Resolving a Toddler’s Aggressive Behavior (Hitting, Pushing, Hair Pulling)

Janet responds to the parent of a 2-year-old who for the past 3 months has been “going through a really bad stage of pulling hair.” This parent describes herself as a Montessori teacher with an intense passion for gentle, respectful parenting. She has tried several strategies to change her daughter’s behavior, but to no avail. “I’m exhausted and have become extremely depressed and isolated because of this. I feel parents are judging me and not wanting to spend time with us.” She’s hoping Janet can offer some guidance, hopefully a solution.

Transcript of “Resolving A Toddler’s Aggressive Behavior (Hitting, Pushing, Hair Pulling)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I have a question about a child who is pulling hair and the parent’s having difficulties trying to figure out why her child is doing this and how to help. And the advice I share will also apply to hitting, pushing, even biting, these other impulsive behaviors that young children sometimes have.

Here’s the note I received:

“Hi, Janet. I hope you see my white flag amongst all your messages, as I’m so desperate for help. My smart, brave, and extremely sensitive two-year-old is going through a really bad stage of pulling hair. This has been going on for about three months now, and I really don’t know what to do. I’m a regular listener of your podcast and have an AMA. I’m a Montessori teacher with an intense passion for gentle, respectful parenting. I’ve tried your strategies of going down to her level and firmly saying, ‘Hair pulling hurts,’ then making sure to give the child who is hurt comfort, and role-modeling to my daughter how to be gentle.

There doesn’t seem to be a trigger anymore. She will run up to any child and just pull their hair. She can go from playing alongside a peer to being extremely violent in a second. I’ve left all my mum and baby groups within 10 minutes of getting there, as she can easily pull almost 10 children’s hair in this time. I’m exhausted and have become extremely depressed and isolated because of this. I feel parents are judging me and not wanting to spend time with us.

She has started nursery for two mornings a week, but she’s not showing any of this behavior there. We have not had any big changes, either, so I’m really confused as to why this is happening. Any help will be massively appreciated. Thank you very much.”

Okay, so, what I want to try to do in this podcast is help this parent, and maybe other parents, to understand the difference between our perspective on a situation like this and our child’s. Because the key to responding in a way that helps our child pass through this behavior stage is to understand their perspective and then respond from that understanding, giving our child what our child actually needs in these moments.

In regard to the strategy that this parent is using, she said, “I’ve tried your strategies of going down to her level and firmly saying, ‘Hair pulling hurts.'” I’m not sure why she’s associating this with me, but actually that would not be my advice. I would advise something a little more connected, which would be, “I can’t let you,” and I would be careful about firmness. I even have a post called “Stop Being So Stern,” and it explains why a stern or firm confrontation like that can actually create more discomfort for our child and more dysregulation.

Now, I’m of course not saying that we shouldn’t have firm limits and set them confidently. Absolutely. But firm, for parents, sometimes connotes raising our voice a bit, saying it a bit harshly or sternly, and we need to be careful around that, in my experience. I’ll explain why through these two perspectives.

As adults, as parents or teachers, we see our child doing a behavior and we, of course, want to let them know that’s not okay and they need to stop. If we do that, and yet our child continues to do that behavior, we’re of course going to get frustrated and we might repeat that stern correction, because from our point of view, it feels like: You’re not understanding this. I need you to understand that this is not okay, so I’m going to say it again and I’m going to say it firmly and maybe more firmly each time, because you’re not getting it and I need you to get this.

That’s a very understandable perspective that we have as adults, because we have a fully developed prefrontal cortex and we tend to see these situations from a place of reason. She must not be getting it. She must not be understanding that this is a no.

From our child’s perspective, here’s how this can go. Now, this mother says that her child has started nursery for two mornings a week. For a sensitive two-year-old… and she calls her an extremely sensitive two-year-old… that is a huge transition. It’s a lot. The wonderful news here is that her daughter is not showing the behavior when she’s at nursery. Isn’t that interesting? What does that mean?

That indicates that this is a feeling and a behavior that she’s sharing with her mother. It’s probably related to the stress from this major transition she’s making in starting nursery. But it may have become a pattern in their relationship. The way these behaviors usually start is an impulse a child has, and hair is interesting for a young child. Often infants will even do this. They pull our hair, so this child discovered that got a reaction. Of course we’re naturally going to have an instinctive reaction to pain, if we’re caught by surprise, but if we continue to be reactive around that kind of behavior, then this experiment or impulse, this expression of an emotion, now becomes, for the child, something that also stirs something disconcerting in her parent or the adult caring for her.

