Monday, October 18, 2010

Handling aggression from other toddlers

River is not good at handling aggression from other kids his age. He is sweet, he shares, he’s calm and happy. So when other kids are possessive, mean or physical, he doesn’t know how to react. He appears to be shocked, as though his concept of the world is caving in. As parents, we also feel at a loss of how to deal with it.

This weekend we happened upon a block party on our street. It was hosted by a group of houses where there is a heavy concentration of small children. So it was a nice opportunity to meet some other families nearby and River had a blast with all the toys and activities set up in the street.

From a distance, we saw River playing with a razor scooter. Then we saw a little boy run over to him and wrest it away from him. River tried to resist, but failed and walked away. I figured sorting out possessions is best figured out by kids and I didn’t intervene.

But then I watched this kid block River’s path as he tried to walk away. The toddler then put both of his hands on River’s shoulders, near his neck, and tried to physically stop him. River shouted “No, don’t do that,” but his eyes were filled with fear and a sense of disbelief.

At this point, I intervened. No one has the right to physically intimidate my child, or any child, or any adult. When River saw me, he buried his head on my shoulder and cried.

The boy’s parents didn’t see the details of what had happened. His father may have seen that he caused River to cry, but he didn’t inquire into the matter.

A little later, River was sitting at a table, painting a pumpkin and minding his own business when this same tyke reappeared. He stepped right up to River’s face and said something in a very aggressive tone about him needing to go inside. River immediately burst into tears.

The boy’s mother saw this happen and told her son he needed to be nice. I told her he had physically intimidated River not long before and that is why he was so upset. The mother told the boy to be nice and to offer River some gifts from the prize bucket, which he promptly did. The mom said he was tired.

The parents seemed like perfectly nice people. But this kid, about two months older than River, was mean and aggressive. My instinct as a parent is to keep River away from him. If River were to encounter situations like this in school or childcare with any frequency, I’d be tempted to remove him. I just don’t see any reason for him to feel frightened or threatened. I know one needs to learn to make their way in the world, but is learning to fight at age 2 or 3 really the way to do it? Part of my brain is telling me to not be a helicopter parent and to let him be independent and figure things out. Another part of me is telling me there is no positive benefit to him being intimidated by other kids and if others aren’t able to control their own children, or the environment where the children are interacting, it’s my job to keep him away from these kids.

In terms of allowing independence, I think I’m pretty liberal. I have a huge amount of trust in him and will allow him to explore, wander and try a lot of new things on his own (example – use garden shears to cut flowers at farm at age 2.5) without my intervention.

I feel pretty confident in his ability to take care of himself and his environment. Where that confidence wanes is where other kids get involved. Neither he nor I have any control over the way they behave.

The next day, we met a friend at a children’s museum. Her daughter is about six months younger than River and significantly smaller. My friend said her daughter is in the “terrible twos” and is having a difficult time sharing. She says her daughter will arrive at the playground and think the entire playground is hers.

There were several instances in which she wouldn’t share with River. While the mom tried to insist that her daughter share, generally River walked away and I was able to distract him. But in one instance, she came up and wrested a wheelbarrow out of River’s hands, sending him to my shoulder again in tears.

I’m sympathetic to parents whose children are aggressive. There was one instance, when River was about 18 months, where I saw him push another little tyke from behind, without cause. It was a horrible feeling as a parent to see my own child provoke and potentially hurt another. It made me wonder what I could be doing wrong. I felt ashamed.

I’ve read books aimed at parents of what are sometimes called “spirited” boys, which reassures them that aggression and misbehavior is normal, that they will grow out of it, and that the parents need to implement appropriate consequences. Which is all fine and understandable. But the consequences come after the act. And the act involves hurting another child. I don’t want my child to be the target that other kids learn their lessons from.

We’re in this strange situation where we have a physically large, solidly built child (in the upper percentiles for height and weight), who is physically very risk-averse (he’s almost three and just started walking up and down the stairs without assistance this month – no surprise, he’s never fallen) and emotionally very gentle, understanding and analytical.

Our current strategy has been to identify those kids we think are not good influences on River and limit his contact with them, while promoting his contact with the kids he clearly plays well with. But starting now, and increasingly as he gets older, he will be in situations where I don’t know the kids or how they behave, nor will I necessarily have any knowledge of what happens to him there. I’m going to join a class trip to the pumpkin patch later this week, primarily in order to get a better sense of who the other kids in River’s preschool are and to see if I can identify some Spanish-speaking kids with whom it might be worth trying to cultivate friendships. At the moment, I know virtually nothing about them.

I see plenty of articles on dealing with bullies at older ages, as well as on how parents and teachers can handle aggressive toddlers. But I don’t see much on what to do with non-aggressive toddlers. What is the best strategy for helping them become confident, independent and integrated with society, while also protecting them from unnecessary stress or harm?

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