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Bright Kids, Hot Tempers

Oct24

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Hi Amalah,

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!

Sincerely,
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.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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22 Responses to “Bright Kids, Hot Tempers”

  1. Olivia Oct 24 at 4:19 pm Reply Reply

    What Amy said. My daughter is 2.5 and is just coming around to having a little empathy when I tell her what she did hurt. Though it still isn’t consistent and it doesn’t necessary stop her from doing the hurtful thing to begin with. This is one of things that’s going to seem like it will never end, until it does. Patience Grasshopper.

  2. heather Oct 24 at 4:23 pm Reply Reply

    This sounds normal to me too – the mother of a two-year-old. She’s pretty empathetic, but she’s still prone to tantrums and good-old-fashioned “let’s get a rise out of Mommy” play. I’m a believer in time-outs as well (very brief ones) and “Momma needs space” time. For example, in my best moment I would have responded to the couch/remote control incident by firmly putting my daughter on the floor and letting her know that she cannot sit in my lap unless she is nice. If she is hitting or otherwise “hurting” us then we remove ourselves from her. This is usually the worst punishment in the world.

  3. Megan Oct 24 at 5:14 pm Reply Reply

    I wanted to weigh in on this one since we went through a similar experience at that age. I always immediately and calmly (as possible!) removed my attention. Specifically I would put her down as quickly as possible, say “no hurting” in a firm but emotionless voice, and walk away. Doesn’t have to be far (although the other side of a baby gate worked well for me) just enough so you aren’t awarding that behavior with any attention at all.

  4. EW Oct 24 at 5:25 pm Reply Reply

    Right now, with my 2.5 year old, we are using a modified time out process where we hold her in place and count to ten.  She then needs to tell us what she did (“Sorry throw ball” or whatever).  It seems like she does need the cool down time, and for us this worked better than the naughty step, which she really doesn’t seem ready to sit on, plus she reserves her naughtiest behavior (particularly the lovely rock throwing) for when we are wandering the neighborhood, and it has been really important to give her the time out immediately.

  5. Jeannie Oct 24 at 8:31 pm Reply Reply

    Just wanted to chime in with a “very very normal” chant here. My son, now five, did all those same types of things. He was bright, articulate, funny, lovely etc etc … And still laughed when he bit me while nursing. Or similar. He doesn’t do either any more, and shows no signs of being a sociopath.

  6. Kate Oct 24 at 8:59 pm Reply Reply

    EW — that is genius about the holding in place and counting to 10. I’ve been struggling with how to implement time out for my 2.5 year old when putting him on the stairs (the time out spot I’d prefer) has just not been working. I’ve also tried to insist on an apology (i.e., “say your sorry to mommy”) and I’ll often get a defiant and sassy “sorry DADDY,” or anyone else other than mommy, in reply. It makes me nuts!!! oh well, baby steps.

  7. Susan Oct 24 at 10:22 pm Reply Reply

    I would also add to say less to him. Often it sounds like your attention he’s seeking and by giving long explanations, he’s getting that attention. I’d stick with the hand grab and a firm “No! No throwing at Mommy’s face” or whatever brief statement you want. 

  8. Edith Oct 25 at 12:25 am Reply Reply

    My son is three and still has temper tantrums. I figure that he’lll eventually grow out of them because each year that passes, he appears a little more mature. Sometimes it’s about patience I guess.

  9. What helped with my two wonderfull hurricanes was taking away the toy they threw. You trow the duplo in mommy’s face, Duplo goes by by.

  10. Jaclynn Oct 25 at 9:37 am Reply Reply

    I agree with Susan. The less words the better because at that age it’s just too much for them to process. A straight forward “we don’t hit” or what Susan said “no throwing at Mommy” and remove him from your lap. Also, if he’s having a meltdown, this is where an empty play pen comes in to action. He can tantrum all he wants but at least he’s in a contained space where he can’t hurt himself or others with objects.

