Hi Faith Collins,
First, congratulations. I hope you and your partner had a great honeymoon. I didn’t change my last name until I was 3 years into marriage (I didn’t think I ever was going to change it, but had a change of heart).
In any case, we’re having challenges with my 2 1/2 year old being physically aggressive with her peers. Sometimes it’s ‘out of nowhere’ which makes it all the more baffling. In other words, I understand more when she grabs, pushes, pinches, etc. to get something, but am worried about where it’s coming from (even when the cause is evident). She doesn’t do this with older children (even slightly older). She is very verbal (and did this before she was verbal – I saw your post about that) and has always been on the higher energy side. She didn’t do any of it this summer (despite ample opportunity) but now has started up again, even pushing babies down, etc.! Any tips or insight is appreciated!
While most toddlers love ‘babies,’ I have had several children who were naturally aggressive to children who were smaller than they were, and their moms (and I) had to work extra hard with those children as they learned impulse control. My heart goes out to you! Don’t worry too much about “where this is coming from.” She is not destined to grow up to be a bully, and nor is it necessarily a commentary on your parenting. I firmly believe that some children come into the world timid, and some come in with guns blazing; it’s our role as parents and caregivers to help all of them learn behavior skills that will serve them well as they interact with others. That being said, it’s worth asking the basic questions: Does she have a regular routine and consistent boundaries so that she knows what is coming up next and what’s expected? Does she have a nurturing home environment (you aren’t remodeling your house, are you?) and get lots of loving attention from you (no new baby in the family)? If these things aren’t as strong as they could be, then do put some attention into them.
My main long-term suggestion is to help your little girl develop the virtue of Empathy. 2 ½ is a great age to start working on this, as it’s the age when children first start to really be able to live in to someone else’s experiences. Here are a few ways you can help her as she begins this process:
Start Noticing Others
Start noticing out loud how other children are expressing their feelings, and start a conversation with your daughter about what they might want/need. I find it’s more useful for kids if I describe their feelings through actions, rather than simply labeling “he’s sad” or “he’s angry.” So, in the grocery store you might say, “Look, that little boy is so loud! He threw that box of cereal! What do you think he wishes? Maybe he wishes that they were done shopping.” Then imagine what could help: “I bet he could really use some hugs and kisses from his mom right now.” This type of noticing can help your daughter start feeling empathy. With children that your daughter knows, you might make some suggestions about how you two might help. Say you see a little boy crying at drop-off time at their play-group or the gym childcare. “Look, Liam is crying. He’s pulling on his mom. I bet he wishes his mom could stay.” Then, make a suggestion of how you two might help: “Do you think he might like it if we gave him a toy? What kind of toys does Liam like?” Then the two of you could help find a toy together, and offer it to Liam. If Liam takes the toy and likes it, you can celebrate your success with your daughter with a joyful smile. If he doesn’t want it, you might say, “We wanted to help Liam be happy by giving him a toy, but he wasn’t ready to be happy yet. Maybe we can play with him later.” The next step is to help her relate his experience with her own (but don’t be too heavy with this): “Are you sometimes sad when I leave you with the babysitter?”
Help Your Daughter Notice How Others React to Her
Also start noticing out loud how children are responding to your daughter’s interactions with them, and you can even speak for those children if they’re not very verbal yet. If your daughter is approaching someone smaller who she has hurt in the past, watch how they react: “Oh, Tina’s turning away. She’s saying, ‘please touch me gently.’” If she does touch Tina gently, you might say, “Look! She’s smiling! She likes how you’re touching her!” If she touches Tina and Tina flinches and pulls away, you could say, “Tina’s saying, ‘please stop.’ I don’t think she wants even gentle touches today. Maybe you could try finding a toy for her, instead.” I use this type of noticing at Rainbow Bridge all the time, and it’s quite effective in helping children learn to notice the effects of their actions. Also, when I ‘speak’ for the smaller child in this way, when that child starts to talk, he or she will often use the words that I’ve been using for all that time, instead of simply shrieking (an added bonus!).
A Special Doll
Dolls can play a real and vital role for children as they process what they’ve experienced, and experience new roles in fantasy. I can often tell what’s going on at home by how children interact with our dolls: a girl with a colicky baby at home paced the playroom with the baby doll for a full 20 minutes, shushing her lovingly. Another little girl gave the doll many Time Outs. Get a special baby doll for your daughter, and make this baby really come alive. Introduce her with a special name, and hold her like you’d hold a real baby. Teach your daughter how to hold her, how to care for her. Treat her as much like a real baby as you can. Attribute feelings to her. If you see her on the floor, say “Oh no! Baby Rosie has fallen down! She’s crying!” Run over and scoop Baby Rosie off the floor, saying, “Don’t cry! I’ll give you hugs and kisses!” Pat her like you would a real baby, then pass her over to your daughter, saying, “I think she’d like some hugs from you, too.” Make putting Baby Rosie to bed part of your daughter’s bedtime ritual, where she can tuck her in and give her a kiss.
Books or stories that you make up can also be very useful. I often make up ‘teaching stories’ for children about woodland creatures who are experiencing what the children are going through. So in this case, since we’re working on empathy, it might be a little boy chipmunk who had a friend who was rough with him, and while he wanted to see his friend, he was scared he’d get hurt, and he stopped wanting his friend to come over anymore. I NEVER compare the story out loud to what’s happening in real life; the children simply soak it in.
Set Her Up for Success
Helping your daughter start to develop her sense of empathy is a longer-term solution to your problem. By the time she’s three I bet you’ll see a marked improvement, and by 3 ½ it should hopefully be gone (although it may come back in times of stress). In the meantime, do your best to put your daughter in situations where she can thrive and develop healthy patterns. Limit her interactions with smaller children as much as is practical for the next few months. Make a conscious effort to arrange play-dates with children who are slightly older than her for the next few months (2 ½ year-olds often LOVE four-year-olds). If you’re going to be with a family who has a littler child she has hurt in the past, perhaps bring your daughter’s new doll along with you, for her to nurture. And stay right on top of her as she interacts with any child who is littler than she is, helping her see if they’re liking what she’s doing.
Another piece of setting her up for success is to step things up a notch. I’ve noticed that many children at two-and-a-half suddenly need More than they were getting before: more structured activities (trips to the zoo or the creek, crafts, baking), more exercise (races, climbing, jumping), more expectations of helping, and more appreciation for showing the skills she’s developed when she does help. If they don’t get this More that they crave, they have trouble. And hang in there! You’ve got a strong-willed little girl on your hands, but an empathetic, respectful, strong-willed girl will be a pleasure to be around for the rest of her life. So help her develop these virtues.