Bright Kids, Hot Tempers
Why having a smart, verbal toddler isn’t a Get Out Of Jail Free card when it comes to less-than-desirable behavior.
I’ve been reading your column for awhile and I think you offer great, thorough advice. I am hoping you can help me with an issue that I’ve been having with my nearly 18 month old son. He is an exuberant and very bright boy (so I’m told by everyone around me—this is my first baby so I don’t really know how to gauge his intelligence). He is quite verbal and has excellent auditory processing (e.g., I can tell him to go find the green ball and throw it at Harold the cat, and he will do exactly that, find the correct ball out of many colored balls and throw it at the appropriate cat out of four different cats in our home—I know that sounds awfully cruel of me to command this, but I never in a million years imagined he would be able to do it. Note: When my husband learned of our son’s accomplishment, he wanted to call animal protective services on my ass!)
My son also has an amazing throwing arm—he’s been tossing toys and balls around since well before the age of one and I mean literally chucking them clear across the room with force. Lest you think I am a disgusting braggart mother (hello Dana from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills!), I can assure you that this is all relevant background for my question which will also negate some of my son’s more positive intellectual traits so please bear with me.
So here is the deal, in his natural play he will sometimes throw a toy at my face or hit or smack me. Usually this is playful but occasionally it is during a tantrum or because he doesn’t have my full attention if I am looking at my computer or phone (he HATES that, but I am a SAHM and I want to foster independent play whenever possible so sometimes if he is playing nicely I check out for a few minutes but he never lets it last too long). I do realize that in both scenarios it is relatively “normal” behavior but clearly I want my kid to learn how to control these impulses eventually. I also know that while he may be verbal he doesn’t have all the language to express himself and that can contribute to the tantruming, and he is also definitely testing boundaries, etc. He does seem to watch me for my response to what he does as if he wants to know what is allowed and what is not. He also typically responds with a whine or minor tantrum if I tell him he can’t do something or having something which also tells me that he understands the meaning of “NO” and he doesn’t like to hear it.
Here is a concrete example that happened today that drove me to finally write in to you: While sitting in my lap, he picked up and threw the remote control in my face and hit me in the nose very hard. Immediately I yelled “OUCH!” (this could not be avoided as I was completely caught off guard and it hurt), put my head in my hands and then quickly grabbed his hands and said, sternly, “I am going to stop you now, it is NOT okay to throw things at me. You hurt mommy. Look at my face. Do you see that you hurt me?” He just giggled which made me upset so I said it again “It is NOT okay to throw things at people.” and he kept trying to slap my face while smiling.
Now what else can be done? I am not much of a believer in the classic “time-out” and and definitely don’t like to yell or scare him but he clearly wasn’t fazed by what I thought was me being pretty angry at him. Please tell me that doesn’t make him a sociopath! The reason I mentioned his excellent auditory processing is that I do believe he understands what I am saying. I think that when he was younger I cut him more slack because I figured he couldn’t totally understand me. I still said similar words for good measure but now I feel I am dealing with a bit more of the boundary pushing, feisty kid which absolutely would not surprise me since that it is how I was as a kid. What are some good approaches? I would like to nip this in the bud, if possible.
Thanks and I apologize if this has been addressed before. Hope you can still help!
Bruised and battered mommy
Okay, allow me to don my Child Development: What’s Normal And What’s Not hat, which I have conveniently fashioned out of old folded-up worksheets from our county’s Early Intervention program, and placed on my head at a jaunty angle.
Is it normal for an 18-month-old to throw things at your face? Or hit or pull hair or pinch or otherwise inflict physical harm on his/her long-suffering mothering? Even if that 18-month-old is “bright” and “verbal” and understands exactly what “no” and “stop that” mean? HELL TO THE YES.
Let me assure you, I had two children on the exact opposite ends of the language-development spectrum, and they BOTH did this, right around the same age.
Noah didn’t talk at all at 18 months, and while he definitely understood a lot more than I often gave him credit for (and was prone to getting overwhelmed by too much auditory input), he went through a thoroughly charming stage of hurling hard objects at me as hard as he could, or hitting if he couldn’t find a suitable hard object. To the point that I once burst into involuntary tears because of the pain, and also because DUDE STOP LAUGHING THAT HURT.
