How to Get Your Kids to Stop Hitting Each Other (Without Instituting a Time-Out)

two toddlers fighting on playground

Leave it to Daphne Oz and Hilaria Baldwin to get to the heart of toddler behavior. On a recent episode of the hit family podcast Mom Brain they caught up with Dr. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in New York City and author of How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today, to ask her about everything from toddler brain development to how to stop one of your kids from smacking the other one. Here, some highlights from their conversation.

Never try to dictate their creativity or play

Daphne Oz: Kids at that age are trying to identify the rules of the universe. I’m curious, as they start to assert themselves and their independence, how much leeway can you give them where they feel like they still have some agency, but still have good adult-led guidance and boundaries?

Dr. Tovah Klein: If you think of the bigger picture, in your everyday life, you have routines. You have rules that are implicit: Here’s how we do the bedtime routine, here’s how we do meals. For meals, you sit at a table, you eat. When you throw food? I see that you’re finished. Most children like to sit in the same seat. They like mommy in the same seat and daddy, too. All of those routines are the rules and they are the limits. In between, is where you can be flexible.

If your child asserts themselves at bedtime and says, No, I don’t want to read this book tonight, you can say: "Oh, we’re switching books tonight? Alright, great." That’s their agency. Or when you’re picking out clothes in the morning: "Do you want this outfit or that one?" Often times, they often grab one. Again, that’s agency.

Play is another place where you give them a lot of leeway. Do your best not to interfere with it. Also, the less material things you have, the better; the more they’re outside, the better. You never want to be in a position where you’re telling them how to play. They’ll build or they won’t build; they’ll play with their dolls or animals or they won’t. That’s their freedom and it’s where they figure out a sense of self, but also agency.

Yes, they love to test the rules, but [by giving them leeway in specific areas], you’re saying, we can test the boundaries together, but ultimately I’m in charge. Then, from there you pick your control battles.

It’s Better to “Take a Break” Than Institute a Time-Out

Hilaria Baldwin: I’ve got three boys in less than three years. The baby is 8 months old and he sometimes gets beaten up by the older ones. My 2-year-old actually came up to him with this yellow colander and smacked him on the head with it. My response: ‘‘We don’t do that. That’s really bad. You need to go take a time-out.’ I have a specific chair that he sits in and if he gets down, I put him in his room and close the door for ten seconds. He used to be like, “No, mama! Don’t do it!” But now, he gives himself time-outs. If he does something bad, he says: “Mommy, I go take a time out.” This happened recently and after he was in his room for 30 seconds, I opened the door and said: “Are you done with your time out?” And he said, “No, mommy, close the door.” What am I supposed to do to make these effective again?

Klein: It’s a great example. Time-out works if you need to take a break—but, really, I would call it just that: A break. We’re all looking for control over our children, but they’re always looking for control—not of us, which is what it feels like—but of their lives. This means that a 2-year-old, 3-year-old or 4-year-old is in the process of figuring out where they have control, where they don’t and also recognizing that they don’t really understand this world. Remember, your 2-year-old has only been in it for a couple of years.

So, saying: “Ah, you’re not so happy with the baby right now? Alright, I’ll give you a little attention.” Because these moments are attention getting. When you label it that way and go right to him—literally get down on his level and say, ‘You know what? I can’t let you do that, but I’ll give you some attention,” think of it as a long-term project. They’re not going to be toddlers forever thankfully, although it is a joyful time—we’re raising them so that they’ll be decent people when they grow up, certainly we’re hoping that they’ll be decent adults.

It all comes down to: Who’s in charge? Me or you? And they want to know we’re in charge. That’s where this idea of time-outs comes from. But honestly, time-outs were started years ago for much older children—I don’t know at what point they were put in for younger children—but they got put in as “you go over there and really think about what happened.”

