Mommy's little bully

Mommy's little bully

Parents need to set social limits from the start with aggressive toddlers

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 10/18/2012

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Dear Patti,
My 1-year-old son, Mason, is good-natured and usually very happy, but lately, if he wants a toy, he’ll reach and grab it from another child. It’s rare, but when he gets angry — and especially when he’s tired — he’ll hit and kick. The other day, he bit his daddy. I worry someday he’ll become a bully. 
 
We attend “Mommy and Me” class, and there’s an 11-month-old girl named Jayden who’s very aggressive and disruptive. She often seems frustrated (hits, pulls hair, scratches and bites other children), though most of her hostile behavior is directed toward her mother, who’s thinking about not bringing her to class anymore. 
 
Mason is obviously too young for us to reason with him and probably too young to discipline using timeouts, but I don’t want to ignore an antagonistic problem that could escalate. 
 
Is this just a phase all toddlers go through, or should I be concerned?
— Kayla

Dear Kayla,
In order to achieve a healthy and full life, psychologist and psychosocial theorist Erik Erikson has identified eight stages of development a person should pass through from infancy to late adulthood. 
In the first stage (birth to 18 months), the major development issue — and the one Erikson cites as the most critical — is trust vs. mistrust. 
The basic question to which a baby seeks answers is “Can I trust the world?” The basic strength the baby achieves is drive and hope through positive, loving care by his or her most significant and constant caregivers. If the parents or caregivers regularly expose a child to warmth and dependable affection, the infant’s worldview will be one of trust. If a child successfully develops trust, he or she will feel safe and secure in the world. If a baby’s most basic needs are being met and he or she is passing successfully through this period of life, aggressive behavior is part of the child’s basic drive and natural development. 
When caregivers are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable or reject a baby, failure to develop trust can occur along with a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable. Mistrust can lead to feelings of fear, frustration, suspicion and a lack of confidence in self and others. If a toddler’s needs aren’t met, the result is often more acting out and aggressive behavior. For example, a child might aggressively hug and grab other children because he wants more physical attention than what’s provided at home; he or she doesn’t know how to be gentle, because impulse control is underdeveloped. The toddler might be feeling insecure or could need more physical and verbal reassurances, extra time and attention. Each toddler needs to be reflected on individually to see if his or her basic needs are being met and, if so, whether the child’s behavior is developmentally appropriate. 
From Mason’s point of view, the whole world is much bigger than him. He wants to become independent and is learning how to relate to others, discovering which actions provoke reactions. If he’s frustrated, needs his space, needs extra attention, is tired or just in a little mood, communicating his feelings is difficult because he can’t make himself understood verbally. When he hits or kicks, it doesn’t mean he has an aggressive personality; he might just need to learn better ways to express needs and wants. 
Rather than ignore this behavior, shadow your toddler, anticipate and block his or her aggressive acts and steer the child safely away from those behaviors. An incident requires an immediate response. In a firm but calm voice, say, “No,” and then redirect him or her toward another activity. While the toddler may be too young for regular timeouts, you can remove him or her from other children for a few minutes, stay with the youngster and then try again. Remove him or her from the playing situation each time pushiness is repeated. Discipline consistently and children will learn there are consequences to their behavior. Praise and reward good behavior. Teach less aggressive actions by showing children what they are allowed to do. If the child hits a pet, show how to gently pet it. Don’t let your child profit from attacks. For example, don’t allow him or her to keep a toy taken from another child, or else this “gain” will encourage this behavior.
Avoid trying to “reason” with your child, i.e., asking, “How would you like it if you were pushed?” A child that age has neither the cognitive maturity to imagine him or herself in another’s place nor the ability to change behaviors based on verbal reasoning. Lastly, don’t be afraid to seek professional help if aggression continues and requires more intervention. n

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.

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