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  Parenting Advice Column
  Subject: 18-month-old starts hitting

Question:

Our happy and affectionate 18-month old son, who doesn't talk but is using some sign language to communicate, has started hitting his 9-year-old brother, it seems to get his attention. He spends all his time with either his father or me since we choose to both work at home and be with him. Sometimes he just walks up and whacks me with a kitchen tool or toy. No one in our family hits each other. We want to understand his frustrations and know his intelligence is keen. We want to figure this out before it gets out of hand.

Name Withheld


Jan's reply:

"Thank you for your letter. I can empathize with your predicament because I have worked at home since my son was born. I know how difficult it can be to accomplish a time-consuming task while a toddler needs your attention!
 
With the large age difference between your children, it is also likely that your toddler is feeling frustrated at being unable to keep up with his much older brother. With this type of unavoidable dilemma, it would be important to validate his feelings ("You really wish you could ride the big bike!") and to see that he has plenty of opportunity to accomplish the things that he can do at this age.

One solution that worked well for me was to hire a responsible teenager (she was homeschooling, so she was available during the day) who came to our home to play games and do crafts with our son while I wrote articles or did housework. (Don't ask her to do housework, she would be there for your child only! Otherwise he'll have more of the same frustrations he's having now, asking for more attention from her.)

A similar solution that also helped was hiring someone (again, not the same person as the child's helper) to do occasional housework, freeing me to spend the time I would have given to housework that day, to give my son the undivided attention he needed. On the days when you are doing housework, be sure you aren't keeping to unreasonable housecleaning standards. As the La Leche League leaders often say, "You won't have a clean house and a happy child on the same day."

The bottom line is that there just aren't sufficient hours a day, and energy, to do all three jobs well: parenting, business tasks, and housework. Something has to give, so it's important to keep priorities clear. A child's needs must come first; otherwise, it can escalate to a situation which requires enormous amounts of time and effort! It's very commendable that you are already seeking better solutions now.

Jan


Laura adds:

Toddlers are just discovering their own anger, and the intensity of those feelings can be overwhelming. And they don't yet have the words to communicate their feelings and needs, which makes it even more scary for them. I think when they hit, they know they shouldn't - and they are looking for reassurance that (1) we love them unconditionally, but also that (2) we'll provide a safe space for them to have their anger - that we won't allow them to hurt themselves or others.

I guess what I'm trying to stress is that I think a toddler can start hitting even if the parent isn't especially overcommitted and overstressed. No parent can be perfectly available to the toddler's needs, no matter what their other commitments are, or how hard they try, particularly if they have more than one child.

But because the toddler's needs are instant and omnipresent for them, the idea of waiting while Mommy tells someone else to wait a minute is just too much. (For instance, a couple of times my younger child has resorted to slapping me. Both times, I had just picked her up and at that instant her sister came to me with an urgent need. I couldn't just ignore her sister, so she became frustrated.)

I think between the ages of two and four the child is learning how to wait for just a few moments, and this child is right at the start of that process. His most likely source of frustration is not getting his parents' (and older brother's) full attention; this phase is very common among toddlers (especially younger children, who have to compete for Mommy and Daddy's attention with older siblings).

As long as parents realize the child is almost certainly frustrated about something and unable to do anything but "act out" due to lack of verbal skills, and start responding to the underlying need for more attention, I think things will be fine. The most helpful responses are (1) lovingly restraining him from hitting again while reinforcing his feelings of frustration, (2) telling him hitting hurts and isn't OK, and (3) showing him how to use gentle touch. As long as the parents work hard to respond to his need, and gently and consistently work with him to show him safer and more effective ways of dealing with his anger, he'll quickly get over it. In our case, my daughter's slapping and knocking phase lasted all of a few days, and now she's back to her very gentle-touch self.

Laura

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