In this episode: A parent writes that she and her 2-year-old son recently moved in with relatives to escape domestic violence. She describes her son as “a very sweet, empathetic boy,” and says that he has formed good relationships with his relatives. Lately, however, his behavior towards them has changed. “He will punch, hit, and bite” without warning and tells his mother that “he wants to make them sad.” She has tried to explain that this behavior isn’t okay, and he agrees, but it inevitably happens again. She doesn’t know what to do and is looking to Janet for some advice.
Transcript of “Responding to Your Sweet Toddler’s Sudden Aggression”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to a Facebook message from a parent who is concerned about her son’s aggression. They were recently in a situation where there was some domestic violence, and this mom is wondering how to handle her son’s hitting, biting, and punching.
Here’s the urgent message that I received:
“Hi, dear Janet. I would like to say a big thank-you to you for sharing so much of your knowledge. You’re truly an inspiration to me. I would also like to ask you some advice. I have a son who is two years old. He is a very empathetic boy who already knows how to recognize his own emotions and others’ emotions. That is down to you also as I’ve learned so much about emotions with you. Back in June, we moved from the family home due to domestic violence. I’ve done my very best to not separate my son from his father and siblings. I was also looking after my two stepchildren, but the situation was really out of my control.
Since then, my son and I have been living with my cousin, a 66-year-old lady, her husband, and her son, who’s a 40-year-old man. My son has developed a really close bond with them all, especially with my cousin and her son, but lately, without any apparent explanation, my son’s behavior with them has changed. He will punch, hit, bite them without any previous signs. Like my cousin is just sitting in her armchair, and my son runs to her and punches her, calling her crazy as well. Many times, he turns to me and tells me, ‘Mom, I want to hit Cousin. I want to make her sad.’ This happens as well with my cousin’s son. I’ve tried to explain to him that he can’t hit or bite or punch because it hurts and that making someone sad is not a nice thing. He will agree, but then will repeat the behavior. I don’t know what else to do, Janet. I don’t see him doing it with anyone else. In fact, he’s so very sweet and will be worried if he sees someone crying. Please give me some advice.”
What I hope to do in this podcast is to help this parent and any other parent going through a similar situation to reframe what’s going on here with her son. All I see here are positives. I see that her son has now become comfortable enough with these relatives to share the uncomfortable feelings he’s carrying inside, to release some of that stress that he’s absorbed and internalized from the traumatic situation he was in.
Remember that children are so sensitive and aware in these early years, more sensitive than we are as adults, more aware than we are. They don’t have filters. They aren’t able to compartmentalize. They just soak it in. He has soaked in the yelling, the abuse, the stress, the fear, the discomfort of everyone around him. That’s just what is. It’s not something that I hope this parent or any parent would feel guilty about or beat themselves up over. I’m sure that this mother was doing the very best she could in that situation, and she got him out of it, which is wonderful. But he still has those feelings to process out, and it makes sense that he didn’t do this right away in the new situation. He waited until he felt safe with these people.
He sounds like an amazing boy, by the way.
This mother says he doesn’t do this outside of the home, and that is the healthiest possible scenario, that he’s not taking this outside. He’s just sharing it with the people that he trusts. That’s one very positive thing that’s going on.
The even more positive and, I would say, unusual part of this is that he’s articulating the feelings. He’s not just acting them out through his behavior, the hitting and the biting, although that’s happening, because it does with children. The feelings are overwhelming, and the impulse to lash out and express it that way is very normal and understandable. Impulse control is very low in these early years, even with the most empathetic, socially-intelligent child. This child sounds emotionally intelligent and aware, but the strong, uncomfortable feelings he has inside are going to push through and overwhelm his better judgment and intelligence. He literally cannot control himself, and no amount of dialogue or judgment of him or scolding of him (which I don’t think this parent is doing), will force him into being able to control the impulses. It’s impossible.
All those kinds of responses do is create more fear around this because… Imagine I’m the child… I’m overwhelmed and I’m doing these things I know I’m not supposed to do. I’m hitting. I’m biting. I’m saying mean things to people. I know it’s wrong, but I’m doing it. I can’t help myself. Now people are getting angry with me for not being able to help myself, not being able to stop. I’m wrong for feeling this way. I’m bad for feeling this way. I should be able to do something that I’m unable to do.
That will only heighten the discomfort and therefore create more of the releasing/lashing out behavior.
