When toddlers attack

Toddlers hit. Not all toddlers. But a lot of toddlers. Like, almost all toddlers, at least some of the time. And some of them—not a few, either, a lot—go through phases when they hit all the time. Attachment parented toddlers hit. Breastfed toddlers hit. Bottle-fed toddlers hit. Babyworn toddlers hit. Toddlers of parents who never raise their voices hit. Really. It’s not just your little guy.

When my first little guy when through this hitting phase, I felt incredibly isolated. Alone. And judged up the wazoo. Here’s our story.

From Life’s Archives. “That Hitting Thing,” March 8, 2006. Cinder’s not quite four; Flora’s one and change.

2006. It happened today, in the playroom, and my head is still whirring. “Flora!” Cinder yells. “You wrecked my tower. That bothers me! Bothers me! I am so angry I want to hit you! But I don’t want to hit you! Grrr!” I poke my head in from the hallway. Cinder is standing closing and opening his fists and breathing. He sees me looking, looks at me. “I didn’t hit Flora,” he announces. “But I’m not proud of you!” he yells at her. She gurgles and hands him a Lego block. They start building the tower together.

I’ve been waiting for this day for… what, two years? Two years to the day, I think. And I know today isn’t the cure. It’s not the turn around, the end. He will hit his little sister again, probably later today. He will push her, pinch her. But he’s working through it—we’re muddling through it, he’s “getting” it. And the fact that this huge emotional break through—this discovery by himself that just because he wants to hit he doesn’t have to hit—has come on the heels of eight nights of peeing the bed puts all sorts of things into perspective for me. Makes me feel not quite so resentful as I wash the sheets and covers for the ninth day in a row…

I’ve been delaying posting this “hitting thing” exposition until I felt I could clearly articulate where we were, why, and how we got there. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next few weeks or even months. But based on some conversations I’ve had with other mothers of closely spaced siblings—particularly when the older is a boy!—I think this is a story that must be told, in all of its messiness.

The back-story: We sleep-shared, baby-wore, breastfed, bonded, loved him unconditionally 24/7 and then some. He lived in an environment where no one was hit, where no one was yelled at—not even the dog. He was our perfect attachment parenting little baby… and then, at about 19/20 months of age, it started. The hitting.

I still remember the first time it happened, because the irony of it is so huge: I was doing volunteer work as a mothering mentor of sorts for at-risk families, talking about her baby with a new mom, when my calm, affectionate, loving little boy toddled over to the corner of her living room, picked up a hair brush, toddled over to the baby’s older sister, and whacked her with the hair brush. I freaked, the mom freaked… bad scene does not begin to describe.

The six most stressful weeks of my life followed. I hovered. I redirected. I said, “We do not hit.” I said, “Hitting hurts.” I said, “Nobody ever hits Cinder, so Cinder doesn’t hit anybody.” I said, “You are so strong, you have to take extra care with other people.” And I did versions of “time-outs,” too, I suppose, at least as far as removing him from the room/space in which the hitting occurred. After a family yoga class at which he methodically went around the room hitting each child in turn, I just about stopped socializing with other people. And just as I was about to throw myself off the Prince’s Island overpass bridge because obviously I was the worst mother in the world and did not deserve to live… the hitting stopped. A huge vocabulary explosion followed.

Fast-forward to age 26 months—just as I’m congratulating myself of having entered the “terrific twos” with a terrifically well-adjusted, affectionate, non-tantrumy little boy—all because I attachment parent of course. Because the universe loves irony, I’m once again in a volunteer mothering mentor kind of situation, offering myself as a fount of parenting wisdom as my 26-month-old picks up a toy plane and throws it, as hard as he can, at her 26-month-old’s head…

Just under four weeks of “oh, my God, why this again?” follow. I start reading discipline books, try a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some of which sometimes appears to work and sometimes not. Pregnant with child number two, I envision her meeting an early death as a result of being clubbed on the head with a dinosaur. I focus on the mantra, “Big people take care of little people”—unfound in any discipline book, article or resource—because at the very least I don’t want Cinder to hit babies. That seems to work… at the zoo, Cinder carefully sizes up potential targets and starts belting eight-year-olds in the stomach. He also starts hitting Daddy and Mommy. And just as I think, “Oh god, how did I create this monster,” it’s gone… and my 27 month old can count to four and compose pretty elaborate sentences.

Two months later (29 months) there is another flare-up—a mercifully shorter 10 days—accompanied by Cinder’s first throw-on-the-floor scream and kick temper tantrum. But I’m a little more aware this time, and relate the behaviour to some scheduling changes going on in our home, Daddy working longer hours, and me feeling wretched and stressed as a result of some pregnancy-related test. When I realize the hitting seems to have subsided, I also notice Cinder has started identifying a bunch of letters—and tells me that a Q looks like an O with a tail.