For young children, who look up to us, when we get off balance around a behavior that they have… Maybe we’re even puzzled. We don’t even know how we’re supposed to react. When children experience that from these gods that they look up to, it throws them off-balance. It makes them a little more uncomfortable than they were before they did it, and it can be sort of curious to them, in a disconcerting way, and this is when people will say that sometimes their child will smile. That isn’t a comfortable smile. You might want to check out the podcast I did with Mona Delahooke, because we go into that idea a little more thoroughly, that sometimes children smile and that would seem to indicate that they’re enjoying hurting us. What does that mean? It’s actually another sign of embarrassment or discomfort that our child has.

So, they have this behavior, they see that it gets this uncomfortable reaction out of their parent, so when they’re in another social situation, which is always a little bit stressful for children this age, then they’re immediately going there: Ah, I’ve got to do this again and see what my parent’s going to do.

It’s all very unconscious. It’s not thought-out deliberate behavior. It’s a pattern that develops in the relationship between the parent and child. Children are pretty incredible this way, that they naturally want to work on us, on some level. They want us to get a handle on the fact that they’re going to have a lot of impulsive behavior, and they need us to stay on their side and help them stop rather than telling them they need to stop. They don’t have the skills or the self-control to be able to stop themselves. They really don’t.

So, when this parent says “hair pulling hurts” and then she’s making sure to give the child who is hurt comfort and role-modeling to her daughter how to be gentle, I am sure her daughter knows how to be gentle, because she’s demonstrating that she can be in a group situation with other children and not have these behaviors. So, this isn’t about, “I need to teach my daughter something that she doesn’t know.” It’s about, “I need to help my child, protect my child and protect other children, in a way that lets my child know this is something I can handle, and I’m going to help them. When they’re showing me that they can’t stop themselves and they’re acting impulsively, I’m going to be there to help.” That safety in our relationship that children need to feel to be at their best.

Giving these moments of “hair pulling hurts” and then giving the child who’s hurt comfort and role-modeling, all of that is making a little bit too much of a story around this behavior. It’s getting made into a little event instead of just stopping her, just being what I call her “buddy-guard,” hanging out next to her comfortably so that when I see that hand going up, I can gently put my hand on hers and stop her.

So, when this parent says there doesn’t seem to be a trigger anymore, I wonder what the trigger might have been the first time. It might’ve been the parent said no to something, and her daughter expressed her disagreement by pulling her hair, but now the trigger is actually being in those situations with her mother where this has happened, and unconsciously needing to replay, on some level, I believe, hoping that this can get resolved, that her parent can make less of a deal out of it and just stop her.

So, getting into how to fix this kind of behavior… the way we handle the behaviors when they happen to us first, which is usually the way this goes, matters a lot. The very first time our baby hits us or pulls our hair or bites us, yes, we might have an instinctive reaction. “Ouch!” But then ideally we would learn, “My child has a impulse to do that.” Usually it’s because they’re responding to a no, or there’s some other emotion in them that isn’t getting released, another way that we’re not acknowledging, or it can just be, again, “This is interesting. I want to pull this hair.”

So, we show our child, right there, “Oops. Nope, not going to let you do that.” We physically move their hand away. We block them if their hand is going up to us. If they’re sitting on our lap or we’re carrying them and they’re behaving in that way, we put them down. “Oh, I can’t hold you when you’re doing that. That hurts me.” We, ideally, will be modeling gentleness right there. So, it’s not so much modeling after that matters. It’s actually how we model in the moment of the behavior.

I realize that’s hard to do. What helps us to do it is understanding our child’s point of view, that these are innocent behaviors. They are not bad signs or terrible flaws in our children. Almost every child does some of these behaviors, and sometimes it persists, and even then, it’s not even necessarily that we’re doing something wrong. It’s just something our child is working through. It can be a sensitivity to social stress, for some children that are very sensitive. If a child comes too close, it doesn’t feel comfortable. If there’s too many children and too much noise, too much stimulation, they’re going to hit or bite or pull hair.

So, stopping our child when they first do this to us might sound something like, “Ouch. I can’t let you. That hurts,” keeping our response firm in terms of: This is a definite no. I’m sure of myself that this is not something I’m going to allow, but I’m staying your safe parent. I’m not creating more stress by responding harshly. I’m normalizing your impulse to do this for myself, so that I can feel on top of it and not threatened by it.

And my feelings will always come through no matter what I say or what I do with my child. So, that’s how we can help prevent these behaviors from taking hold.

