Q&A: aggressive behavior in babies and toddlers

HS writes:

"I have a  2 year 8 month old boy who is very active. He also goes to a daycare in our neighborhood and he had been bitten twice in the back by some other 2 year old. When I asked about it the daycare director told me that I should not worry because that’s the way 2yr olds defends themselves.  I really don’t like seen ugly bite marks on my son.  Can you suggest a way in which I could tell the director to make sure that won’t happen again?

She also told me that because my son did not say anything they were not able to catch the accident on time.  I want to make sure that these ladies who are watching over my kid do their job."

Huh? "That's the way 2-year-olds defend themselves?" So that means that they just let the biting go on without attempting to stop it? Interesting logic. So they'd think it was appropriate if you punched the mother of the other kid in the face, because that's how parents defend their kids? Somehow I don't think so.

There are two truths about emotions in children: 1) There's nothing wrong with having angry or frustrated or aggressive or other negative feelings. It's a part of being human, and we should worry about kids who never feel free to express anything negative. The only problem is expressing them in inappropriate ways. 2) One of the most important jobs adults have with regards to children is helping them learn how to manage their emotions, especially the big and scary ones.

It sounds like those daycare providers are taking too much of point #1 to heart, and thinking the kids are magically going to learn to do point #2 on their own, without adult guidance. But how could they? Kids don't learn to talk without hearing any other people talking. Doing something as complex as managing their emotions is far more difficult, so it requires even more adult guidance.

There are several components to teaching kids to manage their emotions. The first is setting boundaries so the child knows what's acceptable and what's not. That should start as early as a child starts to show negative behavior. Some kids are as young as 6 months when they start scratching or hitting, and right around 9 months to a year is a super-common time for that whacking in the face, stealing of the glasses, pulling hair, etc. that many of us have experienced with our kids.

Setting boundaries (especially for kids that age, but really for anyone of any age you're setting boundaries with) doesn't mean being mean or punitive. It just means making it abundantly clear what's acceptable and what's not. How you do it depensd on your particular child and what motivates him/her. For example, my older one does not respond well to verbal cues (despite the fact that he talks all the livelong day--go figure) and has always needed me to physically intervene to show him the boundaries. So when he was teeny and bit me while nursing, I'd scream (just because it hurt) and then unlatch him and put him out of reach so he couldn't nurse anymore right then. When he was older and pulling hair, I'd tell him No but also pick him up and put him across the room so he couldn't touch me. When he was biting other kids at age 2, I'd watch for it and before he bit I'd put my hand between his shark teeth and the other child and guide his head away and off somewhere else to distract him. My second one responds much more to verbal cues (and he's not anywhere near as verbal himself as his brother was at this age) so I use more of the "you can do this, you cannot do that" kind of talk with him.

While you're setting the boundaries, it's important to talk the kid through those boundaries to help the child get that tape in their head. Have you ever heard a little kid looking at a temptation and saying something like "I not touch that" as they look longingly at that thing? That's exactly what you want to happen, that the kid develops an internal dialogue about what they should and shouldn't do. So when you're working on not hitting you, you should be saying something about not hitting people but hitting a pillow instead. When you're working on not snatching toys out of a younger sibling's hand, you should be repeating "Find something to trade him!" to get that tape playing in his head. It's not going to make a change overnight, but it does get the pattern established of positive self-talk and rehearsing actions before you do them.

The other two components that are very important in helping kids manage negative emotions are distraction and giving them healthy subsititutes. Distraction has to be the single most useful discipline tool ever, because it breaks the immediate pattern and stops the negative behavior. It also gives you enough time to think about what's happening and act instead of react when you figure out what to do next. Sometimes the bad behaviorwas just a fluke, and you don't ahve to do anything else, because the distraction took care of it.

But for things that are consistnent or show that a kid really can't manage some emotions (and I'd definitely put biting, hitting, and pushing in that category), you need to give them a healthy subsititute. Remember, there's nothing wrong with feeling angry, aggressive, or frustrated. You absolutely want to make sure your child experiences those emotions without feeling like they're something to be hidden, because in order to be a healthy adult you need to be able to process and accept your own emotions. Be very clear that the problem isn't feleing angry, it's biting another person in anger. To that and, you can give the child something productive to do with the negative energy. We gave my older son a braided dog chew toy (a new one I bought just for him) and when he felt like biting, he bit that. Some kids carry around special pillows that they hit when they feel like hitting someone. I've seen some parents get their children to run around the room for 10 minutes or hop up and down to release that physical energy.

By giving your kid a substitute to help them expend negative energy, you're setting up their ability to consciously manage their emotions. The hope is that as teens and adults they'll be able to think, "I feel really horrible and like I want to punch someone. Let me go out and run 2 miles instead, or scrub out the bathtub, or go down into the basement and hit the punching bag, or go over to the dojo and see if anyone wil spar with me." They'll know how to channel that energy into something neutral (if not actually helpful) instead of turning to hurting other people or themselves.

OK. HS, if you're still with me, what I'm getting at is that this is a serious issue, and you are totally right to be concerned about the non-response from your daycare director, both for your own son's sake and also for the biter's sake. There are several things here that concern me:

1) Is their ratio of staff to kids so low that they just simply cannot keep on top of what's going on with the kids?

2) Are they not sensitive enough to the kids to realize that the biter needs a little extra attention and guidance?

3) How can they not realize that allowing your son to get bitten is not acceptable and is a serious liability? You'd think they'd at least be worried about the potential lawsuit, if nothing else.

I think you need to go in and sit down with the director and express to her that this is a huge concern for your son's safety, and that they need to think seriously about their procedures for ensuring the safety of each child. Emphasize that this is a safety issue, not just a "kids being kids" issue. Then express your concern that the staff doesn't know how to help the kids manage their emotions and are letting situations get out of hand. You might suggest the idea of having a biting toy for the biter and helping the caregivers manage the flow of the day so things don't escalate and get the kids so frustrated that they attack each other.

(Oh, and the part about your son not telling them anything happened? You can't tell me that a 2 1/2-year-old gets bit hard enough to leave a mark and doesn't yell in pain. Why was there no caregiver there to hear his cry and figure it out? It's not your son's responsibility to report incidents in a detailed and calm manner--he's a toddler.)

It's entirely possible that the director won't have any answer for you. If that's the case, you may have to think seriously about finding another place for your child where he won't be in physical danger from other kids. Of course that doesn't help the other kid who's biting because he doesn't know how to deal with his frustration, of any of the other kids in the center, but your primary responsiblity is to your own child.

And do NOT let the director try to sell you the idea that the problem is with the kids. The kids are just trying to fumble their way through all the feelings coursing through their little bodies. Adults have the responsibility to help the kids deal with those feelings.

Anyone have an similar experiences with daycare situations that weren't being handled appropriately? Any words of advice?