort. He may climb to effect change – to get food in his high chair, get a bath, get a toy. Does he flirt with grown-ups to get a smile or some attention?
Many toddlers do!
So he is experimenting to get a reaction. Hitting gets a reaction! It changes the situation and something interesting (from his point of view) probably happens each time he does it. Mama focuses on him, touches him, talks loudly to him. Other children and adults pay instant attention to him.
He is normal. Now he needs to stop hitting.
What do I do to curb this behavior?
You have a bunch of tools to use in this situation, but the underlying lesson you want him to learn is the same: hitting does NOT get you what you want.
If he tries to hit you and misses, hold his hands and say “No hitting.” Be firm but calm if you can be. If he manages to hit you before you can stop him, say “no hitting” and put him down in a safe spot and turn your back to him for a moment. The message of depriving him – even just for some seconds – of seeing your face will send a clear message. If you are not in a spot where you can put him down safely, stay calm and carry him out to the stroller or car. You can be nearby, but he gets no exciting, interesting emotional reaction from you.
When he hits another child or adult, give the attention not to him but to whomever he hit. Fuss over that child, offer a cold cloth or stuffed animal or just your sympathy and apology. Give him one firm “No hitting” and then turn your focus back to the other person. You can choose (if he has the word) to require him to apologize.
The most important idea is to make the aftermath of hitting as boring as possible. If he apologizes or hugs that person or brings them a toy, then give him TONS of love and appreciation for improving his behavior. Show him as soon as you can what DOES work.
The truth, Allison, is that – even if you did none of this – he will probably stop hitting on his own in a few months. When his language skills catch up to his desires or other kids hit him back and teach him that hitting doesn’t work, he would probably stop. But to guide him sooner, to help him learn what communication is ok and isn’t – you can effect some change sooner. Be patient with him and do NOT blame yourself or worry about his future. He will test you in lots of ways, but that is just him doing his kid job.