Handling Physically Aggressive Playmates

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors: 

My main issue is that a physically aggressive toddler is hurting my children. He is a close relative so it is not possible to avoid him. He is almost two and is big for his age.  He is bigger than both of my own two-year-old and four-year-old children. He regularly pushes my children down or into furniture, and his parents do nothing to correct this behavior aside from saying, “Don’t do that,” “Don’t push,” etc.

He will also jump and fall with all of his weight on anyone lying on the floor (including me and I am pregnant). I try not to put myself in circumstances where he is able to jump or fall on me, but I am a very kid-focused parent and not getting down on the floor to play with my kids is hard to do. This is how I was able to see firsthand how aggressive this boy really is.

And he throws, boy does he throw! He throws and kicks toys all over the place. A few times he sent some stuff airborne that could have injured others. Nothing is done aside from his parents saying, “We don’t kick/throw.”

I am not sure what to do since his parents do little beyond a one-sentence correction. When I see him doing things that could hurt one of my kids I say, “NO!” or “Leave (name) alone.” He would go off and do something else for awhile, but the behavior was eventually repeated. The only thing I could do to make sure my kids did not get hurt was watch him or them like a hawk to see how he interacted with them. I would then try to ward off the physically aggressive behavior by removing MY kids or their belongings from the equation, punishing them to protect them in a sense.

The boy is very active and physical, and I know that his mom, especially, “gives up” in a sense because she cannot handle his hyperactivity or does not know how to respond to him to remedy the behavior.

I know some physical aggressiveness can happen even in the best-behaved kids. However, I do NOT discipline aggression towards another person by walking away to allow him to offend again out of my line of sight, so I would not have to deal with it.  This just leaves him in the same situation and with the same “tools” to re-offend. His parents do not take this “low key” approach because they practice attachment parenting and are interested in gentle discipline. They take this approach, at least his mom does, because their son is overwhelming and they do not know how to handle him.

I do not know what to do about this. We all live close to each other. Holidays, birthdays, etc. are spent together. Any advice would be appreciated!

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Mandy: Intervening between your own children and those of someone who parents differently can be a tricky situation. Just as we do not want someone else to overstep bounds with our children, we do not want to step on someone else’s toes when it comes to their child. I have been in similar situations with my own children, and I used to wonder what I could possibly do. There have been times when we have left situations and even times when we have decided that events are not worth attending if we would be forced to deal with certain situations.

Obviously, you cannot go around avoiding every negative situation. In doing so, you might miss out on some wonderful opportunities, both those that allow you to experience various events and those that allow your children to watch you model compassion and self-respect by establishing your own boundaries. We have avoided people in extreme situations, but for the most part, we have figured out how to deal with situations where another child is aggressive and the other parent is not stepping in.

The first step is to recognize that you are responsible for your child’s safety. If you choose to be in a situation where harm could come to your child, you need to be prepared to step in. Depending on the situation, it may require you to be hyper vigilant. However you accomplish this, open and honest communication with your child is a must.

I admit, I used to feel awkward saying something to another person’s child, and there are times when I still feel that way. What helped me to get past that was reminding myself that I was merely speaking to another person, granted one who may not have developed age appropriate social skills yet. So, in speaking with an aggressive child, I say some of the same things I might say to a family member. “Johnny doesn’t like that,” “Sally doesn’t like to be hit,” or “Please be gentle with Suzy. She likes it when you roll the ball to her.” Help him to be a more gentle person whom you enjoy being around. Let him know how your family likes to be treated.

Remember that at two, this child probably has not cultivated a lot of skills with which to navigate relationships with others. If his parents are not helping him, your kind words could very well be what pulls him through this behavior and make a better situation for all involved. Observing how you interact in these situations may even help his parents learn ways to communicate with him. If the situation warrants that you and your children leave, do not view it as a punishment for your children. We cannot control other people, but we can exhibit self-control. Having personal boundaries and removing ourselves from dangerous situations models self-respect for our children.

Stacy: I wanted to take some time to reflect on some feelings and needs I am picking up. Is there some frustration with his parents because your need for safety is not being met? Sadness and perhaps, anger because your kids cannot play freely? It sounds like you would really appreciate everyone, including the boy, being able to enjoy themselves, and that you would like some support down there on the floor with the kids!

