Two-and-a-half-year-old Sunny played quietly in the sand. Shovel, bucket. Shovel, bucket. Some other kids his age played nearly. Shovel, bucket. Shovel, bucket. I turned to talk to the mom next to me, and a piercing scream rose over the playground. The kid next to Sunny clutched his eyes. Sunny stood, looking vaguely proud of himself.
“Did he throw sand in his eyes?” I asked. I wanted to die.
Luckily his mom was nice about it. I apologized over and over. We tried to get it out. The boy screamed and screamed.
“We don’t throw sand at people,” I said to Sunny in the midst of the screaming. “You can’t play in the sand right now. You hurt him.” And I dragged him out of the sandbox. He started screaming as well. Now both kids were wailing, no one was getting anything accomplished, and the boy eventually ended up in urgent care.
Another time, after my middle son was born, I asked someone to watch 2 ½-year-old Blaise while I put the baby in the car. In my absence, Blaise took an enormous, bloody bite out of another toddler named Gabe. His mom was nice about it. I couldn’t stop apologizing. At that time, my best friend told me that I might want to keep Blaise away from other kids, and I dissolved into tears.
Then there was the time Sunny threw blocks at everyone’s head.
And 2 ½-year-old August bashed a baby in the head for no reason.
One time Blaise hit our dog with a stick.
Aggressive toddlers suck.
It’s mortifying when your kid is the biter, the sand-thrower, the block-hurler, the baby-basher. It’s extra mortifying when the mom in question is nice about it, even as her kid screams. Or you get defensive when the mom tells you off — one mom told Blaise, at 3, that she was going to “bite him back.” I about lost it even though my kid was at fault. Everyone knows this pint-sized violence is developmentally appropriate. We know, deep down, it doesn’t mean our precious darling is growing up into Hannibal Lecter even if it feels that way. We know it’s normal.
But why does it have to be normal for our kid?
Luckily, there are some things you can do to manage toddler violence. They may not be fun, or foolproof, but I’ve found them to be helpful. Be prepared for the screams.
1. Remove your child from the situation.
If they throw sand, no sandbox. They get mama. If they bite another kid, they have to sit with you instead of playing. If they throw blocks, they get plopped on your lap — you get the idea. Basically, you take your kid from the triggering situation and put them in your lap or your arms, where you talk about it.
2. Have a conversation in simple language.
“We do not throw sand,” or “We do not bite people” works. Then “So-and-so was hurt when you [whatever you did]. We do not hurt people. Did you mean to hurt someone?” Be prepared for a yes. If you get it, reiterate that we don’t hurt people. If they’re capable, have them say that they’re sorry.
3. Go home.
A kid who’s biting hunks out of his friends is probably sleepy, hungry, thirsty, or overstimulated. When did they last eat? Drink? How did they sleep last night? Removing them to a familiar home may help meet those needs, and tone down the crazy.
4. Examine your life situation.
Has there been any turmoil in your child’s life that would lead to acting out? A new sibling is a popular one, and the reason I believe Blaise bit. But moving, divorce, a new day care, a grandparent moving in with the family, all of these can trigger negative behaviors in a toddler. There isn’t much you can do but talk about it in simple words (“We moved, and you miss your old house…”) with simple emotions (“…and you feel sad. Sometimes the sad comes out as bad actions”).
5. Remember it’s normal.
Children go through phases. Some are more likely to bite. Others throw sand just to see what happens. Some will hit kids with rocks, and some will bash kids with sticks. Some will throw pinecones or blocks. These are normal childhood behaviors that should be dealt with using the strategies above. They’re unpleasant behaviors. But they’re normal behaviors, and not due to any kind of bad parenting.
6. DON’T spank them.
Hitting a child for a developmentally normal action is, at the heart of it, unfair. It also answers violence with violence, and tells a child you can hit them because you are bigger and have all the power. In the end, spanking may stop the behavior temporarily, but it’s ineffective in the long run, especially with their age.
7. DON’T lose your temper.
Your child needs you to be calm so you can both process the inappropriate behavior that just took place. Yelling, shouting, or screaming will only frighten them and complicate the situation. Take a deep breath or step away for a minute if you need to. We’ve all needed to, and that’s OK.
8. DON’T blame yourself.
This isn’t because you suck at parenting. It isn’t because you’re screwing up raising your child. It isn’t because you ate sushi and took Tylenol while you were pregnant. All kids do things like bite, hit, and throw. All kids lash out at others. Take a deep breath. Deal with the situation, and remember: You didn’t create it. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t feel ashamed. Anyone who’s ever parented a toddler is cheering you on, mama.
Everyone’s toddler commits remorseless acts of violence on a regular basis. Don’t let yourself be shamed. And don’t get too angry at your kid — it’s part of this developmental stage. They can’t understand right from wrong yet. So deal with what you can deal with, solve what you can solve, and remember, at the heart of every toddler lies a savage.