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My son is two and a half years old and is not in general of the violent type. However he regularly enjoys showing "cruelty". By that I mean that regularly when he "by accident" (let's stay positive) hits someone or some stuffed animal and we tell him that he shouldn't do it, or to be careful because it hurts, he just laughs and starts doing it even more.

This never escalates very far since we don't let him continue for long, but it still worries me that he seems to enjoy so much somebody else's pain. Any suggestions?

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I don't think he understands that it hurts someone else (because to understand that you have to understand that it is someone else, and for that you have to understand that you are someone, and you don't do that at two and a half). Also, stuffed animals does not scream. But that said, I would also be worried in your situation, regardless that he doesn't understand that it hurts. –  Lennart Regebro Jun 28 '11 at 8:32
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I think he does understand: he knows what to say when he is hurt and we say the same when he hurts us or some stuffed animal. But he probably doesn't fully understand it. –  inovaovao Jun 28 '11 at 10:36
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He may not really empathize yet, so he may not really see it as more a game to play with you for attention, although it may be the start of behavior you probably do not want to continue. Good for you for not escalating it, best to nip this sort of thing from the start. –  MichaelF Jun 28 '11 at 11:45
    
At two and half, he may not be fully able to empathize (of course, my father in law doesn't empathize well either and he is much older), but he definitely knows he is causing pain and is upsetting you. He is old enough for that. –  balanced mama Nov 16 '12 at 1:19
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7 Answers

I think such behavior (against living things, not stuffed animals) should be treated very similarly to how a tantrum is treated. Take it seriously, but don't respond with anger either.

To Deal with the Symptom "Wow that really hurt mommy. I think I need a little time to recover. Please go to your room so I can have some space and feel safe. You can come out when you are ready to say you are sorry." Then don't give him any attention for the behavior until either he says sorry and/or a minute or two has passed and you are prepared for a follow-up discussion with him.

The follow up discussion would include listening and empathy for whatever it is he is trying to express, an expression from you about how much it hurt not just the area that was hit, but your heart because it hurt your feelings too, as well as some instruction in more constructive ways to express himself. If he says he hit because it was fun. Simply state it wasn't fun for you and this is a game you do not like. Then move on. Highly emotional reactions are stimulating to some kids so express a mild disappointment over it rather than anger or heavy emotion of any kind.

You might also try reading the book, "Hands are Not for Hitting" together. It is designed expressly for this purpose, is a board book, is simple and offers the child alternatives.

To Deal with the Cause Of course it is incredibly difficult to know what the root cause of such behavior is, but this really isn't "normal" two year old behavior. In all the twos I've met having taught at a preschool, I only had two or three who thought hurting others was funny or a game of any sort. Two of the Three were later diagnosed with behavioral/socio-emotional disorders. The third, "grew out of it", but he and his guardians and parent had some help from a psychiatrist too - there may have been more to it than I as the teacher was led to believe (he was bounced between homes a lot). It is normal for a child to try out such behavior once or twice, but not for it to become a repetitively occurring problem.

Having said that, there are some things you can do to make sure your child's emotional needs are being met so you can rule out causes based in anger or stress he is experiencing over some need not having been met.

  • Make sure each of your children gets alone time with each of you on a regular and predictable basis.
  • Even though listening to the ramblings of a 2 1/2 year old can be tough, do it. Make conversation, paraphrase when you can (i.e. "so you mean. . . ") and ask lots of clarifying questions.
  • Explore your child's interests with him. What is he obsessed with right now? Almost every kid has something at this age, cars? dinosaurs? Learn about it with him.
  • Give your children an important role in the household. What contributions is he making. Do each of your children know they contribute? Do you say, "thanks for the laugh" or observe, "Hey that was a helpful choice, thank you."
  • Give your children age appropriate and positive choices to make. Don't overwhelm, keep it age appropriate, but offer up choices when you can. For example, put out two outfits in the morning and let your child choose which one he would prefer to wear that day.

These steps go a long way (even with two year olds) in developing self confidence, assurance that you respect the child for the child, practice with responsibility AND set an example of a parent that has faith and trust in his/her children.

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"Violence" towards a stuffed animal isn't necessarily a problem. Especially for this age. It is part of imaginative play, just like everything else.

And, expressing violence towards a stuffed animal or pillow, is actually an appropriate means to vent frustration.

Hitting a person/animal is different. At 2 1/2, it is not cruelty or violence, they are still learning. When he hits, make a sad face just say "Ouch. That hurts me. Gentle touches." You can guide his hand in petting the animal or whatever nicely. Then just redirect.

Edited to make an addition:

So, if he is hitting people out of anger/frustration, you need to teach him how to communicate this emotion without hitting. I recommend "Bugs & Wishes":

Get a picture or toy of a bug (ladybug, etc) and a picture or toy of a wand. Role play (and practice, practice, practice) using the bug and wand holding each up in turn:

"It bugs me when you __ and I wish you would _ instead"

This is basically an i-statement for little kids. It works wonders! After some time practicing this in your home. Let him use the props to remind him of the words. After he's comfortable with this part of it, introduce the next stage.

When somebody uses bugs and wishes, the options for response are:

"I'm sorry" "I didn't know" "I'll stop" "I'll do that instead"

That's it. He/you/whoever gets to choose one of these in return.

This teaches him how to express feelings of frustration/anger appropriately and gives him the words to actually do so (without just saying "use your words"). When he is frustrated at someone, prompt him and ask "Would you like to use bugs and wishes?" This is a tool he will be able to use for life!