About his behavior…

First, I think it is great that you are able to be there with him, because, as you know, with a child that age words alone will not do the trick. When my kids were that age I continually showed them what I meant. “No hitting” looked like me softly blocking the child’s hand while saying, “No hitting.” It sounds like you are already doing this as much as you can while watching three little kids at the same time! I do have one more suggestion. Since you are already showing what not to do, you might also want to show him what you want him to do. So if he wants to jump on you, you might suggest, “Oh, you are ready to wrestle! Want to wrestle, Auntie? Okay!” and then (gently) wrestle with him. Alternately, if you do not want to wrestle you might say, “Oh, you are ready to wrestle. I don’t want to wrestle, but let’s play tug with this blanket!”

I have also found that when I talk as if I am the child they are much more likely to absorb and mimic what I am saying than if I tell them what to say and wait for them to repeat it.  For example, if you have noticed that he hits when he wants a toy, you can say, “No hitting. Do you want a turn? Yes? Hey, [playmate’s name], can I have a turn?”  If the other child says no, you can say, “Oh, [playmate’s name] is not ready yet, let’s play with this other car while we wait.” Basically, narrating the whole interaction helps to show the appropriate way to act.

Of course, there is still the issue of you feeling that you alone cannot be responsible for helping him. I wonder if you have considered talking with his parents. You do not say much about your relationship with them, but with a little preparation on your part, you might be able to bring this situation to them in a positive way.  For example, you can say you see that the kids are struggling to play together, and you would like to share ideas that will help everyone have a good time.  You can also say you understand that they are overwhelmed and tired, but at this age someone needs to be with the kids. Maybe between your two families you could agree on two adults always being nearby. Perhaps an older teen cousin can help or even hiring someone to babysit during get-togethers.

At the very least, I wonder if you could explain to his parents that just saying the words is not getting through, and that someone needs to physically help prevent the aggressive play from happening. You might also encourage them to think of this as a phase, and that investing in helping their son now will help in the long run.

Which reminds me, there was a time at family get-togethers when we had a three-year-old and two two-year-olds. Oh my goodness! It seemed like there was not a moment when someone was not getting hurt or frustrated! Now that the oldest is seven and the whole gang is off playing alone for stretches of time, we marvel over how stressful those times were. So, I do hope that Ryan will outgrow this stage. From afar, I thank you for taking the time to help him and for all you are doing to keep everyone safe.

Darcel: I could feel your frustration while I was reading your email. I am sorry you are having a tough time with a family member’s child. I think you are already doing the most important thing by watching the children play together.

Turning two is hard. I can see why a simple “We don’t kick/throw!” could be frustrating to you. We assume they know right from wrong. We assume they are doing it to be mean. We assume their actions are intended for bad behavior. Too many words will confuse a young child. Has anyone tried redirecting the child when he starts the behavior you do not like? Maybe when he starts kicking and throwing, gently remind him that we do not do those things and redirect him to something that he can do. Each behavior he is not allowed to do needs to be replaced with something he can do. for example, maybe he can play with another toy, a pot, or a special lovey.

Is there a way for you all to let the kids play outdoors where they can run free and wild? Maybe there is a park with plenty of space for the kids to run and explore their surroundings, or maybe you all can go on nature walks around the neighborhood.

Perhaps you already do this, but if not, here are a few more suggestions for playdates and informal birthday parties/picnics. I think it is important to give the child opportunities to kick, hit, and throw. You could use those smaller foam balls perfect for toddler hands. They can play soccer, baseball, or football. The backyard and parks are good for those activities. You can even roll the ball indoors. Maybe, instead of keeping visits at the house all the time you could incorporate museums and zoos or even Barnes and Noble storytime. Doing different things so that the children are not always in the house in these situations can be helpful.

I recently found this website Why Not Train a Child? It is not what it sounds like. This website is dedicated to why gentle discipline is important, and that it does work.There are several articles on gentle discipline in general and gentle discipline for toddlers. I also thought this article from Attachment Parenting International would be a good read for you. Even though your children are not the offenders, I think you will walk away with more tools to handle situations like the ones you mentioned.

Photo Credit: Julie Elliott-Abshire

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