  11. Hillary Oct 25 at 12:51 pm Reply Reply

    In a previous Ask Amalah question on this topic, I saw a recommendation to teach the sign language for hurt, and to discuss (during the incident, but in general) appropriate behavior. I highly endorse this approach!!!! My daughter was hitting/throwing and laughing, and I would say ‘ouch, that hurts’ and then ‘hands are not for hitting. can you pat gently?’ and sometimes she would. If she hit again, I stood her against the nearest wall, counted to 10 and said ‘you’re in a time out for hitting. Hands are not for hitting.’ When we weren’t in one of these exchanges, I reminded her how to touch gently and praised her when she did. And if she got hurt at all, I would say “ouch! you got hurt!” and then make the sign for hurt. It took only a few ouches before she was making the sign and now if I ever say ‘ouch’ she starts saying ‘ouch’ and making the sign for it. She’s 21 months and isn’t hitting/throwing at all anymore. (Lest you think I’m bragging, she has plenty of other things she’s working on!)

    **************
    Isabel: Here is the post Hillary is referring to: http://alphamom.com/parenting/toddlers-who-pull-hair/

  12. Hannah Oct 25 at 2:56 pm Reply Reply

    Yup, agree completely with the other commenters – 1) this is totally normal; 2) you are paying *way* too much attention to him when he hurts you. I hope no one jumps down my throat on this one but… toddlers are a lot like puppies. And when training a puppy, the best way to get your point across if they are doing something you don’t like is a firm “no hitting” and then an immediate withdrawal of your attention.

    For young kids, there is no differentiation between ‘good’ attention and ‘bad’ attention – in fact, the bigger your reaction is, the better they like it. 

  13. Bruised and battered mommy Oct 25 at 3:04 pm Reply Reply

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!  I definitely had an epiphany after reading Amalah’s advice and all the great comments, because I never really considered the empathy piece of this. Duh!  I guess because he is quite verbal I am perceiving him to be more emotionally capable than a child his age actually is, or should be.  I also agree that I need to use fewer words in my firm but fair responses to these episodes.  I know that consistency will be crucial and that clear, prompt responses will be necessary.  I will try ignoring the bad behavior and a  version of a short “time out.”   When I said I was not a time-out person, it was more the classic “you’re going in your room for awhile, alone, to think about what you did” thing that I am not down with but the way you describe it sounds manageable to me. Finally, thank you all for the reassurance that this is totally normal behavior.  As a first time mom, sometimes it can be very difficult to know what is worth worrying about and what should be taken in stride.  I hate the trap of comparing my kid to others but I do feel better knowing that I am not alone.  Thanks again!

  14. MR Oct 25 at 3:49 pm Reply Reply

    Another “completely and totally normal” from me. And a round of “Amy got it completely, exactly right!” every part of it. He laughs because he tried to get a reaction and did, and is proud of himself. He doesn’t understand that he hurt you. Focus on “no throwing” rather than “that hurt!” for now. We removed the toy and started short one minute timeouts on the wall as our way of removing our attention when my oldest was that age. She also would raise her arm and hold it there – ready to hit you, so we redirected to teaching her high fives when she did that. It worked really really well. And, today at age 3, she is an incredibly empathetic kid. Even though she used to be that kid who giggled with delight to see mommy cry in pain. :) So, this is definitely not a sign of sociopathic tendencies.

  15. Babs Oct 27 at 6:09 am Reply Reply

    Just FYI- I had 3 girls before my son. They seemed to ‘get’ consequences immediately, and testing phases ended quickly. Enter The Boy, who I was convinced was on his way to being Dahmer. His hitting/biting/face pinching lasted forever! But now he’s my kid who doesn’t get easily discouraged when he can’t puzzle things out right away. All this is to say, sometimes ugly traits, like defiance, are good traits in development. Good luck!!!

  16. Kate Oct 28 at 10:09 pm Reply Reply

    All toddlers are basically sociopaths with no impulse control but luckily they outgrow it eventually. 

