Sweet Toddlers - Who Hit

He was a sweet little two year old. He had an unusually strong throwing arm and a beautiful smile. He loved to cook with play-dough and hammer down wooden pegs, and he liked some of the other children in the group a lot. When his little hand reached out to hit, it was so quick and unexpected that I almost didn't take it in. When it happened again, and a third time, I knew that something was going on for this sweet little boy. I realized that his mom was acutely aware of this "anti-social" behavior. She tried to keep physically between him and other children to prevent it, and, when she wasn't quick enough, threatened to take him home and not come back.

Later on, when the moms had a chance to talk, she mentioned that he played in the neighborhood with an older child who hit him a lot. Of course. That was what was going on. Somebody else had done this to him. It must have been hurtful and confusing, and he was trying to process it by acting out the same behavior.

The very next day I watched a two-year old, who's been in a parent/child group with me since she was born, do exactly the same thing. First she poked me hard with a plastic toy, then she poked a little one year old, then she pushed her down. Her mother said that this kind of behavior has begun showing up since her daughter started pre-school recently--as one of the youngest children there.

I know this family better, and had more space to respond. So, when she pushed her friend over, I said, "Oh--it looks like you're trying to figure out something about being rough. We could be rough together." I gave her a playful little shove and tumbled around with her on the mat. She immediately burst into tears. What lay behind those pokes and pushes was clearly revealed--a small child who was hurting inside.

As she cried in her mom's arms, I thought about how much we can learn from our toddlers. When a big person does a bad thing, it's easy to simply label that person bad. But, even if our little ones drive us to the absolute limit sometimes, they are so small and sweet, so loving and wonderful, that when they do "bad" things, we're more inclined to look for an external cause. There must be something going on to make such a sweet child act that way. Although the dynamic may be just the same with adults, their capacity to do damage is so much greater, and their ability and willingness to change so much more constrained by years of accumulated hurt and eroded self-respect, that sometimes all we can figure out is to punish and coerce.

With our toddlers, we can learn how to help. We can tell that they aren't happy about hurting other people. (The second mom was telling me about how she can predict this behavior by the scared look on her child's face as she advances to hit.) They are counting on us for help. They need another way to show how much this hurts, without feeling compelled to inflict damage on other people.

There may be some things that can change at school or in the play on the street to reduce such behavior. But right now we can help in a more immediate way. We can let them know how much we love them, how sorry we are that they've been hit, how hard we know it must be to try to figure it all out. We can catch their arm before it makes contact. And we can find ways to help them cry out all the tight sad/angry feelings, so they have a better chance of being looser and thinking better next time.