Q: My two year old has been hitting, pushing and scratching the other kids at her daycare. The other night while I was putting her coat on, she was smiling at another girl in her group, she went up to her and I thought she was going to give her a hug, instead she pushed her and when I crouched down to her level and said, “No hitting” she just laughed and lunged at the girl again.

I was so embarrassed, as this girls mother was with her, and I have to admit that I didn’t really know what to do. I told her not to do it again, and unsuccessfully tried to explain her behaviour to the other mother. How do I discipline a two year old? Why didn’t the other mother seem to understand my predicament, don’t all two year olds hit, push and scratch each other once in a while?

A: It is so mortifying when our kids do things like this in front of others, especially when they hurt another child. Additionally, in this situation you have the complication of dealing with the emotions of the other parent who was not prepared to be understanding. It is common though, for parents to go into protective mode when their little one gets hurt. Sometimes, in their effort to protect their child from harm, they forget that the offender is just a little toddler. Typically, the other parents will reconsider their responses once the moment is in the past and they have time to reflect. Meanwhile, try to handle the immediate situation by demonstrating your concern for the hurt child and calmly but firmly telling your toddler that their behaviour was unacceptable. The other parent will get over it.

You are right in saying that children at your daughter’s age can be aggressive. They are still learning to sort out their emotions. Think of your little girl as a small caveperson who has all of these big feelings that she is not yet able to regulate or even understand. It is common for children at this age to hit, scratch, pull hair or even bite. They don’t have to be angry either; they just feel an intense flood of emotion and could end up biting you with smiles on their faces. It takes some time for them to sort out all of these primal urges. The part of the brain that takes perspective and regulates behaviour is not fully formed yet. It’s important to remember that toddlers are strongly motivated by whichever actions elicit exciting or interesting responses, like pushing a button and having lots of bells and whistles go off. If they bite or hit they can almost always count on some big reaction from the recipient of these unfortunate behaviours.

If this happens again and it most likely will, your response should be as neutral as you can muster. Remind your child that we don’t hurt people but don’t use too much language or lecture. She is too young and all those words will just overwhelm her. Keep it simple, then calmly remove her from the situation. You can pick her up or lead her away by the hand. Think of this as an interruption in the behaviour. Stay steady. I know this is really hard, especially if your child is hurting another child, but don’t let your embarrassment lead you to lose your cool. Have your daughter sit for a short while (two or three minutes) as you apologize to the hurt child and her parent. You don’t even have to debrief your child when her timeout is over. The interruption will have been enough although you can ask your child to say sorry or give the other child a high five or a hug. Don’t push it though, especially if you think your child may hit again or if the other child seems too stressed. Resume playing and if your toddler hits again, remove her again for a sit.

By repeating this “you hit, you sit” formula in a neutral way, she will learn that nothing interesting happens when she hits or bites and that she just gets interrupted from her play. You may have to do this several times a day, but if you stick to this consistently, it should dramatically decrease this aggressive behaviour. Good luck and don’t worry; this is a stage and it will pass.

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