That moment when you cringe with embarrassment because your child has just displayed aggressive behaviour, or lashed out in public, is impossible to avoid as the parent of a toddler. “However,” says clinical psychologist Candice Cowen, “it’s important to remember that all toddlers, no matter how ‘chilled’ they may be, are likely to act out when frustrated, angry or upset.” These displays of aggression don’t automatically mean that there is something amiss or that your child is going to be a bully.
“It’s only when this behaviour becomes inappropriate for the child’s age, or continues after you’ve intervened, that you may need to take further action in order to prevent it from becoming ingrained,” explains Candice.
“My two-year-old doesn’t seem to cooperate with her peers. She often says ‘no’ to them and blocks their request to play.”
Toddlers at this developmental stage start to test the notion that they are individuals who have some control over their environment, explains clinical psychologist Pieter Marais. “They’re driven to test their own ideas, exercise their preferences, and start making decisions, often saying ‘no’ or refusing to cooperate for no apparent reason. In addition, an increase in language skills may also be contributing to an increase in conflict with older siblings and peers. At an age when increased interactions with peers and older children are expected, she may soon find herself being isolated by her behaviour, with others not wanting to play with her.”
- Constantly talk to your child and encourage her to use her words instead of just saying “no”. Create opportunities for her to talk to her peers so interaction and learning can occur.
- Get her involved in activities where she can make decisions. For example, a game where you tell each other to “stop” or “go”, which focuses on taking turns and self-control. You’ll be acknowledging her willingness and ability in decision-making, which may help to decrease her need to force her will on others.
Focus on creativity when it comes to her interactions with other children. This is a creative age, so involving her in imaginative play activities, such as dressing up, is likely to encourage positive interaction with her peers.
“My 18-month-old son keeps grabbing toys away from other children.”
“When your child snatches toys from other children, you may automatically assume that it’s bad behaviour and worry about what other people are thinking,” says Candice. “Maybe you’ve even wondered if this is an early warning sign that may point to her becoming a future playground bully. But don’t panic, this is a normal part of growing up. Children are innate explorers and their way of learning about their world is by picking up, interacting with, tasting, feeling, smelling, and looking at objects. Naturally, if she sees a toy that she wants to find out more about, she will focus on obtaining that toy − no matter who is holding it.”
- Pause, breathe and observe. Calmly reviewing the situation before acting will not only allow your child the opportunity to resolve the situation herself, but will also teach her how to handle emotions and conflict. If it turns into an all-out tug of war, step in and give options to both children. You may suggest finding a game they can play together, or choosing a different individual toy each.
- Encourage your child to think about the other child. For example, you could ask, “How do you think Stevie felt when you grabbed the toy out of his hands? How would you feel if he grabbed your toy?” This will teach her about empathy and awareness of others.
- Stay away from shaming or blaming words. Instead, use words that are neutral and matter-of-fact, such as: “I can see that you both really like this toy and that it’s difficult to share it.” This will make your child feel understood and not the “bad one” in the situation.
“My three-year-old son seems to be the ‘roughest’ child at his school and often pulls other children’s hair or pushes them.”
The “trying threes” marks a fundamental milestone as your child is moving towards becoming a functioning social being, explains Candice. “This stage of development is marked by a burst of independence, both emotionally and physically, but although he’s becoming increasingly aware and interested in other children, he still remains egocentric. You may notice this during play times when he may want to engage with others due to his instinctive curiosity, but may not follow ‘appropriate’ social rules.”
- Collect as much information as you can about the behaviour before you intervene. How much of what your son is doing is a product of his environment, lack of adult supervision, clashing of personalities, or lack of stimulation? How much is due to his temperament?
- Stay calm and respond, rather than reacting. Explain the problematic behaviour to him in his own language to ensure that he understands. You may need to draw on your creative side here and illustrate the problem by making use of a story or visual explanation.
- Don’t limit social engagements because you’re afraid your child may act out again. Use every opportunity as a lesson and always address inappropriate behaviour in the moment.
“My four-year-old, who is an only child, is often mean when other children are around. She refuses to share toys and gets aggressive whenever I try to cuddle my baby niece.”
At this developmental stage, sibling conflicts over property are usually common. Since your daughter is an only child, her peers are the target here, explains Pieter. “In addition, you’re probably being seen both as a peer and as a ‘possession’ by her, which is why she’s unwilling to ‘share’ you. It’s important to get her involved whenever her cousin is around (the same would apply to a new sibling) by allowing her to cuddle and interact with the baby under supervision, so that she learns about the importance of family interconnections and doesn’t feel excluded.”
- Set up activities with her friends that involve motor skills, such as drawing, building blocks or picking flowers to shift the focus from ‘possessing’ to ‘doing’, and, more importantly, doing together.
- Talk about the nice side of sharing: “If you share your things with Ava, she will let you play with her crayons.” Some things that are special to your daughter, like her blanket or favourite doll, can be kept for herself.
- Lead by example so she learns there’s no need to “defend” her possessions. Let her wear your necklace, or have half of your cupcake. Encourage her to always offer some of her treats to you (and her friends) and when she shares, respond with praise.