I’m going to talk a little about dealing with the behavior in the moment but, first, I want to go back to this more unusual, positive thing that this boy is doing. He says, “I want to hit Cousin. I want to make her sad.” He’s sharing the feeling without acting on it. That is gold. That is precious. Children do this. Unfortunately, the instinctive response that most of us have, or at lot of us have, is to say, “Oh, no, no. Don’t do that. You can’t do that. That’s not nice.” Instead of receiving that gift of intimate sharing that our child is doing and saying, “Wow. You’re telling me you feel like hurting, you feel like making her sad. That must be scary for you. Thank you for letting me know so I can help you. When you feel like that I always want you to share that with me.”
This is invaluable. And the best way to help our child is to surround those feelings with protection, love, and a sense of security to welcome him to share verbally, and then when he follows through with the impulse physically, I would give him that same validation for the feelings behind the behavior while physically stopping the behavior. Maybe if he’s lashing out, corralling him towards us, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I can’t let you do that. You really feel like hitting. You feel like yelling at her. I want to hear those feelings, but I can’t let you act them out on her.” That message, that’s the healing message that our children need to be able to process the stress and trauma and fear that they have inside about what they’ve been exposed to.
Whenever children act out these kinds of feelings in the way that this child is doing, these aggressive impulses, it is always, on some level, discomfort. It always comes from discomfort. It can be a more minor discomfort like, Wow, my parent doesn’t seem to have a handle on this. When I do this, they seem surprised, they seem angry. What’s going on with that? It can be that level of discomfort, or a much greater discomfort, like what this child is releasing and expressing. This process will take as long as it takes for him to discharge the feelings and let go of them. It will be gradual. It will have a life of its own in terms of a child may seem fine for a while and not do these things, and then something will trigger it.
The safest way to approach this as parents is to always be aware. Yes, we’re going to get caught off-guard, and we’re going to maybe yell or scold our child or react angrily. That’s human nature, but if we can then remind ourselves, There must be a reason, and proceed with that curiosity. I wonder why he’s doing that, I want to understand this more, but in the meantime, I’m going to let him know that he’s safe, that I want him to share with me, that if he’s sharing with me verbally, that’s golden, and I need to accept that gift and not invalidate it or reject it.
In this case, it seems pretty obvious that he’s processing out the feelings from being in that environment, but sometimes it won’t feel as obvious, or we’ll forget in the moment, and then later we’ll realize, Oh, yeah, we just came back from this incredible trip, and my child was great on the trip, but now we’re back, and they’re in their safe place at home with us, and suddenly, we’re getting this behavior. That’s interesting. There’s always a reason, and the reason is never that we have a bad child, that we’re not punishing them enough.
Yes, they need us to be on the behavior so we’re not just letting it happen. They need us to be on it to protect them from themselves, to keep them and others safe, to keep them from being that child that hits people and hurts people. They don’t want to be that person. It’s up to us to stop that right away. There’s nothing loosey-goosey about this approach. It’s just coming from a place of wanting to help a child who is clearly uncomfortable, rather than correct or scold a child who we believe just hasn’t learned or hasn’t gotten the message or is deliberately and consciously and rationally doing things that aren’t okay. It’s never as rational as it seems, even if a child is smiling, even if a child seems very calm. There is fear and discomfort behind it.
I would also partner up with my child in this situation and say, especially when he’s giving me this incredible information about his feelings, I would say, “It’s normal to feel like that after what we went through,” or however this mother wants to share honestly about what happened in that house. “It’s normal for you to feel that way, and I want you to always tell me, but I can’t let you act on it. If you feel like that, please tell me so that I can help you and stop you, because I know you don’t want to be doing that stuff.” Reminding our child that we’re on his side, that we don’t judge him, that we understand him and want to keep understanding him and that he can trust us to be there while he is processing and healing whatever he needs to heal.
This mother says, “I’ve tried to explain to him that he can’t hit or bite or punch because it hurts. He will agree, but then will repeat the behavior.” Right. He knows he can’t. He knows he’s not supposed to do those things, and he’s showing you that he needs help stopping, that this is an impulse that is greater than his self-control.
I am so impressed with this little boy at two years old. He is, again, quite precocious in his emotional intelligence. That means that this parent is doing a great deal in the right direction, and I hope this little adjustment helps her stay on course.
Also, I have two books that are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting .You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast, or you can go to the books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon, and an e-book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com.
Thank you for listening. We can do this.