Why is my toddler hitting out?
ASK THE EXPERT: Q: My three-and-a-half-year-old son has been hitting other children at play school. His teacher says he seems to want to connect with other children, but seems unable to do so. He even pushes and pulls at our friends’ children, whom he knows well and sees regularly. He daily attacks his one-and-a-half-year-old brother. These attacks are unprovoked and he appears to take pleasure in them. He shouts violently and suddenly for no reason and throws his toys around too.It has become a problem we can no longer ignore. We have tried “consequences” and “time out” for his actions, but he doesn’t seem bothered by either.
He is a fully bilingual child in French and English. The language issue doesn’t seem to be a problem, as he can easily switch from one language to the other without bother. We are at a loss as to what to do. What could be the cause of this behaviour and what should we do? We desperately want to help him.
It is a real worry for parents when they can’t make sense of their child’s behaviour. There are a number of possible explanations and there may be separate reasons for the different behaviours you describe.
The first question is whether this is part of a wider issue in relation to his general development. How are his motor skills, independent play skills, attention, and social and emotional development? Also, did this behaviour start suddenly or is it longstanding?
Sometimes identifying a starting point can make it easier to understand the underlying cause. Difficulties with communicating at the same level as his peers might be one explanation, and fits in with what his teacher is saying.
Dr Debbie Mills from Bangor University Wales, has shown that three-year-old bilingual children have less breadth of vocabulary than monolingual children. So, while a bilingual and monolingual child might each have 400 words at age three, the bilingual child will have 200 words in one language, and the same 200 words in the other, meaning that they have only half as many verbal concepts to work with. The good news is that they catch up by about five.
As regards “attacking” his little brother, there may be a simple explanation. He was only two when the baby arrived and was probably used to having you to himself. He may have issues with sharing your attention, and takes it out on his little brother. One of the mantras of child psychology is that any attention, good or bad, can maintain behaviour. It is more than likely that the focus of attention suddenly shifts to him when he goes for the baby, and you end up unintentionally rewarding his behaviour.
You have tried time out and consequences with no success, but maybe a different strategy might work. Rather than not being bothered by sanctions, he possibly just doesn’t understand them yet. While it is good that there is now so much media focus on child-rearing skills, a major problem with TV parenting programmes is that they simplify behavioural interventions and gloss over the complex underlying psychology. There is no one-size-fits-all and any intervention has to be tailored to the individual child, their developmental stage, and the type and severity of the behaviour.