Friday, September 13, 2013

How to correct hitting behavior by toddlers?

It has been a long time since I have last written about parenting. Nonetheless, I can assure you that life with a tiny two-year-old dictator at home keeps you constantly busy with brain-melting issues, such as how to make her understand that there is no yogurt left in the fridge (and that if you could, you would definitely create instant yogurt just to shut up her relentless whining) and that despite her good will, solely relying on her skills to empty the washer is not the most efficient process.

But a more recent concern pushes me to share about parenting tactics again, and when I say "push" I am already at the core of the problem. My daughter is tiny, but it does not restraint her from trying to attack children twice her size.

It is not that much that she wants a toy or does not want to share one. That is another issue that we have not been faced with - yet! It is much more that she wants to interact with others and bring them to notice her. Her hitting means "See, I am the little one half your size, but I am worth noticing". If you take a good look at the big smile on her face, there is no doubt she thinks it is fun. The problem is, it is not. Not for the other kids. Not for me and my husband. And above all, not for day care, which has now arranged class discussion around community rules (the "no hitting policy" and how to tell the other kids to stop instead of replicating). I felt bad that our daughter was an initiator of this crisis unit. My husband reassured me that she was just one of the kids involved, but still I cannot deny that I have seen with my own eyes when she repeatedly assaulted her older cousin in order to get him to play with her during our summer vacation.

So many questions arouse in my motherhood paranoiac mind ("My kid is a bully! I am a bad mother..."). And I tried to report and analyze them rationally:

* Is this a perfectly normal toddler behavior among the many caveman behaviors one can notice (such as throwing herself backwards when she does not want me to do her hair, or going absolutely berserk in the blink of an eye if I deny her a third glass of orange juice)?

* Is she experiencing frustration and trying to send me a message?

* Am I the cause of her behavior? Now that I am back at work... Now that she is not an only-child any more... Now that I have less time to dedicate her...?

* Is she unhappy at day care? Are the teachers not nice enough with my tiny little girl?

* Are the other children pushing her and she is just reacting? She cannot be that bad...

* But am I a bad mother? Am I the cause of her behavior?

* Is she victim of gender discrimination: boys can hit to release their tensions, but girls are not allowed to reciprocate?

* Is she only replicating and mimicking her peers' behavior?

* Does she suffer from her bilingual environment? She might have been shoving her cousin because she was not familiar with other French-speaking children and she wanted to be part of the fun, the same way that she was no longer accustomed to the English-speaking class anymore when she came back after the summer holidays...

* So in other words... Am I the cause of her behavior?????

Well, after a second look and some research, I reduced my list of questions to three:

* Is she mimicking other children's behavior: yes!

* Is it normal at her age: yes!

* Is it because she does not talk well enough: yes!

Now a more tricky topic was what to do to correct this behavior and I was faced with different pieces of advice. Here are the tips that I personally found most valuable.

KNOW YOUR CHILD'S TRIGGERS. Of course, that would be nice to know exactly what triggers my daughter's aggressive reactions. Whatever the structural reason - lack of language, desire to be part of the group, mimicking and mirroring aggressive behaviors - some conditions can be avoided, such as exhaustion and hunger. Avoid play groups at nap or lunch time. Put your child early to bed the night before a big event. Keep posted about signs of fatigue or hunger. And avoid displaying emotional toys in social situations such as play dates!

GIVE HIM AN ALTERNATIVE. Try to bring him to use words (teach her a simple expression such as "play with me", "dance together") or a substitute (a growl or a roar). Because I know my daughter is rather tactile, I try to turn the pushing into a gentle stroke. Also, staying inside a full day can be rather suffocating for a child. Outdoor play is a good prevention technique. According to pediatrician , "Being cooped up inside all day increases a child's frustration level". In general, encourage daily exercise, and engage your child in playful physical contact (wrestling, pillow fights, controlled games such as "je te tiens, tu me tiens par la barbichette..."). "While wrestling, allow your child to take the lead and 'overpower' you. Some children hit in order to feel empowered and see another person's strong reaction, so react dramatically during delineated playtime.This is especially important if your child is the youngest of his siblings (or is a girl)." (Source: ).

INTERVENE WITHOUT ISOLATING. While some pediatricians advocate for a time out (removing the child from the conflict situation), others blame this strategy as short-termist. "A hitting/pushing phase is normal for toddlers (particularly preverbal ones), but some strategies -all rooted in thoughtful connection- are more effective than others for keeping the phase as short as possible. Issuing a 'time out' is often parents' first line of defense, but this type of punishment can backfire by increasing a child's frustration and sense of isolation. Even if time outs appear successful in the short term, they encourage children to disconnect and hide their behavior over time. Furthermore, they don't help children understand the cause of their behavior, nor do they help them build skills to negotiate social situations. It's critical to uphold a no-hitting boundary maintained by communicating your expectations and meeting [your child's] emotional needs." (Source: ).

In any case, if a time out is required, it has to be short and straight to the point. "It's important that during the time out, or waiting for him to become quiet, you are neither talking nor cuddling with [your child]. Otherwise, the time out time can become a reinforcer for the hitting you're trying to stop. The time out is meant to be boring and frustrating, and conversation and cuddling remove this necessary frustration." (Source: ).

BE CONSISTENT. Whatever the reasons that trigger the behavior - even if it is an act of defense against an aggressor - and whatever the environment (school, family home, park, friend's house), constantly reprimand the "bad" gesture. Repetition has a strong effect, even if you have the impression that it is the fifth time you repeat "no hitting" and it does not seem to work. Maybe the sixth time will be the right one. Discuss and re-discuss the rules until the child make them his own. For example my daughter now repeats "tape-pas" (no hitting) and say "pardon" (sorry) after hitting, which I believe is the first step to a complete eradication of the behavior.

Some other very useful tips can be found , based on preparing the ground before a social interaction, intervening during a fight and debriefing if an incident happens. In general the role of the parent is not to end up providing the child with what he was trying to reach by hitting (do not give him the desired toy or food!), nor to leave the party or cuddle him in a nearby spot. Rather explain that the child's behavior has the opposite effect to what he or she intended to achieve. So next time your toddler hits to get a cookie, eat the cookie instead!
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