Last week, my son did something in front of me that shocked and saddened me a little bit: He blatantly shoved another child at day care.
The whole thing got me wondering … why do toddlers hit? Why do they get aggressive? I certainly didn't teach my son that sort of behavior.
I wondered, “What am I doing wrong? Am I a bad parent?”
After talking with Dr. Holly Roberts, a licensed psychologist at the Munroe-Meyer Institute and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Nebraska-Medical Center, I feel much, much better.
Aggressive behavior is a normal part of being a toddler, Roberts told me.
That’s right: Hitting is completely normal.
Around 14 to 18 months, a toddler’s language is beginning to develop, they’re moving around more – and they’re gaining more motor control to be able to throw those punches, Roberts said.
“They’re learning cause and effect type of situations. ‘If I do this, what will happen?’” she said. “It’s during this time that the most common behaviors develop – and the most worrisome for parents, such as aggression.”
It makes sense. Imagine yourself not being able to fully communicate your needs to someone. You’d probably get pretty frustrated, too.
Take my son as an example. He normally loves day care, but that one day, something set him off. I don't know exactly what triggered him: Was he teething? Hungry? Tired?
He's a mama's boy, and possibly he was upset that I was leaving. A little girl tried to say hello and he flat out pushed her over. After he did it, he immediately turned back to look at me. I had never seen Sam push another child. It's simply not something he does. But I jumped into action.
I picked up the little girl and immediately told Sam, “No! You don’t push!” I then told him he needed to say sorry. He burst into tears (he has such a sensitive little soul), but walked up to this little girl and gave her a hug while whimpering, “I’m sowwy!”
I didn't know it, but I guess I was doing the right thing.
From a very young age, children have empathy and they understand how others feel, but the one thing they don't understand is how their actions can affect others' feelings, Roberts said. So when a child hits, it’s important parents follow up with consistent consequences, whether that’s putting the child in timeout or putting a toy in timeout. “Just because aggressive behavior is common in toddlers, that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. We need to let them know it’s unacceptable," Roberts said.
Roberts recommends timeout procedures as early as when a child starts to cruise along furniture. At that point, they're already able to explore their environment and get into dangerous situations. “Children learn through experiencing consequences,” she said. “They may not fully understand the danger of placing their finger on an electrical socket, for example, but they know they go to timeout when they do.”
Parents also need to have others – grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, day care providers – on the same page when it comes to consequences.
One thing Roberts said that really stuck with me is to teach alternative behaviors and to not only give out punishments, but to also dole out plenty of praise.
“Think about things you want to see from your child. When they do share or are nice, praise that behavior,” she said. “They don’t know that they shouldn’t hit but give a high-five instead. It’s important we teach them that. We spend a lot of time catching children doing things we don’t approve of, but we need to be spending three times as much time catching children being good and praising them for that.”
The aggressive phase can last up until a toddler is 3 years old. If your child is 4 and still exhibiting aggressive behaviors, Roberts suggests talking to your pediatrician, who are gatekeepers for referrals and additional sources if they’re needed.
“Around age 4 is when we would say they should’ve learned some of those limits by now. There may be more cause for concern at that point,” she said. “Their language becomes more vocal at that point, so they can communicate their frustrations.”
Roberts also said she would be concerned if children weren’t trying to interact with their environment.
“Everything we do we have to learn. I love that parents get the opportunity to teach their children how to behave properly,” she said. “You’re not the reason they are a toddler and are trying to do things; but you have the opportunity to set these limits for your child and set the stage for discipline and praise.”
Ashlee Coffey is the editor of momaha.com. She is married and has one son. Follow her on Twitter @AshleeCoffeyOWH.