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  Subject: handling a one-year-old's anger

Help!! I am a parent of a one-year-old, very active little boy. At 11 months, he began hitting, biting, and scratching in anger (for example if we take the phone away from him he will slap or bite). This has never been modeled for him, and we don't know where it is coming from or how to handle it. We practice the attachment style of parenting... including co-sleeping. It feels right to us, and we want to handle these discipline issues in a manner consistent with this beautiful philosophy... but hurting others is unacceptable... how do we handle this? Thanks so much for your time, and this great resource for parents!

Sincerely,

Heather Lewis

Jan's reply:

Hi Heather,

It can really be puzzling and frustrating when a baby or toddler behaves in ways that we have not modeled ourselves. However, the question of where specific behavior comes from can be confusing or even misleading. If a baby/toddler protests loudly and aggressively when frustrated, part of the answer may be that he/she is well-bonded enough to feel OK about communicating feelings fully and honestly; that is, his attempts to communicate, even though they cannot yet be mature behaviors, may even be seen as a sort of tribute to your parenting.

A baby or toddler has simply not had sufficient time to grow and learn more mature ways of being, yet our society expects them all to act as though they were 35! As I heard a parent say recently to well-meaning relatives questioning the way his 2-year-old was acting, if a 2-year-old can't act like a 2-year-old, who can?

That said, there may in addition be some aggressiveness related to other factors, such as family stress (which can even be from happy but excited occasions), fatigue (from interrupted sleep, too many outside errands in one day, caffeine in breastmilk, too many visitors, and so on), frustration (such as when parents have been over-extended and less available than usual) and health-related causes such as hidden food allergy. It certainly wouldn't hurt to try a simple elimination diet, one food at a time (wheat, dairy, and corn are common allergens). 

While it may be interesting intellectually to try to figure out exactly where a child picks up specific behaviors (parents? neighbors? visiting children? TV shows?), this is less important than (a) remembering that he is in fact "acting his age" and that it is unfair and unhelpful to expect more (b) understanding that he is doing the very best he can given all of the circumstances and (c) learning how to prevent over-excitement and frustration.

As for your specific example, a toddler is programmed to explore the world around him - he is in reality a small scientist! His displeasure when a "research study" is interrupted is, in this sense, perfectly justified, even though he hasn't yet learned how to handle this frustration in a mature way. So if you remove something he is studying, be ready with something else to take its place. The fact that he wants to learn all he can about the objects he sees around him is something to celebrate, not despair over.

Here are some articles that should be helpful:

As you are already aware, spanking, time-out, "consequences" and all other forms of punishment don't really work (although they may appear to work short-term) because they break the bond of trust between parent and child. The only thing that really works for children from infancy through adulthood is establishing a close and loving bond together. Here is one of our "Quotes of the Month":

"Kids who have their needs met early by loving parents... are subjected totally and thoroughly to the most severe form of 'discipline' conceivable: they don't do what you don't want them to do because they love you so much!

"If you haven't cluttered the airwaves between you and your child with a thousand stupid 'don'ts' over your Royal Doulton china, or not eating their dessert before the main course, or not finishing their spinach, or not doing this or that, then those few situations where it really matters because of safety and impropriety don't need anything approaching the connotation of 'discipline' to ensure appropriate behavior."

Dr. Elliott Barker,
Director, Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

I'm happy to see that you are looking for alternative approaches!

All the best,

Jan

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