Flora is born when Cinder is 2 years and seven months old (the “problem” behaviour that emerges here is whining—but other mothers don’t hate you because your child whines, so we’re flying). He spontaneously toilet-trains at 2 years and nine months. At two years and 10 months (34 months), he erupts again. Two really bad weeks; primary target, our dog. (“We do not hit Anya! We love Anya!” “But I love to hit Anya!”).

At this point, I’m groking onto the fact that this hitting thing, it’s not about hitting at all. It’s a symptom of something big happening inside. But I still don’t know how to deal with the immediate behaviour. “We do not hit!” in a stern voice as I carry him to a different place is probably what I do most often, and I say this not as a strategy I recommend, but simply to share with you what I’m doing to “feel” I’m doing something. Two more weeks of less frequent Anya attacks follow, then almost three months of peace.

And then Flora turns six months, start sitting, crawling, playing with Cinder’s toys… Cinder goes from having had virtually no accidents to wetting his pants two, three, four, six times a day. And pummeling his little sister. The silver lining here, if you’ll forgive me for calling it such, is that now that he has Flora to push, pinch and hit… he hardly ever hits anyone else’s children. Except when we go to Mom and Tots yoga (I stop going to yoga). Or the Market Mall playground (ditto).

The crappy rain cloud: the pummel Flora phase lasts for months. What am I saying, it’s really not over yet. Although it did peak when she’s about nine months, and then sharply declined… unless he really has to pee. Or she wrecks his Lego tower.

Just as I start to rejoice that we have seen the last of what I by now call “caveman inside,” phases, at 3.5 Cinder starts… growling and pushing. But only at other boys, only of almost precisely his age. He is the embodiment of love, affection and good manners with girls of all ages. Smaller boys may elicit a growl or a shoulder check, but a quick “Big people take care of little people” from me is sufficiently enough to have him say, “Huh!” and storm off. Put him in the company of another three or four-year-old boy… there will be, at the very least, one hearty shove. There have been punches.

And that is where we are at right now. These days, when that happens, all I’ll say is, “We don’t play like that,” and, if it’s a stranger, give the child a quick apology and take Cinder away, if it’s a friend, redirect the boys together back to their play. I’m happy to say that I can’t think of the last time Cinder *hit* a child (other than his sister), but the growling and pushing… well, I pretty much just have to look back at the last time he encountered a boy of similar age.

If it’s Flora, I’ll scoop her, redirect her first, then bring Cinder back to us, do something so that he touches her or she him in a good way… and then take him to the toilet. 🙂 Unless I’m operating on 45 minutes of sleep, of course, in which case, something like “Why oh why do you hit your sister? Are you trying to drive me crazy?” will come out of my mouth… ah, those stellar parenting moments.

Do I think I have an aggressive son? A “bad” boy? No, absolutely not. But I do have an extremely physical little boy who under certain conditions hits other children.

“Disciplining” that is very very hard. This is what I think: I think I exacerbated Cinder’s hitting stages by focusing on them too much. This is all guess work, of course, because I can’t go back and do it another way. I don’t think there’s anything I could have done to eliminate these hitting flare-ups—the hitting has always been an expression of frustration, working something out, and the episodes of whacking everyone in sight were followed by major developmental breakthroughts—and ended just on their own. But I do believe each flare-up would have been way shorter and less intense if I hadn’t freaked, if I hadn’t made a big deal out of it, if I hadn’t hovered, stressed, talked myself blue in the face about how we don’t hit, how hitting is bad, if I had just, at that 20 month mark, calmly said, “Ouch, that hurts,” or “We don’t do that” instead of acting and projecting like the world had just ended and my son had just done the worst thing ever—and then continuing to act more or less like that every time he hit.

In retrospect, what made even thinking rationally about this whole topic, let alone searching for an effective solution, so difficult is, well, good old peer pressure: the perception—one rightly held, too—that other parents expected me to react to this situation in a very strong way and that if I didn’t I would be a bad—or at least ineffective—mother.

When your child hits another child—well, that’s pretty much the worst thing that can happen, right? Is there anything else your child can do that can reduce you so immediately to feeling like an utter failure as a parent? If your child is the victim, and is hit, what do you want the other mother to do? You want her to say, “No! We don’t hit!” You want her to acknowledge that a bad, unacceptable thing happened, and you want her to do something about it. If all she does is removes her child and doesn’t make a big fuss about yours or the terrible thing her child did to yours, you feel she is not parenting effectively. You feel angry. Heck, I feel like that—when my (still perfect, not-hitting) 15-month-old was pushed by an older boy at playgroup, absolutely, I was angry at the boy, at his mother… probably at the absent father too.

