Despite all of my best efforts to avoid my toddler ever hitting — especially by removing him from situations where he sees other kids hit — my 2-year-old son has started trying to shove us, and I couldn't be more frustrated. Sure, his tiny fists have almost no power behind them and I know he's doing it for attention and out of frustration, but I just can't fathom what to do and I'm praying that his shoving doesn't manifest on the playground.
"Almost every single child will hit at some point. This is a healthy, normal, and expected behavior," states child psychologist Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, who confirms that, while exasperating, hitting is perceived as a normal part of a toddler's growth. "It is a young child's job developmentally to react to the things in life that are frustrating and cannot be changed. It is the adult's job to create an environment conducive to the child's full expression of self — the good, the bad, and the ugly! — while compassionately setting limits."
Compassionate limits, it seems, is the key. After all, I want to honor what my son is feeling while still letting him know that shoving isn't acceptable behavior. While she maintains that there is nothing that can be done to immediately stop the hitting, Dr. Lapointe notes that there are things parents should be doing at the first signs of this development.
"The parent needs to respond while being both firm and kind — 'Hands are not for hitting; gentle hands' or 'Stop, gentle hands' — and then move into compassion," Dr. Lapointe told POPSUGAR. Once a parent has responded with a firm reminder of positive actions, it's best to respond with empathetic phrases that honor their experiences. Things like, "I know you are frustrated . . . you wanted a 'yes' and I gave you a 'no,'" she says, "allow for the child's regulatory core at the base of their brain to be settled, and sets them up . . . for the increasing capacity to self-regulate, manage impulses, and make good choices down the road."
What's comforting me slightly is the knowledge that there is nothing that I could have done to prevent him hitting, and that, in fact, this can be perceived as a good milestone for him. "There is nothing to be done to prevent hitting from beginning at all. It would be like suggesting that we should prevent children from crying. It just has to happen. It is part of how they communicate, have their needs met, and ultimately grow and develop," Dr. Lapointe confirmed.
The same willful energy that has some mislabel 2-year-olds as "terrible" is what Dr. Lapointe marks as being a remarkable stage of growth. "They really ought to be called the 'terrific twos' because it means that growth is happening! Of note, a child at this stage has very limited capacity for impulse control, and so, when frustration manifests because they can't have what they want when they want it, hitting and tantrums and crying and screaming and all sorts of big behaviors are to be expected."
As toddlers grow and mature, so do their thought processes and reasoning skills, so eventually they will move out of the hitting stage if it's handled firmly and compassionately. "The medial prefrontal cortex will not be fully online for the average child until somewhere between ages 5 and 7 years," begins Dr. Lapointe, "which is exactly why it is futile for us as adults to think that children won't hit. Of course they will. There is no other way."