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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

My 2-year-old is pretty physical—he will hit or push his older sister to get a toy, for example. What’s the best way to respond to this type of behavior?

Q: My 2-year-old is pretty physical—he will slap his sister if he gets angry or grab toys out of her hands.  I never saw this behavior in my daughter (who's now 5).  How should I handle it?

A: That’s the beauty, and challenge, of having multiple children—no two are the same. The behavior you describe is actually very common at this age, especially for children who are feisty and physical like your son. Why?  Two-year-olds do not yet have the impulse control necessary to stop themselves from going for something they desire, even if they have been told countless times to “be gentle” or “take turns.”  In addition, most don’t yet have the language skills to verbally express their thoughts and feelings, so their primary means of communication is through their actions.  The fact that your son is physical means he is also more likely to use his body to express himself.

The good news is there is a lot you can do to help your son learn to communicate and meet his needs without being hurtful to others:

  • Practice prevention. When you see your son in a situation in which he is likely to feel angry or frustrated, try to head it off.  If he is eyeing a toy your daughter is playing with, acknowledge that he might like to play with that toy too, but that he has to wait his turn. Then help him choose another toy.

  • Validate his feelings. Get down on your child’s eye level and firmly, but not angrily, let him know: It’s okay to get angry. Everyone gets angry. Try your best to show as little emotion as possible. The more intense your reaction, the more intensely he is likely to respond.
  • Set the limit. It’s not okay to hit or grab. It is a rule in our family that we can’t hurt others. Help him give the toy back and choose another one.
  • Suggest other ways to express anger that are acceptable to you. He might draw out his anger with a red crayon, stomp his feet as hard as he can, or bang on a pillow. The idea is to teach him ways to express anger and frustration in ways that are not hurtful to himself or others.
  • Practice sharing. Get a kitchen or other timer and set it for the amount of time each child has to wait his or her turn. This can be a very useful tool for helping children learn to wait as it gives them a more tangible sense of time passing.  

The combination of your son developing more language and your consistent limits and guidance will help him learn to manage his emotions and cope with the challenge of sharing as he grows. 

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