***

[a few days later] I had written the above about a week ago. I was in the bathroom with Flora, brushing our teeth, and “reading it” over in my head, wondering if it was accurate, if “this is where we’re at” was really were we are at, and whether the way I had presented the situation would be helpful to anyone. In comes my Cinder. I smile down at him, full of love and reflection… and he kicks Flora’s legs from under her. In the second during which I bent to scoop her, he winds up and kicks me in the shin. And, not mindful of any of the above, I holler, “Jesus Christ Cinder, why did you do that?” He bursts into tears. I take a deep breath, go down on the floor. “Why did you kick Flora? Why did you kick me?” I say as I think that it useless, useless to ask that question. “Well,” he sobs, “I just wanted to kick something. And there you were.”

I offer a list of things that it’s okay to kick—balls, rocks, snow… “Walls?” he asks. I don’t know. Do I want him kicking walls? “Balls are best,” I say. “Air, you can just make kicks in the air…”

About three days of periodically kicking Flora, the dog… and when available, balls (I try to have a few in every room) follow.

Based on recent events I suspect the next thing is going to be spitting…

***

To be continued as he grows and as I learn, I suppose. I often think of this aspect of parenting Cinder as the universe’s way of teaching me humility. And perseverance. And patience. And all those other virtues with which nature has not endowed me…

Playground-Warrior
2012. What you want to know: “Cinder’s almost 10. He doesn’t hit anymore, does he?” Well. Yes and no. This essential hasn’t changed: Cinder is physicality incarnate. The toddler who needed four hours of exercise a day became a six-year-old who needed as much, and a 10-year-old who probably needs even more. When Cinder gets angry—with you, with himself, with the world—his body feels it and expresses it. Most of the time, he will take himself away and run, run, run—or wallop the punching bag. Or the couch, or the tree, or the rock. That is his release. Occasionally, he will lash out at his siblings—the elder, more verbally provocative Flora much more so than little, but going through his own “hitting thing” phase Ender. But any time that happens, it’s an aberration—it’s not the way things are. It’s emphatically not the norm.

Strangers? He punched a boy last summer. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to say that. And you gasp. But see: one incident. One “he punched a boy last summer” I point to. Another “he pushed a girl the summer before last.” Isolated incidents. Accompanied by provocation—which doesn’t make the hitting/shoving okay, but for the mother of the toddler who just hit “because I want to hit something!” an important distinction. Isolated incidents. Not a pattern.

22 thoughts on “When toddlers attack

  1. Yup. Yup. And Yup! I remember watching in absolute shock the first time K dropped a large metal toy car on his friend’s head when he was 3 years old. I swear he did it with a smile on his face as I started to cry when I saw the blood dripping from his friend’s head. I wish I had of learned more about this “physical” personality earlier. I can see now that they are testing the waters of the hierarchy and trying to figure out where they stand. And that years of physical activity (hunting and fighting) aren’t so easily evolved out of them. Added to our list is boredom. As soon as K starts to get bored I can see him start to approach his sister with Tease mode (which may include hitting, pinching, pulling hair) showing all over his face. I have learned to head him off and ask “what do you want – I see you and will listen, you don’t have to tease your sister to get me to pay attention.” Being tired and hungry are also huge triggers here. Mine have actually discovered that if they piss each other off, their legs are stronger than their arms :/

  2. I had a conversation with some friends last year (who have boys) and we talked about the need to be physical and primal at times and we wondered if perhaps it would help to have some physical and primal activities to do that would fill that void that seems to occur in society these days… like chopping wood, going fishing or hunting, I even wonder about sport that has physical contact and how that might help get some of the energy out in an appropriate setting… I remember feeling very physical with my anger in my late teens and I took up kickboxing for a few years. Having my own homemade “heavy bag” in my house to kick and punch whenever I wanted/ needed to was so powerful in releasing what was inside for me, and then going to class, learning appropriate moves, sparring in class – it all fed something primal inside…

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I have a very similar story – my amazing spirited 2.5 year old often “talks” with his body and forgets his words. My background and education is in early childhood and I have all the credentials to support him through his hitting stage, but at times I feel overwhelmed at what more I need to do to help him – and then a ray of sunshine comes through – he’s playing at a train table and instead of pushing a child out of the way he says “excuse me – move your body” I know he will hit again, but like you said at least I know he’s getting it! Thank you!

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