Q: How do I respond to my 17-month-old who has started to swing at me with her hands when she doesn’t get her way?
A: It ain’t easy being 17 months. You have really strong feelings but lack the ability to use words to clearly let others know what’s on your mind. How frustrating is that?
The fact is that learning to express one’s self begins in the early years by using actions. Some are totally appropriate, like the 12-month-old who raises her arms up to show mom or dad that she wants to be picked up. Others can be find distressing, like hitting, kicking, and biting. But they are all efforts on the part of the child to communicate. In this case, we can hypothesize that your child is mad that she is not getting something she wants. She cannot say, Mom, I am so mad that you won’t let me have that fourth cookie! (Or, as my teenagers now simply say, I HATE YOU!)
The best way to respond to her swinging is to firmly—not roughly—hold on to her arm and say something like, No hitting. Hitting hurts. I know you are mad that (fill in the blank). You don’t like it when…But you cannot hit. Hitting hurts. It is important to be clear and firm in your tone but not angry. Your child is not purposefully misbehaving. This is about teaching rules and limits, not about punishment. These moments are also important opportunities to teach your child about feelings. You need to show her that angry feelings are not the problem, it’s what she does with these feelings that can be problematic. Your job is to let your child know what is and isn’t acceptable and then to teach her what she can do with her feelings. Putting her feelings into words is important. It shows empathy and provides a good model for how to cope with feelings as she grows.
After you have stopped her behavior and validated her feelings, you can show your daughter alternative ways of expressing herself. While most parents agree that hitting is not an acceptable way to express anger, they vary in their beliefs about what is acceptable. Some suggest children shout in the air as loud as they can or make growling noises to get their feelings out. Others suggest stomping feet, scribbling with a crayon, ripping newspaper, or hitting an object that is safe and can’t be hurt—such as a pillow. It is up to you to decide what is okay. The bottom line is that you acknowledge your child’s feelings and help her learn healthy, non-destructive ways to express them.
Keep in mind that learning self-control is a process. Your toddler will not be able to stop her impulses and understand the consequences of her actions until she gets closer to 3. In fact, she’ll keep working on these skills through the teen years. So your daughter will need your consistent, patient support for a while yet. Being able to manage and cope with strong feelings is a critical skill for lifelong success, so don’t fear these moments. Instead, see them as great opportunities for teaching your child an essential life skill.