This may be a two-year-old being aggressive with their older siblings, or a child in a two’s program hitting classmates. I tend to think there are three (long run, four) parts to the answer:
Coach being gentle
- You might read Hands are Not for Hitting by Aggasi, No Hitting by Katz, No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford and Baby Be Kind by Fletcher.
- You can teach “hands down,” by playing Simon Says and every third or fourth direction be “Simon says, ‘hands down,'” and encouraging them to put their hands by their sides. Or, play Freeze Dance with the direction “hands down” when the music stops.
- You can provide a visual cue by taking a picture of them with their hands down by their sides and show this to them when you remind them to, “keep your hands down.” This might be a reminder in general when they go to play, or your warning language if you see the behavior coming.
- You might practice a “gentle touch” or “nice touch” when you greet each other.
- Be sure to praise occasionally when they remember to be gentle, “you gave your friend a nice hug. That was gentle!”
- You might show and tell them about ways to give high fives, shake hands, give a gentle hug or hold hands, and praise when they do it gently.
Coach the triggers – The first step to being able to coach triggers is to identify them. It may be helpful to keep notes about the aggressive behaviors for a few days, be sure to note what sparked the behavior. This might be being told, “no,” having to share toys, getting the wrong color cup or rough house play that went too far. Coaching out of the moment might be role playing related scenarios, giving puppet shows, drawing a picture of the situation going well, providing a visual cue or reading related children’s storybooks. Here is a post about coaching wanted behaviors. The goal of coaching is to encourage wanted behaviors over time.
It may be helpful to listen to my free online workshop on coaching wanted behaviors.
Discipline in the moment –
- A little attention to the victim first – Avoid looking at or talking first to the child who was just aggressive. Look and speak to the other saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” or, “ouch, that hurts! Do you need a hug?”
- As a parent, I tend to think the next step should be a logical negative consequence. Logical negative consequences are an imposed, related outcome. If they hit over a toy, they lose the toy for some amount of time. If they push for a particular seat on the couch, they are off the couch for that day. If there was no context, just a drive by, you might have them separate. This may be playing in another room or sitting out for a turn.
- Once this is served, it is good to either go back with a sentence of emotion or better choices. Also, it would be helpful to make a mental note of the trigger, so you can coach later.
The fourth long run answer is coaching emotion language and empathy. I say long run because, two-year-olds aren’t expected to have much in the way of emotion language and tend to have a very limited sense of others. Since they are not well versed, it is good to include emotion language and impact on others in the moment. This would be, “I know you are frustrated. You wanted that toy.” and, “wow, your friend is sad. Grabbing his toy made him feel sad.” Out of the moment, helpful to coach these things as well.
With all of this, remember you are talking to a two-year-old. This means when you are coaching or disciplining you only get a few short sentences.