Toddlers Who Throw Toys, Food & Other Hard Unyielding Objects
Congrats on the 3rd little one, boys are so much fun, as you undoubtedly know. I have two myself, twins who turned 16 months this week. Which segues into my current conundrum. One is suddenly not very nice and doesn’t listen and we’re not sure what to do about it or where to turn.
Long story longer, they have both always been incredibly easygoing, though the one in question was the Baby A, (the “older” one if you will, by a whole whopping minute!) has had a shorter temper and is ever-so-slightly impatient if he is not tended to in his desired timeframe (think diaper changes, meals, snacks, etc.) and we half-heartedly joke that he thinks he is an only-child and mistakenly believes the world revolves around his needs. But, the reality of twins is it simply doesn’t. Mostly though, he is a sweet boy who really is pretty laid back. We have always been pleased with both boys in public, they sit nicely in their stroller, behave in restaurants, smile at strangers, don’t make a scene, etc.
Then this week. Not. As. Much. When we went out to dinner this past weekend, our darling Baby A threw every bite of anything we gave him onto the floor. He would sign for cracker, I would hand him a cracker, and he would take it from my hand, declare “Uh-oh!” and deliberately pitch it directly onto the floor. We withheld crackers. He did the same with french toast. Bit by bit. Then just picked up the plate and flung the french toast through the air. He has proceeded to do this with every single meal all week, regardless of its contents. Even if it is his beloved cheddar bunny crackers. (which he asks for directly by signing then throws them.) He has also started throwing toys at me, our nanny, Daddy and, unfortunately, his brother. He threw a doll at another mother at Storytime at the library (how embarrassing.). He takes off his shoes and throws them around the car. (can’t wait until one hits me while I am driving.)
Meanwhile, brother takes it in stride, cries when he’s clobbered on the head with a book or a car, and quietly eats everything we put in front of him. He has not picked up any of this behavior. This throwing everything started immediately after both boys were assessed for early intervention, during which therapists asked him to throw a ball, and he figured out how to do it and hasn’t stopped. The other kid also threw the ball, and was the one who actually qualified for EI for speech, and hasn’t been a problem.
So here’s the thing, I know he’s 1, and he’s learning, it is probably just a phase but I have no idea what to do about it. We have tried removing the thrown item, scolding “No No, that is not good manners, we don’t throw food/toys/books”, re-direction, and time-outs. He doesn’t seem to “get it”, and I don’t even know where to start with discipline. I admit to being a little overwhelmed on the discipline front and I don’t know that we’ve really mapped out a method or attached to a specific camp. I know both boys hear and understand commands, but it’s like they don’t care and don’t listen and we’re worried if we don’t do something now, he’s going to be the raving lunatic kid we can’t take in public lest he climb up the walls.
I am a huge believer in nature over nurture from watching these guys. They have been different from day 1 and even before. They have the same experiences day in and day out but one has chosen the path of not hurling items all over the house. We are at a loss of how to address this and hoped maybe someone else can shed some light. Our pediatrician recommended time outs as early as 12 months when he went through a little biting phase, but he didn’t stay in one spot and we couldn’t really communicate the cause=effect-ness of it. We also didn’t want to associate bed/pack-n-play/etc with punishment, so we sort of never knew where to do time out. Clearly you can tell we’re not really ready for the behavior of toddlerhood. Any direction you can point us in is helpful. Books, methods, websites, etc. But please remember I have TWIN TODDLERS so books should be succinct. (unlike this email, sorry. )
Frustrated mom of 2.
As I’m sure you’re read on other parenting sites — though possibly not necessarily believed — your son’s behavior is TOTALLY NORMAL. Many, many young toddlers (particularly those who DO spend a lot of time with other toddlers) go through a hellish aggressive phase of hitting, biting, throwing things and general orneriness, and this phase tends to last juuuuuust long enough to make their parents start wondering if their sweet little baby has turned a permanent corner into SOCIOPATH.
Noah went through a phase where he threw things at people…around 18 months old, if my memory serves me correctly. It was similar to your experience, in that it came on the heels of learning to throw a ball and then YAY FOR THROWING EVERYTHING! He would toddle adorably over to me with a smile on his face and some pointy plastic object in his hand and then BAM. Said pointy plastic object would get lobbed directly at my head. If I reacted with a yelp of pain or a “big” roar-y scolding or anything, he’d laugh. And it didn’t take long for him to figure out that he could elicit a similar reaction from me by just using his hands, and we moved into a full-on hitting phase. The weird thing was that I never really saw him turn his aggression towards his playdate friends — I alone bore the brunt of his pint-sized abuse. And it rarely actually had anything to do with his anger or frustration levels — it really was more like a game or a curious little science experiment on his part.
It was awesome. But it was normal. It was, in fact, one of the few brief times Noah’s toddlerhood development actually landed square in the realm of “typical,” unlike his speech and motor development. But this didn’t make it ANY EASIER to deal with. Because curbing aggression in toddlers takes time, patience and consistency. And LOTS of all three of those things. The “experts” at Early Intervention weren’t going to come in and save me from my daily stacking-bucket head injuries, you know?
