Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Behaviour

My son of 16mths is aggressive with other children both at home and nursery.

My son is consistently aggressive with other children at nursery and at home. He is a lively and boisterous boy, often starts off playing well but then starts to be aggressive, seeking others to pull over by the scruff of the neck or pull hair, or bite. We distract him but he goes straight back to it. We have just started (when at home) removing him from the room and putting him into his cot for a minute but I don’t know if this is beneficial or potentially damaging.

How you deal with your son’s behaviour now will help him become a more sociable and friendly boy with whom other children like to play. He needs to learn both self-control and respect for the feelings of other children. By teaching him that some behaviour is always unacceptable he will learn, in time, how to control his impulses.

A toddler of this age does not always understand that he is hurting other children when he pulls or bites them. He does not always deliberately set out to hurt. It is easy for toddlers of this age to become very excited by other children but not know quite how to play with them. Playing together will not happen until he is nearer to three years of age but he can be taught to play alongside another child without always hurting them. By dealing in the same way with every incident when it arises, whether at home or nursery, you will help your son learn what is and is not acceptable behavior.

At his age your son is too young to really understand the concept of “time out” in his cot. He does not make the connection between the action of pulling someone’s hair, which causes pain and distress, and being put in his cot. He may well have acted on impulse to see what happened when he pulled hair, or because the other child came too close to his personal space. He may have thought they were going to take away the toy he was playing with at the time. At this age a lot of seemingly aggressive behaviour is due to curiosity. But this does not mean that the behaviour should be ignored or excused because your son is too young to know what he is doing.

To deal with each incident, remove him from the situation – picking him up if you need to – and take him to another, quieter part of the room. Stand him in front of you, crouch down to his level and hold his arms firmly to his sides. Make him look you in the eye. The tone of voice you use when talking to him is as important as the words you use. You need to use a firm voice so he will know that you are displeased with his behavior and that you mean what you say. Use the same few words for each incident. Keeping the sentences short will make them more comprehensible to him: “No, you may not pull hair, it hurts”; “No, you may not bite, it hurts” etc. Make sure he is looking in your eyes as you say this to him and wait another few seconds, still holding him, so he really understands that you are serious. He may not like being restrained in this way, or he may cry at the sound of your voice. You may feel uncomfortable with upsetting him but don’t make the mistake of trying to excuse his behaviour and stop his tears with talk such as, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt” or, “I know you were just trying to be friendly”. Your child will not love you less if you continue to set limits on his behaviour. It will take some time for him to learn that you will never ignore this behaviour but eventually, as he matures and develops empathy with the feelings of others, he will know that, however frustrated or cross he feels, hurting people is unacceptable. Once you have spoken with him let him return to the other children or settle him in to a new activity.

Until this behavior lessens, you will need to keep a close watch on your son at all times whilst he is playing around other children. Often you may be able to spot a potential incident about to happen and can quickly step in with some kind of distraction to diffuse it. Be aware if the incidents happen more frequently when he is tired or hungry and, if they do seem to be linked, then make play dates shorter and provide healthy snacks at appropriate times.

Be sure to discuss with your son’s nursery your strategies for coping with his behaviour. Ask the nursery staff for their full co operation in dealing with him in the same way as you are doing. Most nurseries are used to coping with this type of behaviour as it is not uncommon in toddlers of his age.

Make sure you are not giving your son mixed messages about certain types of behaviour. It is easy to play games with him which may involve friendly nibbling; “ Your toes are so delicious, I’m going to eat them!” can often be said in fun after bath time as you dry him. But, at his age, he does not know the difference between playful nibbles that his mother gives him and the satisfaction of sinking his teeth into another child’s flesh. Check how you or your partner rough-house with him. A child of this age loves all the chasing, tickling, turning upside down and general boisterous play, at which fathers are often good, but you do need to be aware of getting him over excited. He may well think that pulling at Daddy, who then pretends to fall over, is a great game, which it can be. But not if he tries the same thing with someone his own size who may fall heavily when taken by surprise. Being aware that he may well copy with other children what he does when rough-housing with you will help you keep this type of play within sensible limits. He is unable to realize that behaviour which an adult will accept as part of a game might be painful to a child his own age.

Watch your son at play and when you do see him giving up a toy to someone else, or playing alongside a child without becoming physical with him, praise his behaviour. It can be easy to overlook good behaviour when trying to eliminate unacceptable behaviour. A child will quickly learn that it is a much better feeling to gain your approval and praise than to be taken on one side and spoken to in a firm voice. Whilst over praising will quickly lose its effect a quiet, “Well done for sharing your toys” will encourage your son to continue to behave in a way which he knows pleases you.