    Our version of time out is “the chair” which is just a papasan chair that was in the living room of our old house and is now in the playroom. We started using it when my son was about a year old and was biting me (and then laughing btw) and now at 2.5 it’s mostly used when we’ve taken away the toy he is throwing (not at us, he just likes to throw) and he hits us in retaliation. All we do is scoop him up, say “no hitting,” plop him in the chair, and walk away. Sometimes he pops right out again and sometimes he fusses in the chair for a while but it gets the point across and we’ve rarely had to go back for a second time right away. 

  17. Erica Oct 31 at 11:14 am Reply Reply

    We always had our kids “sit in a chair” for our “time out” which was awesome for us because it can be implemented anywhere with any chair I pick, and with my kids, for some odd reason, since they came to know this meant they had crossed a line, I could sit them in the cushiest, nicest chair ever and it would still work.  Also, at 18 months, 10-30 seconds of sitting in the chair was all that was often needed.  Their perception of the passage of time at that age is pretty off.  Finally, after time out we worked on the simple apology, followed by our forgiveness, and then practicing the rule in negative AND positive.  “We don’t throw balls inside.  We throw balls outside.  Where do we throw balls?”. “We don’t kick people.  We kick balls.  What do we kick?” “balls.” Keep at it.  You’re a good mommy and you’ve got a good boy there.

  18. Erica Oct 31 at 11:17 am Reply Reply

    Oh, as our kids have gotten older, we’ve worked on teaching them what a sincere apology sounds and looks like.  If they’re not ready to make one, back to the chair until they are.  It’s a pretty important social skill (I soeak as a teacher.) and worth your time.

  19. Deborah Peters Oct 31 at 1:44 pm Reply Reply

    Wow, all the things I have to look forward to, lol! Erica, I had the corner “sit in chair” method when I was young and it worked, love your “sincere apology” method. I’m surrounded by friends with children, my best friend and I work from home as health coaches. For busy moms and moms to be, we have found the ideal way to stay healthy and fit, drop in anytime. In the meantime, great site about these issues and ways to solve them, having a community of loyal moms and fans. Happy Halloween everyone!
    http://deborahapeters.com

  20. tasterspoon Nov 03 at 5:55 pm Reply Reply

    And then some of us never mature. “What do we kick?” “Balls.” Heh.

  21. Stacy Nov 04 at 4:10 pm Reply Reply

    I almost exactly 18 months my sweet, talkative, curious daughter went full force into what I always considered the terrible 2′s. 

    A swift and immediate consequence to her behavior was the best solution for me.  I worked as a nanny for 15 years and I truly believe that trying to reason with a toddler is beyond futile. They don’t have the ability to reason.  They are seeking an effect to their behavior, and what I aim to show them is that it isn’t a battle of wills or me being the bigger and stronger one – it’s simply that there are rules and they aren’t negotiable.

    I very clearly state to my child (or any child) that they are breaking a rule and that this is their warning to stop their behavior or they will go sit in the naughty spot.  Then if they persist, I say “you broke a rule by doing XYZ, and now you will sit in the naughty spot for X minutes (based on age).

    With my child she would have these wild tantrums with full on kicking and hitting, so I placed her in her crib and left the room (door open). I set a portable digital timer that beeped when it was finished.  Then I was right at her level and calmly told her what rule she broke and asked her to apologize. It took a few times of this technique before she would do her version of apologizing which was to stroke my face-I didn’t badger her into actually saying the words. Then I’d give her a kiss and a hug and we’d pretend like nothing had happened, though usually in the beginning she was shaken up and wanted some cuddles for a bit.  

    My kid is over 2.5 and I continue to use this technique (on an actual naughty spot now) and it really does work.  

    I sit her in the naughty spot in shops, at the park, at friend’s houses, the zoo – anywhere she breaks the rules. Those are throwing, hitting, kicking, running away, and not listening to me.  

    It always works to refocus her and stop the bad behavior.  Do I get “looks” when I’m in public and standing 10 feet from my crying child?  UH YES.  But, would that person giving me the look rather me shrug my shoulders as my kid is breaking things or throwing things and weakly say “honey, please stop?” I’d rather have someone non-violently give their child boundaries and firm ideas about what is and isn’t acceptable.  

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