Why Do Toddlers Hit? Is it Genes or Environment?

Why do Toddlers Hit?
Is it genes or environment?
by Judy Arnall, BA, CCFE, DTM
It’s natural for toddlers to hit, but where does this aggression come from?
Actually, it is in our genes. We evolved from humans who could fight and
defend their lives, territory and loved ones, and they passed on the ability to
survive through aggression, to the next generation. Even newborns feel anger
when they need something. In addition, in the later half of the first year, they
demonstrate what is called exploratory aggression – curiosity pushes them to
see what reaction hitting or pushing another animal or child will bring. By
toddlerhood, ages one to four years, aggression is at its peak, where one out of
every four interactions between a child and someone else is physical. This is
almost every hour!
Does nurture or nature affect the amount of aggression a child has? Let’s
pretend that a human is like a car. Aggression is like the acceleration a car can
do. We all feel aggression. Self-control is like the brakes. We all have braking
ability too, but in varying amounts. Some people have more acceleration and
some people have more braking power.
Aggression is a function of the brain. The limbic system is the emotional part of
the brain and if we have low serotonin in the limbic system, we have more
aggressive behaviors. The frontal lobes are shaped by inborn temperament, but
the environment (a parent that says, “No! We don’t hit people!”) coupled with
brain development is responsible for suppression of the physical urge of hitting,
pushing and biting.
By age five, children learn about indirect aggression, as the result of their
higher order thinking skills. They can be sneakily aggressive in order to ensure
they don’t get caught, or immediately hit back impulsively. This is a sign of
brain development as it takes higher order thinking skills to weigh out the
consequences in each act. By age five, children do choose how to express
anger.
Hitting relieves tension and may be the reason why parents spank when they
are angry. In a small way, it feels satisfying for a second. However, we also
realize that we are social groups and we can’t be aggressive toward each other
and still get along enough to live together. If we hit, we are group sanctioned;
by isolation, in the form of time-out when we are young, to social ostracism
during the school-age years, and finally, jail, as adults. Isolation is a big
punishment for social mammals whether humans or animals. Societal
disapproval helps children to suppress their acceleration. Young children are
ego-centric and don’t care what others think about them yet. Their impulses
rule their bodies and their brains. By school-age, children are being exposed to
the wider world and care about what people think, so social isolation has a
broader impact on their self-control. Pride, shame, and embarrassment are
effective social tools to keep mammals aggression in check.
As the brain grows, children learn to cope with emotions and develop more self
control. By school age, most children have stopped hitting their friends and
playmates, although the odd lapse against siblings is common until the teen
years. It’s healthy to feel feelings, and express them in better ways such as
words that don’t hurt anyone. The key is to keep repeating what you want them
to do until they begin to take it on themselves. The more children practice calm
down tools, the more they are stored in their memory and come to mind as
they internalize social and group rules. When children are exposed to all ages of
social groups, in extended families and all-age schools, they learn the rules of
controlling aggressive behaviour.
Play fighting does not encourage aggression. In fact, it is useful for
development. Children discover their own limits, and what other people consider
acceptable, and it helps teach self-control. It’s hard to watch as a parent,
because you know one child is going to come to you crying, but it definitely
teaches both children about limits for later.
What is the role of adults: Adults just need to do two things.
Do hold their hands and say “Stop. No. Can you see this hurts your sister?”
“Let’s do this (stomp our feet on the floor) to express our anger.” Children get
to see their effect on others and can choose a non-violent way to express their
feelings. Keep repeating this message after every aggressive event.
Don’t role model hitting, slapping, spanking or any other aggressive
behaviours. Children learn by modeling. Children who are hit, are more likely to
hit others by thinking that those who have power use physical aggression to
wield it.

 

Sibling Rivalry Remedies

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“Your kids fight?” people ask incredulously, when I am presenting a parenting workshop. “Of course!” I answer. “Every person in a love relationship fights.” I prefer to say that every relationship has conflict. It’s normal and inevitable to disagree. However, the determining factor in the quality of the relationship is how the fights get resolved.

