Protecting Your Toddler from Hitting and Bullying During Playdates

Laura Markham's picture

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Virtually all three-year-olds go through a bossy phase. And most toddlers go through a brief biting or hitting phase that ends after a few incidents when the parents express their shock and dismay.

Two- and three-year-olds are still trying to figure out what is socially acceptable behavior. It takes a long time for humans to learn that abusing power (including the power differential between 3- and 2-year-olds) loses them more important things, including friendship. Three-year-olds are just beginning to reconcile their natural empathy for others with their desire to get what they want. They are also just beginning to develop the impulse control that will help them to grow out of this aggressiveness.

So if your neighbor toddler or preschooler hits or bullies your child, that behavior is normal. That said, it's our responsibility as parents to protect our kids, and just because it's normal doesn't mean it's good for your little one. How to handle it?

  1. Be present during playtime. Toddlers need an adult nearby to intervene and teach social skills, because every toddler is sometimes grabby and possessive with toys. Hitting occurs when a toddler is frustrated and sees force as the way to solve a problem. If you're there, you can see the problem brewing and facilitate a more socially competent way to resolve the problem. You can give them language to express themselves verbally, and solutions like taking turns. Most two- and three-year-olds are simply not socially developed enough to play without supervision for long.

  2. Your first response when hitting occurs should be to sweep in and tend to the child who has been hit. If the attention goes to the hitter, even negative attention, the hitting is more likely to recur. If the hitter is initially ignored, while attention is showered on the child who has been hit, the hitting is less likely to recur.

  3. Ignore the perpetrator, while you offer comfort and empathy to your child, with words for what she's feeling. "Both of you wanted that toy. You're pretty mad that she hit you and grabbed it. And that hurt!"

  4. Stay calm. Angry responses provoke more anger from children. Hysterical responses provoke more hysteria.

  5. Once the child who has been hit is calm, put her down with a drink of water or a stuffed animal, and turn your attention to the hitter. Stay calm. Say "The rule is no hitting, no matter what. Hitting hurts. Did you see how your friend was crying? I know you were angry, but we don't hit. You can call me if you need me to help, but you can't hit. Because you hit, playtime is over."

  6. Then end the playdate. I realize that is probably impractical if you're trading babysitting, but your goal is to separate the kids. If hitting is followed by an immediate separation that lasts all day and maybe longer, the child learns that hitting means she loses the company of her friend. This strategy is proven to work, particularly if the child is reminded at the beginning of the next playdate that hitting will automatically end the play.

  7. Work with your neighbor to help her child develop empathy. Point out to the child: "Did you see how your friend was crying? Hitting hurts." Also be alert for every other opportunity to empathize with her, because receiving empathy from adults is what develops kids' ability to empathize with others, and that is what will ultimately prevent her doing harm to her friends.

  8. Don't force an apology. Apologies, which feel like punishment to kids, can backfire. It's actually most effective to help her empathize. Encourage her to make the victim feel better by bringing her blanket, or ice, or a toy.

  9. Have confidence in your neighbor's child to change. If you feel negatively toward her, that will communicate itself, and she's more likely to act badly. She isn't bad, just three. Praise her when she handles herself well.

  10. If incidents happen in your absence, talk with your neighbor without blaming. Say that you know that hitting doesn't mean her child's a bad person, just a three-year-old. Ask what your neighbor does to prevent more hitting. The answer you're looking for is "Closer supervision and help in working through conflicts with words before the kids have to resort to fists." Approach this as a problem that the two of you must solve to let your kids be friends, rather than dumping it in her lap. In the end, though, you'll have to make a judgment about protecting your own child. Do you have confidence in your neighbor to be available and attentive when you're not there?

  11. If your neighbor spanks her child to teach her not to hit, you'll want to alert her that research shows that children who are spanked by their parents are much more likely to hit other children.

  12. If your neighbor uses timeouts as a discipline strategy, you may want to educate her that research shows timeouts do not effectively prevent hitting. Actually, timeouts backfire with kids for two reasons. The first is that two- and three-year-olds love to experience their sense of power and agency in the world, and timeouts teach them they can get a big reaction from the grownup, so they repeat the misbehavior. Second, timeouts set up a power struggle and undermine our relationship with the child, so they are less likely to want to please us and more likely to repeat the misbehavior.

  13. You may also want to discuss with your neighbor the research showing that kids who see any kind of hitting on TV, including cartoon hitting, are more likely to hit others.

  14. Let's assume the hitting is under control, but you still feel uncomfortable with what you see as bullying. What exactly do you think your child is learning? If he's learning that someone else has the right to bully him and no one will defend him, then he should be protected from the situation, and should not have playdates with this child without you.

    However, if he's learning that sometimes friends are difficult, bossy, and possessive, but that he can stand up for himself and summon helpful adult intervention as necessary, and that he can navigate such an encounter and at other times enjoy the friendship, then he's learning something invaluable about human relationships.

  15. If you find yourself agonizing over whether to continue the playdates, try to separate out your own issues and needs from your child's. It may be that your child would experience the cessation of this "friendship" as a tremendous loss, while experiencing it would have taught her a great deal. Or it may be that she's suffering and needs protection. You can only make that judgment if you set aside your own issues. You may well be over-reacting because of your own past. Or you may be minimizing your child's distress because you don't want to give up a babysitting arrangement or you want a good relationship with the neighbors. This is a hard call, but it's an essential part of your decision.

Dr. Laura Markham