Stopping a Toddler From Hitting

How can I keep my 2-year-old daughter from "beating up" on her 10-month-old brother? She kicks him, punches him, bites him, screams at him, and whacks him with toys. It all began when he started crawling. This kind of thing goes on every day, several times a day. We've done everything we can think of to stop the behavior, but so far nothing seems to work. Do you have any suggestions or advice?

You may find it helpful and reassuring to know that you’re not alone. Sibling rivalry is a common and persistent problem. In the case of toddlers it frequently manifests itself physically. So don’t lose heart. Many moms and dads have walked this path before you. Most of them will testify that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The behavior shouldn’t be tolerated, but it has to be handled with care and discernment.

What should a parent do when one kid starts whaling on another? Obviously, the response will vary depending on the age and maturity level of the child. At this stage, when the aggressor is only two years old, a good rule of thumb is “the less attention and drama, the better.” Your daughter needs to understand that her behavior is a problem. You should assure her that, one way or another, it will be stopped. But take care that you don’t unwittingly reinforce her actions by turning these incidents into major “events.” Negative attention is still attention. Some kids crave the spotlight so much that they will do anything to get a rise out of their parents. That’s an itch you want to avoid scratching if at all possible.

You’ve admitted that the tactics you’ve employed thus far haven’t been working. You haven’t achieved good results by shouting, screaming, spanking, implementing time-outs, or even removing privileges. Shall we state the obvious? If you keep on doing things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll probably keep on getting the same results. Why not try a different tack?

For example, there’s the “cool as a cucumber” approach. As soon as you see your daughter hitting your son, go straight over to her. Calmly pick her up, say something simple, like “uh oh!”, and then quietly remove her from the scene. Place her in a safe, secluded location away from everybody else – in her room, perhaps, or a play-pen. Don’t allow her to come back until she’s calmed down. If it’s age appropriate, require that she apologize to her brother before returning to play. Throughout this process, use as few words as possible. The point is to downplay your response while at the same time expressing disapproval of the behavior. In this way, you won’t be inadvertently feeding her craving for attention.

Meanwhile, make an intentional effort to notice and reinforce any positive interactions you observe between your children. Sit down and get involved with them in some kind of guided play. When your daughter helps your son or treats him kindly, take full advantage of the situation. Offer her lots of gentle praise. When you do this, get down on her level and make eye-contact. Describe what you saw (“Thank you for helping Johnny find the right piece for the puzzle!”). That way she’ll know exactly why you’re praising her. Talk about having respect for others and their bodies. Help your daughter see that she and her brother are “on the same team.” Challenge her to become his guide and teacher. Tell her that he’s little and doesn’t yet understand the things that “big girls” know. And be sure to model appropriate behavior when you get angry.

We’re not suggesting that this strategy is a “magic solution.” It won’t always produce immediate results. We do believe, however, that if you persevere, you’ll begin to see a change in your daughter’s behavior over time. Remember, a controlled approach is crucial if our children are to learn what we want them to learn in life. The goal is to stay calm in the face of all kinds of problems and challenges.

If you would like to discuss your situation at greater length with a member of our team, feel free to give us a call. Our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone.


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