Oftentimes in the RIE classes that I teach, an infant or a young toddler will be interested in touching children’s hair, and that often means pulling it a little too hard. We have a baby doll there that has hair so that we can say, not making a big point of “Don’t do this, do this,” but offering, “You know, if you want to pull hair, this hair is safe to pull. You can pull the doll’s hair. I can’t let you pull his hair.”

Firmness from a person as overwhelmingly powerful to a child as we are can be very matter-of-fact, and ideally will be gentle, even, and comfortable, helping to deescalate rather than escalate.

Where this parent is now, here’s what I would do… After really considering her daughter’s perspective, understanding that starting a care situation is an enormous transition and the fact that she’s succeeding there is wonderful, but that also means she is going to have less energy for another kind of social situation, or anything else that she has to do. It’s going to take all of her energy and emotional regulation abilities to step up to that situation. So, I would balance that with a lot of low-key time, especially for a sensitive child. Not other activities, not other play dates on those days. If you want to do one of those things on another day when she’s not in care, like on a weekend, then go into that realizing your child is still in resting mode and may not have the energy to be in that situation, and if she continues the hair pulling, that’s what she’s saying.

It’s not that this is a failure on this parent’s part that she needs to feel bad about. It’s just: Uh-oh. My child can’t be here. She’s not up for this. That’s what I would take from that situation.

As parents, we always tend to blame ourselves and then that self-judgment ends up getting projected onto our child, and then we just create more stuff that we feel bad about. But no, that’s not what’s going on here. The mum and baby groups might be too much for this child at this point. When she gets more comfortable in the care situation, maybe she can do more of those, but it is a lot.

At this point, I would be what I call buddy-guarding her, which is if you’ve decided you need to do this or that it might be a good idea to be in this group situation or with your friends, you just hang out next to your child, especially when she’s approaching other children, and your hand is there ready, not nervously, ideally, but very, very comfortably. That’s the only way to be a buddy-guard, the point being that I’m close enough so that I can easily stop anything my child might do with her hands, and I’m having that safe, deescalated vibe next to my child so that I’m not contributing to that possibility of the impulse.

Then, when my child does reach out… Let’s say that she gets there before I have a chance. Even though I’m close, I got distracted, I looked away, or I was tentative and she did that. Then I would give a very small response with a note to self: She may not be able to handle this situation, but either way she needs me to be on this, she needs more help. I would say, “Oh, I can’t let you do that,” and I would open her hand immediately and take it off, not roughly, but that I would do firmly, right away, not hesitating, expecting she’s going to be able to stop herself because pulling hair hurts. She knows that, but she can’t stop herself.

So, I would hold her hand away and be as relaxed as I possibly can. I might say, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop you.” And I might say to the other child, “I’m sorry I wasn’t there to stop her.” And then whatever that child is expressing, I would acknowledge, “Oh, that really hurt. That was upsetting for you.” But I don’t want to give more power to the behavior in any way, so I don’t want to glare angrily at my child. I don’t want to overdo the comforting of this other child. Just being responsive. Again, realizing that this might not work today for her.

And then if I have to leave, I might say, “You know, I think you’re letting me know that you’re tired or you can’t do this.” And obviously that’s not ideal when you’ve made a plan with your friends. But when you see more from your child’s perspective, I think you’ll be able to pick and choose these situations for her and choose the ones where she has the best chance of succeeding, meaning she’s very rested, you’ve got her back. She will be able to exhale and feel safer, and children feeling safe in our relationship is the key to them succeeding in any situation.

So, I hope some of that helps.

Also, both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

2 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This was a great and timely read for me. I have an interesting situation: I work at a daycare four days a week and bring my two boys with me (8 months and 2 years). My toddler has been hitting children for a long time, and even though I feel like I’m responding better since I have found your material, somewhere along the way I did not respond well and this behavior has really taken hold. I can’t be his buddy guard all the time because I have so many children in my care. Usually when he hits a child I know he is tired and I would like to take him home, but I can’t because it’s my job. Any ideas on how to help him stop repeating this behavior when I can’t remove him from the situation?

  2. Thank you for this, Janet. My 2 year old is going through a hitting phase and I found this article & podcast very helpful. I find it hard not to overreact when my daughter hits or pulls hair because I’m so worried about what the other parent will think if I don’t punish or scold my daughter harshly. I’m working on that (not caring what others think). This morning my daughter pulled her friends hair and I wasn’t close enough to stop it. I was very conflicted with how to react but I feel prepared for next time and realize I need to stay close and “buddy guard” since it is happening so often these days. I listen to and read your content regularly so I can remind myself of your methods and the reasoning behind them. Thank you.

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