Ezra had an enormous vocabulary at 18 months. He was already combining words, and seemed to pick up language and spoken concepts effortlessly, like a sponge. And let me tell you, this ability did not spare us ANY of the typical toddler angst and frustration — he tantrummed, he hit, he pulled hair, he pouted and stomped his feet and went boneless in the grocery store over a box of cookies. And yes, he threw toys at my head in order to get attention. USE YOUR WORDS. AND DUDE STOP LAUGHING THAT HURT.
Your son’s auditory processing and language skills are a completely separate “thing” at this point. By 24 months, most toddlers are able to follow two-step directions, like “go find your shoes and bring them to Mommy,” or “throw the green ball at Harold the cat.”
However, in your later, post-throwing example, you aren’t asking him to follow a direction that’s full of nice simple nouns, descriptors and action words (green, ball, throw, cat). You’re asking him for EMPATHY. Which, I’m sorry, isn’t an 18-month-old’s strong suit, no matter how advanced he may be in other areas. (I’d probably even say that the smarter the kid, the more of a boundary-tester/button-pusher they can be.) Toddlers are incredibly egocentric — and why wouldn’t they be, as having their every basic need and whim met immediately as an infant and baby is all they’ve ever known? They simply need a lot more time to move beyond thinking of only themselves and gaining an understanding of Other People’s Feelings. It’s certainly our job as parents to help them gain that understanding, and an important job at that, but you sometimes do have to re-center your expectations and realize that it’s a long, slow, arduous process.
I mentioned some of this in response to toddlers who pull hair for “fun:” Don’t take his laughter/defiance personally, don’t let it trigger your temper and/or worries that you are raising a soulless little sociopath. To him, it’s a game. A game to get a certain reaction out of you, or to test his little impact on the world when he’s angry. I’m mad, I will throw this toy because it makes a big noise and feels good! So there! Stay as calm and even-keeled as you can, and develop a set of simple go-to phrases and even simpler consequences to undesirable behavior, and then try to be as consistent as all get-out.
I would — cough– definitely make sure you stop using “throwing things at the cat” as a test to see how complicated a direction your son can follow. Set some rules about throwing balls in general — we only roll them inside the house, we throw them outside — and have a shelf or space where toys/balls that break these rules go for a set amount of time. Throw a ball at the cat? The ball goes bye-bye for 30 minutes, or an hour, or whatever. Throw a toy at Mommy? Same deal. “Toys are not for throwing.” There were days when our fireplace mantel was VERY CROWDED with toys, and if the boys would point and ask for something back they would hear the same refrain: “Toys are not for throwing.” And then I’d repeat it again once the toy came back down into play. Sometimes I’d hand the toy back only to see it go airborne almost immediately: classic testing move. I’d refrain from reacting as best I could and calmly put the toy back up out of reach. That usually got the message across.
I will say, though: I also use time-outs. And I’m a believer in them, provided they are used correctly and sparingly. At 18 months, they work best when used during an emotional tantrum-type outburst (i.e. he throws the remote because he’s MAD and doesn’t know how to calm himself), and when you stay with them the whole time (which should only be about 1.5 to two minutes at this age). It’s not so much of a punishment as it is a forced chill-out-and-redirect and a practice run at apologizing for his actions (not his feelings). It’s okay to feel mad and frustrated because Mommy wasn’t playing with you, but it’s not okay to throw things or hit.
You can talk about how the toy hurt your face until your face literally is blue with a side of bruising, but at this age, you being hurt is just an interesting experiment in cause-and-effect. Yes, we don’t throw toys because it hurts. But we also don’t throw toys because that is the rule and XYZ will happen when you break the rules. The toy goes away and/or you have to leave the rest of your toys and sit here for a minute or two, which feels like a boring, terrible eternity. How’s THAT for cause-and-effect?
None of this stuff works overnight, though. There is no 100% fool-proof solution to normal, run-of-the-mill toddler aggression. I promise you that you are NOT raising a bully-to-be who will be beating up three-year-olds on the playground just because he’s unable to control his urge to throw toys at you at 18 months old. You continue to let him know that behavior is unacceptable, even if he can’t yet grasp WHY, or seem to remember the lesson from the last 50 times you’ve gone over it.
The first stage of moral development is egocentric reasoning: What’s right is what I want and getting my own way. I avoid bad behavior to avoid punishment. That’s the mindframe you’re working with here — and possibly not even that, since young toddlers might not yet understand the idea of “punishments” or at least “negative consequences.” Your displeasure/anger might FEEL like it should hold some weight in his world and be a negative consequence in and of itself, but alas, not always. But it’s not your fault, or his. This too shall pass.
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