Q&A: aggressive 2-year-old

Linda B writes:

"My friend has a 2 year old son and a 3 month old son. Her older son C has always seemed older than his age. He walked at 9 months and at a year, was already out of his baby stage. He's always been very active, running around and playing with every toy in sight. In the last few months, he's been kind of aggressive towards other kids, walking up to them and pushing them really hard until they fall back. Sometimes he will get a running start so he can push the kids harder.

The reason I am writing about this is because our family spends a lot of time with this family and we are actually pretty good friends. We meet every week for a church group and we see them every Sunday. He's always been really good with my daughter, but since the aggressive behavior began, he's
been really taking it out on her. He will slowly walk up to her, wave hi and then BOOM. Push her to the ground or against a wall. His parents try so much control their son. They give him time outs, tell him to be gentle, sternly lecture him on why not to hit and continue to watch him carefully when he is around other kids, especially younger ones like my daughter. It seems like they've done everything they can. However, nothing seem to work. He continues to be rough. I think he seems to think it is a game. He is a smart kid and I know he understands what it means to be nice and not hit/push.

I feel badly for the parents, especially the mother, because I know she feels horribly when he pushes E. She feels hopeless and doesn't know how to control her son from acting out this way. Why do you think he is continuing to do this and what are the ways she can get him to stop? Also, is it wise for us to discipline him as well if he harms our daughter again? We really enjoy spending time together but my husband is worried that one day he might really hurt E.

Any advice would be helpful."

This seems like a pretty classic scene to me. Many many many 2-year-olds go through aggressive phases because they're frustrated and can't express their thoughts as well as they want to. Add in the new baby, and it's a real recipe for pushing, hitting, biting, and all sorts of other unacceptable behavior.

Essentially, C can't process his negative feelings about the baby or his frustrations at not being able to say what he wants to say, so he pushes and gets rough. The important thing to remember is that his feelings are absolutely normal and valid, but he's dealing with them in an inappropriate way. So to stop the behavior, we need to give him another way to vent his feelings that doesn't hurt anyone. Being stern and giving time-outs are a way to try to modify his behavior, but they aren't teaching him how to manage his feelings in a better way, so they aren't going to stick in the face of the overwhelming urge to just hit someone.

I hit on a way to deal with this in this post on disciplining a 2-year-old:

One highly effective way to deal with this kind of violent outburst is to recognize that it's from the frustration and allow the kid to have those feelings. Instead of trying to get the kid not to hit, give the kid a a designated object to  hit/bite/scratch/push/throw. That way the kid is still allowed to release the frustration, just not at people or animals. If you're consistent about using a designated object, eventually the kid will ask for that object when the frustration strikes.

(How pompous is it to quote myself, BTW?)

This method came from my grandfather in the 40s. When El Chico was 2 and biting all the other kids when he'd get frustrated, I called my mom sobbing that he'd be an outcast with no friends and she told me what her dad had come up with to curb the biting when her little brother was 2. Grandpa had gone into his woodworking shop and made two rounded, smooth pieces of wood. He gave one to my uncle and one to my mom (so she wouldn't feel left out), and told my uncle his wood was named Toby and when he felt like biting a person or animal he should bite Toby instead. I've known my uncle for 33 years, and I've never seen him bite anyone, so apparently it worked.

I don't have a woodshop, so I took El Chico to the pet store and let him pick out his own braided rope chew toy for dogs in the colors of his choice. I explained that the toy was named Toby and whenever he felt like biting someone he should bite Toby instead. Then I carried Toby in my pocket constantly for a few weeks, and when I saw El Chico start to open his mouth to bite a kid, I'd quickly shove Toby in so he'd bite the toy instead. After a few weeks of constant vigilance (and my being teased by the other moms in playgroup), El Chico stopped biting the other kids. When he'd get frustrated he'd run to me and ask for Toby and give him a hard chomp.

I think your friend could use the same idea by buying C a big stuffed animal or pillow that's his designated hitting/pushing toy. You could help her out by taking some pillow duty since she's got the baby and it won't be as easy for her to be there constantly to shove the pillow at him when he starts to push. At the same time reinforce that "We don't push people or animals" when he's pushing the pillow. It takes constant vigilance for a few weeks, but it will pay off.

The good news is that the problem will ease in a few months because 1) the baby will start crawling and will be more interactive so C has a playmate instead of just an attention-grubbing larvae of a sibling, and 2) C will be able to express himself more and won't have to push to tell people he feels sad or angry or whatever he's feeling.

I think as the friend and not the mother, it's your job to be vigilant and step in to physically remove C's hands (calmly and matter-of-factly) before he shoves your daughter. Better to stop bad behavior than to let it happen and then punish it. I think having a pushing pillow will help him vent his feelings, but he also needs to know that it's just not going to happen anymore because someone will physically prevent him from pushing your daughter down.

The next two weeks are going to be a pain because you and C's mom are going to have to be helicoptering around him (and your daughter when she's near him) constantly. But physically stopping the bad behavior plus giving him an appropriate outlet should do the trick in stopping the pushing.

Just a note about aggressive phases: IME there's a first agressive stage that starts around one year for many kids. You know the one I mean--when your kid hits your face or pulls your hair or scratches, and laughs when you say "No!" sternly. I think that's just experimentation and limited ability to control impulses, and the only way through it is to physically remove the temptation. The aggressive phase around 2 years seems to be a result of frustration so providing an outlet will help reduce or stop it.