A parent in our Barnes class asked this question at the end of last term and we thought others might be dealing with similar issues.
When my aggressive two year old is frustrated or cross she hits/bites/slaps (whatever to get attention I presume or get a toy that she wants). I have tried removing her from the poor person she is hitting and empathising with how she is feeling, but it is quite difficult to get through. Eventually she apologises but I’m not sure how much that is down to me trying to persuade her to. There don't seem to be many consequences to her actions that I can come up with. This is not really working and she continues to behave in this fashion...
Our facilitator had this advice:
You may be aware that hitting or biting or slapping is very normal behaviour for 2 year olds who don’t yet have sufficient command over language to be able to express what they feel/want/need adequately. I love that you are thinking about why she does things. Does she need attention/does she want a toy? Is she competing with her older siblings? This is so crucial to being successful in dealing with it effectively. Whenever you see a behaviour you’re not happy about be curious. Ask yourself, why is she doing that? Because only then can you respond to her needs and teach her what she needs to know. Only then can you keep calm enough to respond with compassion and wisdom.
Try really hard to alter your internal conversation about her. Change the word ‘aggressive’ to one that also fits the situation but is a more positive reframing. When you think of your daughter maybe these words will fit: impulsive, strong-willed, feisty, energetic. Some of these are great qualities.
- Use cool down time. This is how you can push your own ‘pause’ button and reflect on her intentions. What was behind that behaviour? If she is hitting it will not be because she is mean or aggressive but because she is impulsive and maybe feels things intensely and because she doesn’t yet know how to get what she wants. She may not always know what it is that she wants/needs. Eg sometimes she might feel confused or overwhelmed or upset or even anxious and lash out because she doesn’t know what to do with her feelings. Other times she might actually be cross with the person she hits. Maybe they have what she wants or are obstructing her in some way. Obviously understanding those reasons doesn’t make it ok to hit but it does make it easier to teach her.
- So glad you are trying to connect with her by empathising with how she feels. When you say it is quite difficult to get through it sounds like you are expecting a response from her that you’re not getting. Sometimes we expect the behaviour to change in the moment but raising children is never a quick fix. If you’re expecting her to open up and talk about her feelings, that’s probably unrealistic for a 2 year old. Nonetheless it is essential for you to describe to her how you think she might be feeling. Name the sensations she could be having. You could ask her “Do you feel cross right in your tummy like a knot? Or can you feel worry in your chest? Or did you notice your hands going into fists? Maybe you felt it in your head? Maybe you had lots of feelings going on all at the same time –that can be a bit confusing. Did you want mummy to notice what you were doing rather than your sister? Did you want the toy that [Sam] was playing with? I’m guessing you were really mad at [Ella] for taking the Lego that you wanted to play with. Emotion coaching has a profound effect in the moment in being able to shift behaviour but more importantly in the long term our children feel that we care.
- An apology is somewhat secondary to your goal of teaching her how to get what she wants/needs without hitting. A real apology involves being able to empathise with the hurt person, understanding that they are hurt and caring about that. Empathy is something that evolves in children with the maturation of their pre-frontal cortex and is not be expected in abundance in a 2 year old who is very much focused on their own feelings. Empathy is learnt by our modelling –the more we show that we care about their feelings, the better they understand that human feelings matter. Once her feelings are heard (step 2 above) you can begin to talk about the feelings of the person who is hurt. “[Sam] is sad. He was hurt when you bit him. In this family we don’t hurt each other. You can make Sam feel better by stroking his arm/lending him your teddy. When you’re ready we’ll practice asking Sam for what you wanted. I will help you. Shall I hold your hand while you say….?” At her age there are no consequences that will work as well as this kind of teaching.
- You can also use role play with teddies and dolls etc to practice what to do when they want something the other has/when they want attention/when they feel cross/upset/annoyed. The more you talk about feelings, the better her vocabulary will become and the more tools she will have at her disposal to deal with her emotions. There are some great books for talking about feelings too. Do you know the Mike Gordon series ‘I feel….’? https://www.amazon.co.uk/I-Feel-Angry-Your-Emotions/dp/0750214031/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1491804582&sr=1-3&keywords=mike+gordon+i+feel
This is not a quick process. You will need to repeat the lesson many times but she will learn it provided she is not stressed by feeling as if she is a bad person. Stress prevents the pre-frontal cortex from developing as fast. It is essential that your little girl gets the message that she is a lovable and capable person who needs a bit of help to control her feelings and impulses. And luckily you are there to help her.