Your son is testing limits (from you), inventing games (the food-throwing), exploring cause-and-effect (what happens when I do THIS to my brother?) and expressing frustration about his limited vocabulary and communication skills. There are definitely more preferable ways for him to do ALL OF THESE THINGS, but when you’re dealing with a very small person with very poor impulse control and no real capabilities for logic and empathy, it takes a loooooooong time to get the preferable response to be the FIRST response.
Thus, most parents end up in the same place you are, where you feel like you’ve tried everything you’re “supposed” to do with little effect. But honestly, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong, or that your son is, in fact, headed towards an unavoidable fate of bullyhood and lifelong behavior problems. It just means you have to keep at it, keep doing the same thing — the same reaction, the same consequences — over and over again.
Here’s how we eventually curbed Noah’s hitting/throwing behavior:
1) Toddler books aimed at the specific behavior. There’s a great line of picture books that target all kinds of less-than-desirable toddler behavior and phases. “Hands Are Not for Hitting,” etc. There are a couple different editions for different age ranges, but we used the basic board book at just-under-two and found it to be at the right level. There’s a parent section with additional tips, and we really, REALLY saw an impact once we adopted the book’s “script” into our reaction to the behavior, EVERY TIME. “Hands are not for hitting. Hitting hurts.” The end. Simple words your young toddler can understand, without launching into above-his-head logic that he’s not ready for, like, “how would YOU feel if so-and-so hit YOU? you would feel bad, right? so-and-so feels bad! say you’re sorry to so-and-so! and now go to the naughty step!” That’s way, way too much language for a child your son’s age, even though it can be tempting to go overboard like that, particularly if he’s misbehaved in public or hit someone else’s child.
If you find the Best Behavior series to be a bit over his head or not holding his interest, there are also lift-the-flap versions for even younger children. Check out “No Hitting!” or “I Can Share.” Whatever you go with, cull your discipline script from the book’s language. Don’t yell or raise your voice, just repeat the Phrase That Pays in a calm, even tone that doesn’t give your toddler the “big reaction” or “horrified funny face” he might be seeking.
2) Zero warnings. React to the behavior the first time, every time. Now that Noah is five, we usually give him a warning or two about naughty/impulsive behavior, like grabbing toys from his brother or less-than-awesome manners at the table. But that’s because he knows better. And he knows better because of all the times when that behavior was disciplined swiftly the very first time. So no “if I see you throw that toy one more time…” or “hey! don’t hit! you know better!” The first time he throws a toy, the toy gets taken away and put up high on a shelf, preferably where he can see it. “Toys are not for throwing.”
At this age, time-outs should be only one or two minutes at the most — any longer and the message is long lost, honestly. You may need to stay with him the whole time (we always used a bottom step, or a chair if we were somewhere without stairs). We taught Noah the sign for “sorry” and repeated the script before letting him up: “Hands are not for hitting/toys are not for throwing/etc.” Then we ended with a hug, and the toy would be returned (though I think we did experiment with longer top-shelf banishments and I can’t remember what scenario worked best), with one last “TOYS ARE NOT FOR THROWING” reminder. If he threw it again, the toy went away again and we repeated the whole process. A lot. Eventually it sunk in. After like. A month. Or more.
As for the food throwing, again, this is SO NORMAL, and really, not even something you could consider “misbehaving” on purpose. He’s doing it because it’s fun, because it gets a reaction, because he’s bored and not really that hungry even though he’s asking for the food in the first place. Ezra sounds a lot like your other son, and while he hasn’t gone through an aggressive/biting/throwing phase, he DEFINITELY went through a throwing food phase. (And now that he’s out of the high chair, a “getting up and wandering around during mealtimes and coming back repeatedly to graze” phase that also drives me nuts.) Try limiting the food choices in front of him to only one or two bites at a time. Get plates and bowls with the suction cups on them. Once he throws food, assume he is done, even if he hasn’t eaten much of anything. “Food is not for throwing.” It’s sooooo common at this age for kids to subsist on what SEEMS like barely any food. Watch out on how often he gets snacks during the day and try to refrain from using the crackers as pre-meal entertainment at restaurants — they fill up ridiculously fast and thus want out of the high chair before the food has even arrived, and once they’re done, they’re DONE, and you are going to lose that battle if you keep trying to offer more/different foods, no matter how yummy or desirable they are. Try toys hidden in plastic containers he can open and close — and toys that can also be taken away the minute they’re chucked on the ground. (Mommy picking toys up and giving them back over and over again is the most FUN GAME EVER, so just…refuse to play from the start.)
He’s probably a little young to be asked/expected to clean up the mess he makes…but it might not hurt to involve him in the very boring clean-up process when he deliberately makes a mess with food. Ask him to pick up the crackers and put them back in a bowl, hand him a towel to wipe the floor, etc. Praise him when he does this…and definitely praise him when he does make it through a meal without pitching food through the air. (Or when he plays nicely without throwing toys, or keeps his shoes on in the car — big smiles, big hugs, big reactions. The opposite of the calm, stern boring reaction he gets when he misbehaves.)
You’re doing FINE, and so is your son, really. He is so normal and so is the feeling you have of being completely ineffectual at toddler discipline. They are really, really good at making you feel that way, but you’ll get it, and so will he. Just expect that yes, it probably won’t happen the third or fourth time you discipline him for the same behavior. Try more like the 3,424th time.
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Published April 13, 2011.
Last updated August 19, 2017.