Why Does My Two Year Old Hit?

The question before me is, “why does my two year old hit?” It could be hit or bite or push or kick, or even spit...two year-olds do the darndest things!

A two year old is a very capable being with many curiosities and abilities and very little ability to judge or evaluate their behaviors. They are extremely observant and imitative and have almost zero impulse control. They do not think before the act, nor do they plot, manipulate or plan their actions ahead of time (although it sure seems like it to us big people). They are a little bit like a spark plug and just fire when the circumstances are aligned. As they grow these things slowly come more into control and more thinking powers can get involved in their actions, but any mom with even a grade schooler knows that this takes time. So why do they do this? What leads to hitting or any other form of “aggression” for lack of a better word? I’m going to lay out a few different reasons which could stimulate these behaviors in a young child.

The world they live in is very hard for them to navigate. We (adults) take it all for granted and we don’t even notice most of what we are challenged with each day. The world for the young child, however, is very over stimulating, hard to figure out and can easily overwhelm in a nanosecond. Malls, stores, even walking down the street, children playing in the park or a group of children in a play group. All these events have so much input that the child gets overloaded. Media and “canned” music are constantly in their environment, machines, engines roaring...never a peaceful quiet moment exists unless we as adults take great care to create peaceful times. The young child when overstimulated can no longer feel settled in themselves or feel well in their body, so they push the world away, and this can take the form of unwanted behaviors. It could also look like “being shy,” or falling asleep, or being extremely clingy and dependent (looking for a safe place).

These uncomfortable behaviors can also be an attempt to communicate with another. How does a child inform another that they are in their personal space? How do they express their discontent? How do they get a distracted parents attention? How do they say hello to another? A push, a hit? This isn’t “aggression,” it’s a child saying,“I don’t want to play with you”, or “May I play with you?” or “Pay attention to me!” It might be a way of showing frustration (biting is often the result of frustration). A young child does not have well developed skills in communicating with others in a “socially acceptable” manner. The adult stepping in when they see this about to happen and modeling language, or “sports casting” the incident, can often help children learn how to navigate social situations, but this takes time for them to learn to do on their own.

Another place that these behaviors might crop up is during a transition. Trying to get a child to get their coat on to leave the house or class, or transitioning into meal times or diaper changes...whenever there is a change in activity required that the adult deems necessary (our agenda). The young child has no control over his environment or schedule or any aspect of their lives.Transitions can then be a moment when children lash out. As humans, we are all control-freaks. We don’t realize how much we depend on being in control of our lives, so imagine being a young child with none of this control. There are ways to help a child. Some ideas might be: giving a child limited choices, warning when a transition is coming, and giving them control when it’s appropriate. Giving a child too much control, on the other hand can also be very hard for them. They may look like they want control, but the responsibility is way too much and creates a lot of anxiety in the long run. Children depend on us to keep their world safe and organized and to feel the boundaries we have set for them which helps them to feel well in their bodies and be able to function in a healthy way.

Last, but not least, another reason children might engage in these behaviors is, what I call, the “light-switch effect.” They love to push buttons (proverbial and literal), switch switches, make things “happen”...knocking things over, pulling things down, pushing, slamming, knocking, tapping, rolling; they love to create something in their world that stimulates their curiosity! It’s very impersonal. Push a child over, and they scream, hit mommies face and she turns red, bite the dog and he jumps away. It’s no different to them than pushing a tower of blocks over, switching on a light in a room, or sinking their teeth into a stuffed toy that might squeak. They are “make something happen” machines!

So, why is your child hitting? Observing your child to see when this behavior is occurring and then working from there. Things that could help all children: calming down their environment, slowing down transitions and making as few as possible in their day. Modeling how to greet people and communicate in socially acceptable ways and always being aware of your actions (do we kick the door open when our hands are full, do we push the cat aside with our foot, how do we express ourselves when we are frustrated, angry, or even sad). Do we give our children free play time where they can explore the world at their speed and make things happen that are safe for them (hands off from adults) or give them control when they can have it in an age appropriate way? The most important thing is to trust that your child is doing the best s/he can at the moment with the tools that they have at this young age and then guiding them back to the light, which is where they truly want to be. Know that when they do these unwanted behaviors, they are probably not at peace and helping your child avoid these behaviors is what they depend on us for. “I won’t let you hit” is music to their ears.

I read this on my computer the other day: “Thinking of your child as behaving badly, disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.”

RIE® Associate Bio: Simone Stave Demarzi was born in Germany then immigrated to Yellow Springs, Ohio where she grew up in a small town exposed to music, arts and theater. She got her BS in Elementary Education in 1980 from IU, and went on to study Waldorf Education. She has worked in six different Waldorf schools over her 40 year working career and guided each of her three children through a 14 year Waldorf education. She studied RIE® in 2001 and became an Associate in 2009. She has taught children birth to three in Preschool settings, Child Care Centers and Infant Daycare settings and in the Parent Child arena where she has influenced many adults with RIE® and Waldorf. She is now retired from working directly with children but still mentors EC teachers and parents

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