“What do you do with a 21 month old who wants to pull hair and hit others?”
—A mom who needs helpful tips.
Your 21 month old is learning how to make contact and is trying out the tools available. Between 21 months and 3 three years of age a toddler transitions from the “me, me, me” stage to being in the group. A lot of training and patience are required during this time. Start with modeling appropriate interaction with the people and animals around you. Emphasize how we can lovingly and gently touch each other, practice with stuffed animals and dolls. As with all training, do this at a neutral moment, and make it fun. “Let’s play Being Together with our stuffed animals!” And then you each pet, and snuggle with your own animals. Side by side play is the key for your toddler. Remember that your child will learn through repetition, so be prepared to practice over and over. Many toddlers use physical contact as a way to express frustration and anger with their family and peers, especially when they are first learning to talk. Role model what we can touch to process our anger. Ask the child to choose one specific pillow to use. I have had great success helping children voice their frustrations into a pillow by crying or pounding or a real favorite is taking turns “growling like a lion into the pillow”. If you are patient then the child will certainly learn to redirect inappropriate acting out with more acceptable expression. By modeling respectful appropriate anger behavior of your own the child will learn acceptable responses on his/her own.
Lastly, be sure to set your child up for success in social gatherings. Have pep talks on the way about how we act in groups. Let your child know what you expect in a loving tone of voice, stating it matter of factly, this is simply how we behave. Explain what will happen when your child forgets. I advise saying the reminder once, “We keep our hands to ourselves and use our words. If I see you forget I’ll know it’s time to go”. When your child forgets, help them out of the spot they’ve gotten themselves into, take them aside and offer a choice, “Would you like to keep your hands to yourself or go home?” When your child forgets again say “I see it’s time to go home.” Then go home. PERIOD. Notice how long your child was able to interact and the next time leave a few minutes before that time. It’s always better to leave on a successful note, even with resistance, than in the middle of a melt down. Make sure that social outings are supervised just enough, with parents stepping in to help and guide, but not hover. Talk pleasantly on the way home. Chew gum and hum if you feel yourself giving into the shame and blame game. And the next day take more time for training. Your child’s mistakes are simply messages that the skill is in the developmental stages and needs more work. Keep your chin up and the lessons fun, you all will get better at this with time. As a parent you deserve a little “Special Lion Growling” all your own.