Question: I need HELP. I have a two-year-old who seems very aggressive. She beats on her 8-year-old sister with whatever toy she may have in her hand at the time. She beats, bites, pulls hair, throws things at all the children, at the sitters. I give her time out on the chair when she’s done something wrong. I praise her when she is NICE. What am I doing wrong or how should I deal with her?
Answer: So much of parenting is trial and error. Time out is one of those trickier responses as it applies to two-year-olds. If timeout can be enforced without increasing your frustration level, I would continue using it as part of your overall strategy. It may be most effective to separate your daughter after acts of aggression with her peers. Clearly, it alone will not increase your daughter’s social behavior but it does help emphasize that certain behaviors are unacceptable.
Two-year-olds do go through an “aggressive” stage as they literally shout out their feelings, intentions and desires. They may even bully others around them as they claim a territory of their own will, within which they will attempt tyrannical rule. Developmentally, we understand they are creating a sense of self in opposition to everyone else in their path.
Of course, understanding a developmental stage does not condone the behavior. It merely gives parents a framework in which to be patient with their children’s learning. This level of aggression necessitates that parents, sitters and siblings are always anticipating the first sign of aggression. Everyone must be ready to redirect the behavior before it occurs. To make it just a little more complicated, you want to be vigilant without your daughter suspecting you have negative expectations for her. Approach all of your daughter’s social interactions as if they are learning opportunities for her. When the aggressive behavior begins, the adults and older children will be there to teach her a new verbal, emotional and behavioral repertoire.
Explain to your two-year-old that none of you will play wither when she ________ (fill in the blank with whatever the situation warrants). Coach everyone who interacts with her to say, “Stop _______, that hurts!” and immediately withdraw your attention. Turn away. Stop eye contact. Pretend to be busy with something else. After one or two minutes, ask her if she is ready to try again. If she says yes, or nods yes, give her another chance but stop playing immediately if the aggressiveness returns. Change the scene to open-ended or high-energy play (outdoor games, water play, even play dough with hammers and pizza cutters). Orchestrate success for your daughter by choosing circumstances and people that will maximize her best self until this stage subsides.
I personally would not focus too much on teaching nice. Your daughter, while deeply wanting your approval, is also feeling very powerful. Build on that sense of power. Give her appropriate expressions of control. For example, choosing activities when playing with adults, running fast with her sister, or building really tall towers with her blocks. We, in fact, become nice through unawareness of others and making better choices. Set meaningful challenges and guide your daughter lovingly on her first journey into herself.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.