Sunday 15 December 2019

David Coleman: We don't want our toddler to be a bully

Our two-year-old boy regularly hits other children
Our two-year-old boy regularly hits other children
David Coleman

David Coleman

COULD you please offer us some advice on our two-year-old boy who regularly hits other children?

He is an only child so far. He often makes a point of walking up to a random child in a playgroup and, for absolutely no reason, slaps him in the face or throws something at him. We're at a loss to see where or why this behaviour has started – he certainly sees nothing like this in the home and does not attend a crèche.

He does seem to understand that this is wrong. We tell him it's naughty and that he won't be playing with his favourite toy or getting any treats because of this. He agrees it's not nice to hit, he even goes so far as to say "me not hit the boy". But he still hits out.

We really don't want to see our child looking like a bully towards other kids and their parents. It can be so stressful watching him interact with other kids as I feel I'm constantly watching to make sure he doesn't hit. If he does hit, I end up running to apologise to the parents. I'm at the stage where I feel I should almost stop attending playgroups altogether to try alleviate the situation, but I know this isn't the answer. Any advice would be much appreciated.



PEOPLE often comment about how "the sins of the father can be visited upon the child", referring to how children often have to live with the consequences, or the legacy, of how their parents may have behaved.

You are living with the opposite. It sounds like you are very upset, not just with your son's behaviour, but also with the consequences for you. Perhaps you feel embarrassed, even mortified, in front of other parents. Perhaps you even feel like a bad mother because your toddler strikes out.

However, you may dispel any such myths of being a bad parent. Such, apparently random, hitting, biting and so on is remarkably common at his age. In many ways, it is just another stage that many children go through.

Hitting out, such as you describe, is not bullying behaviour. There is no particular targeting of another child and harming them in a contemptuous manner, as an abuse of power (which are some of the core features of bullying).

What you have is a small child who probably, initially, hit out as an instinctive response to not getting his own way, or feeling thwarted in his plans. Small children are incredibly self-absorbed and find it almost impossible to think about things from any other perspective than their own.

So, he doesn't think of the consequences for other children of his behaviour. He is just single minded in his efforts to do what he wants.

Like many only, or eldest, children, he also rarely has to give way to other children. So, being in a playgroup with same age peers, is a completely new experience for him and he needs to learn the social rules. He does need to learn that he will not be allowed to hit out.

There are two ways of doing this. One, that you already employ, is to be vigilant and to intervene, distract or remove him if you feel he is about to hit out.

The second approach is to be very clear and firm in your response to the behaviour itself when or if it occurs.

Removing toys or treats at a later stage is unlikely to be an effective behavioural strategy as, after the delay, he may not make the link between the loss of the privilege and the actual behaviour. At his age, he needs to experience a consequence for hitting immediately after he hits.

So, if he does hit out, you need to be ready to remove him swiftly from the setting for a short or long period.

You say to him, firmly and sternly, "no hitting", then lift him out of the room.

When you are outside with him, you say, "If you want to stay and play, then you must not hit. If you hit, then we will go home.

When you are ready to play without hitting, we will go back in." Then, assuming he is calm, you can return, and apologise to the other child or parent.

If he does hit again, then you need to be prepared to leave, as you had earlier promised. No further "second chances". The tone of your voice and your stern expression are important. He needs to realise that you mean business, that you are cross and that you simply won't let him away with hitting.

If you can be consistent and firm in this way, then I think you'll find the hitting will stop in due course.

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