But sometimes children do need a break and that’s helping them learn to regulate. You say, ‘We’re going to take a break” or ‘Do you need a break?” or “Let’s go walk over there.” That might help learn, “Oh, I can arouse down,” since they can’t calm themselves down in those moments. With a time-out, [the alternative is] that you withdraw your attention from them and that’s very scary. They think: Oh, so when I’m bad, she doesn’t love me? But if you go over to him and say, “I can’t let you do that, I gotta protect the baby just like I protect you and you move them away, he gets your attention.”

Aggression Happens—and Over-Socialization Could Be the Culprit

Oz: You’re a mom of three yourself. What was the most challenging bit for you with a toddler? And what’s the most challenging thing you deal with at your center?

Klein: There are so many challenges in the toddler years. It could be food, it could be sleep. Getting out the door is hard for all of us at some point because that’s separation. Still, probably the hardest thing for parents is aggression. And young children are very impulsive.

All the brain data shows just that. That part of the brain—the pre-frontal cortex—is so underdeveloped. It’s also the area of the brain that’s going to calm them down, helps them handle anger/frustration, helps them learn to focus, all of those things you need to be a reasonable adult—that’s how I look at it—and it’s barely online at birth and then it’s going to slowly develop all the way through your mid-20s. So, even the college students I teach aren’t fully there yet. This means your 2-year-old is nowhere near there, your 5-year-old is a little bit better, but when she’s melting down, you have to say, “Oh, she’s far from being fully mature and that’s why she’s doing aggressive things.”

But aggression is scary. To see children hitting, biting, kicking, pinching—it’s not pretty. Sometimes you say, oh, I get why she did it. She wanted the toy or she needed attention, but other times you have no idea. There’s always a reason, but we don’t always know.

Oz: People are so attuned to bullying now. Or if you take your kid into a public space and they get hurt—or they hurt someone, God forbid—you really panic in that moment. And you’re embarrassed. Because you’ve raised this wonderful child who’s an angel at home, but, understanding the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully online yet, you put them in an overwhelming environment with overwhelming new kids, and it’s a whole other thing. But at the same time, we’re supposed to teach patience, moderation, regulation and sharing. What are we supposed to do?

Klein: That’s your challenge of the early years right there, which is you’re laying a foundation, but development takes a lot of time. So, I always say to parents: You are their regulator. You don’t want them hitting in a crowded room and you know that a crowded place isn’t a good place for them? Think about whether you have to go. Do you have to go to every birthday party? Probably not. Some children don’t do well there.

Or if you are in a situation that you know is going to be a challenge or you see your child getting really discombobulated, you have to go over and put your arm around them. Sometimes it’s just a stroke or a touch to say I’m here, or maybe you redirect them to another activity. Or you remove them, now we’re going to go for a walk.

I was that parent in a restaurant where I could feel them melting down or they did melt down, and I had to acknowledge that I’m putting them in a situation with other people where I can’t control him, so I was the one who would leave. Sometimes it was a little fresh air, other times it was: “OK, we’re going to say goodbye to the dinner because this isn’t working and I shouldn’t have brought my 2-year-old tonight.”

The problem is that, nowadays, we try to over-socialize them, which is how I see this early socialization, and that backfires for a number of reasons. For one thing, if it’s something that a child really can’t do or they can’t do most of the time, they feel ashamed—I’m letting mommy or daddy down. “See? We went to this restaurant again and I couldn’t sit at the table; I couldn’t share my toys, I don’t why I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.” The answer is because he’s 2.

If you think of the early years, they’re very self-focused. It’s all about me, me, me, me and in a celebratory way. Think of those moments where your child puts a piece in a very simple puzzle and they feel like a million bucks. They also touch, they throw, they kick, but they’re trying to figure out who they are. What do they like, what don’t they like, where do they fit in? So that’s a constant exploration, but it can be a little bit of a train wreck, too. It’s your job as the parent to come in and say this is too much.

For more from Dr. Tovah Klein Ph.D., listen to her recent appearance on our podcast, 'Mom Brain,' with Hilaria Baldwin and Daphne Oz and subscribe now.

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