Global TV Watch how to handle sibling fighting

Conflict happens between spouses, partners, relatives, friends, neighbours, co-workers, group members, governments, countries and everyone else. Why would the sibling relationship be different? You know it’s going to happen. But like many things in parenting, it’s better to know what you are dealing with and have some planned strategies to try.

First, know that there are basically 4 types of sibling conflicts. Each conflict type is driven by an underlying feeling, because most all relationship fights are generally about feelings, and not so much about the presenting issues. So the best way to deal with sibling fights is to deal head on with the feelings, rather than the issue. Here are the reasons kids fight, and what the child’s underlying feelings are:

BOREDOM

The underlying feeling is, you guessed it! Boredom! What better way for your child to have some fun, than to bug someone who he knows is going to give him a great reaction?
Unhelpful parent strategy: Ignoring the fight. Punishing the child.

Helpful parent strategy: Give your child a new, interesting activity that is work, fun or something to do with you or someone else. Casually separating the children also helps, but don’t make it an enforced time out.

PARENTAL ATTENTION

Your child is feeling left out, unloved, or un-noticed. Your child is silently screaming: “Notice me, whether negatively or positively, just notice me!”

Unhelpful parent strategy: Giving negative attention in the form of a punishment, time-out, or time spent playing judge and jury.

Helpful parent strategy: Avoid punishments. Ignore the fighting, but give more individual time and attention later when the fighting has subsided. Schedule a date night or time alone with just that child. Acknowledge pleasant sibling interactions when they occur.

ISSUES

Your child is feeling victimized, angry, frustration, or injustice.

Unhelpful parent strategy: Playing judge by directing who the perpetrator and victim was, and how restitution should be made, according to how you see things. Taking away fought over toys or privileges. Punishing both children regardless of the issue.

Helpful parent strategy: Avoid punishments. Accept and acknowledge each child’s feelings and point of view and try to help them express it to the other child. Help them come to solutions, that both children will agree to. Help them generate the ideas, rather than you do it for them. In addition, give each child input in family rule formation. Teach problem solving skills and then coach them through the process. Teach anger management strategies and self-calming techniques later when everyone has calmed down and the issues are resolved.

ACCUMULATED UNDERGROUND RESENTMENTS

Your child may be feeling accumulated hatred and resentments toward their sibling, and may also be feeling jealousy, unworthiness, unloved, victimized, unvalued, or discarded.

Unhelpful parenting strategies: Group punishments, taking away toys or privileges, comparisons, and labelling. Being a judge without hearing or seeing the whole story.

Helpful parent strategies: Notice generous, loving, caring, behaviour and point it out to the children in specific language. Avoid labels and comparisons. Love each child best. Encourage accomplishments and efforts of each child. Avoid punishments of any kind to anybody. Accept and acknowledge all feelings of each child, even if you don’t agree with them. Give a lot of individual attention and time to each child.

How you deal with sibling rivalry determines how the children treat each other. If you punish them, they will punish each other. If your approach is to work on “solving the problem in a mutually respectful way”, they will also take the same approach. And remember, you do not have to maintain equality at all times. Just commit yourself to giving only what each child needs. One child will bound to get more, because they need more, but the important point is that each child feels secure knowing that when he needs something, it will be given to him. In “Between Parent and Child”, Dr. Haim Ginott states: “We do not love all our children the same way, and there is no need to pretend that we do. We love each child uniquely, and we do not have to labour so hard to cover it up. The more vigilant we are to prevent apparent discrimination, the more alert each child becomes, in detecting instances of seeming inequality. Unwillingly, we find ourselves defensive against the child’s universal battle cry, ‘no fair!’” Celebrate your children’s fights! What a great opportunity to teach relationship skills and conflict resolution skills that they are bound to need later in life.

Judy Arnall is a professional international award-winning Parenting Speaker, and Trainer, Mom of five children, and author of the best-selling, “Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery” She specializes in “Non-punitive parenting” http://www.professionalparenting.ca (403) 714-6766 jarnall@shaw.ca