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In my experience this is GREAT advice for someone who is about a year younger than the child discussed here. –  balanced mama Nov 16 '12 at 1:17
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@balanced mama, this is a fair point. But I still think hitting a stuffed animal or pillow is different than hitting a person or real animal at any age. And, if they haven't responded to this child in this way before, as I am assuming, then I think it is a fair place to start. You have to teach what to do instead. –  Christine Gordon Nov 16 '12 at 5:20
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Totally agreed with both points. Plus you've added a little more now that treats it as something more for an older child anyway. –  balanced mama Nov 16 '12 at 12:54
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Wow... I'm surprised that nobody suggested spanking him...

Spare the rod, spoil the child.

After you give him a good spanking for hitting, I'm pretty sure he'll get the point. Don't be scared to show your child discipline, it means that you love them.

Edit: Giving my child a spanking works great. My kids know that I mean business when I ask them or tell them to do something. I only have to ask once. Spanking has created a very understanding relationship between me and my son. I get screaming praises from him every morning when I crawl out of bed. He's 4.

If you're having problems with the timeout chair not working, that doesn't surprise me at all. Maybe you should think about spanking your child. They've done it for thousands of years and no child has grown a complex from it.

It's only in the last 50 years that society has gotten ignorant, thinking that they know best and somehow spanking is child abuse. Quite literally ridiculous if you ask me.

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This is illegal in these countries. The list includes all of Scandinavia and many European countries. –  Lauritz V. Thaulow Jul 2 '11 at 15:43
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Not sure about the sarcasm since it's not the first time he proposes that... –  inovaovao Jul 4 '11 at 7:16
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Seeing as children of history are not nearly as arrogant or ignorant as the little gang-bangers are these days, I'll stick to spanking. Just because you law against it, doesn't mean that those child abusers are going to stop. –  Jonathon Byrd Jul 6 '11 at 4:39
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Every generation believes that the children of their time are far worse than any previous generation (mostly because they weren't around to witness the behavior of the previous generations). –  Beofett Jul 6 '11 at 12:17
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@ Jonathon Byrd: We are at a low point in violent crime throughout history actually (my dad is a cop and I've read about it in a few books including one or two parenting books) - maybe it is because fewer people are spanking their children. Violence Begets Violence. –  balanced mama Nov 16 '12 at 1:16
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First, you need to focus on eliminating the inappropriate behavior. Apply negative consequences immediately, without a warning and without an initial "freebie". Make sure that the consequence is tied to a specific unacceptable behavior. IOW, punish for "hitting" or "shouting" not for "being mean".

Second, pay more attention to the behaviors and what prompts them. Try and figure out if there is any pattern, or if the acting out is in response to you somehow.

If you are not able to get the "cruel" behaviors to stop in a few months, you likely want to talk to your pediatrician and perhaps get the child evaluated for other issues.

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We do this. Violence (to people, not stuffed toys) is an immediate roomable(getting send to their room) offence. At the same time, I think it is important to have degrees of punishments. Apply this immediate no-warning response only to a limited set of behaviours. That avoids children getting confused on what is more or less important (what is really bad behaviour versus less desirable). –  Paul de Vrieze Jul 18 '11 at 14:58
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My baby is younger (15 months now) and is very personable. However, she is not quite firm on the concept of "owch" as a bad thing (we're working on this, mostly through lots of repetition). I don't think the frontal lobe of her brain is developed enough to understand that "sad faces" mean real harm to another person.

Since your child is a bit older, I'd suggest bringing it up to your pediatrician. In general, I believe in fast action and not letting things escalate because a child's attention span is tiny and they can't associate punishment or reward with an action if you let too much lag go between the two. So it sounds like you're doing something right there. However, your pediatrician has probably seen many children who have this issue and might have some good suggestions for instilling a sense of empathy.

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the problem isn't a child's attention span, it is that punishments/rewards don't actually teach anything. Somehow we scold children for being manipulative when that is exactly what we are doing to them with carrots and sticks. Instead of seeking control, seek connection. A human-to-human connection with your child will go a long way. Control invites resentment and/or rebellion, connection invites cooperation. –  Christine Gordon Nov 16 '12 at 5:30
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Two and a half is still young. It may just take a lot of repetition to help him gain some empathy for the people he hurts. I don't suggest making a big deal about the toys, but I think that each time he hurts a person it's an opportunity to help him understand that he hurt someone.

I can't recommend this to anyone, but more than one parent has suggested to me that when a child of any age bites you bite them back immediately. The theory is that you have a tiny window in the child's mind to associate what they just did with how it feels to have it happen to you.

I don't suggest taking the advice literally, but I did have luck reacting very quickly when my child did something that hurt us or someone else.

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Two and a half is more than old enough to know what behaviour gets him punished / is not appreciated by his parents. And yes, it is also an age when children like to "rattle the cage" and test the borders. –  Paul de Vrieze Jul 18 '11 at 15:01
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One of my twins is like this too. I dont think he's intentionally cruel, I think he's just expressing himself. He smacked me really hard in the face yeterday then grinned. I said ouch (because it really hurt). I asked if he wanted to make it better. He didnt, but his twin did (kissed it and hugged me). I think that made a difference because he stopped smiling and seemed to think a bit about it. I dont expect the behaviour to change overnight, but its a good step. I've ready many books on the subject and this is really common toddler behavior. It will pass.

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