Toddler Tips: When Your Child Hurts Another

If you have a toddler, chances are you’ve found yourself in the position of facing the parent of someone your child has just hit, thrown sand at, or grabbed a toy from.  Handling the situation is always doubly difficult because you’re trying to look like a “good parent” as you try to guide your child.  Here are some suggestions to make the next time a little easier. First, stop trying to look like a “good parent.”  Your job is to be a responsible parent who teaches your child, not a “good parent” whose child suffers as you seek public approval.  As much as you can, handle it as you would have with no witnesses.  Anyone who doesn’t respect that should be looked upon with compassion, but otherwise ignored.

State the limit to your child without moralizing.  Witnesses tend to bring out the lecturer in all of us.  All your toddler will hear is s “Blah blah blah...” or “Daddy doesn’t love me” when what he needs is “No hitting.  Scoot over if you need more space,” or “Julie’s using the truck now.  Your turn in a minute,” as you calmly move him or take his hand off the truck.

Give your child helpful suggestions.  What do “You need to share” or “Use your words” or “Be nice, now” really mean to a toddler?  Use concrete, specific language whenever you can.  “Michelle’s using the shovel.  Michelle’s turn.  Look.  She’s done.  Your turn now.” or “No pushing.  Let’s tell him: ‘Robert doesn’t like you so close.  Move over.’”  Model the words you’ll want your child to use when she has more language later.

Remember that very young children aren’t capable of sharing all the time.  They need to fully experience ownership before they understand giving it up.  They’ll need lots of adult help to take turns, wait for turns, or understand that something isn’t theirs.

Don’t make your child apologize.  This usually backfires by putting him so on the spot that he’s too embarrassed to do anything, or by teaching her to apologize insincerely, or that apologizing erases a misbehavior.  Toddlers may learn to shove and apologize in one smooth motion.  Instead, model sincere, compassionate apologizing by doing it yourself.  “I’m sorry Robert pushed you.  That hurt, didn’t it?”  This way, your child will learn about saying “sorry” when he really means it, in a voice that conveys this.

Finally, don’t worry that the child who bites and stands there grinning is a heartless, future psychopath.  Rather, this is the beginning of conscience developing.  He’s not grinning out of joy, but more likely out of embarrassment or guilt or advance defensiveness if he knows you’ll be there to enforce limits.  His reaction shows that he does know this action was not OK.  Understanding that will help you respond sensitively.

by Justine Saffir