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What shall my 2.5-year-old son do in the situation when his peer plays naughty games with him?

My son meets regularly with a toddler girl (3yo); his friend, our neighbor and a follow-mate in kindergarten (let us call her a friend from now on). Either, when meeting in kindergarten or at home, during their play they get to a point where my son is teased by his friend so much that he hits or bites her. She starts crying and my son gets recognized an aggressor and culprit.

First, we strongly requested him not to hit or bite his friend and any human in general. Now I fell that I should advise him how to cope with his frustration rather than telling him what not to do.

Let me give a couple of examples not to be too general. AT HOME: They are playing at home, he has a toy, his friend wants it and takes it. Never mind, he takes another toy. However, she takes it again. AT A PLAYGROUND: She is climbing a ladder (towards a toboggan), he wants to slide a well. Well, he is waiting her to climb up and slide. However, instead of climbing she is lingering and makes a step back.

I see that such situations are frustrating for my boy. What response shall I teach him? On one hand I do not want him to be aggressive, on the other hand I want to find a fair solution for him so that he does not only play a role of a fool who gives up and gets out of her way.

Obvious solution not to put them together is not that easy as they are frequenting the same kindergarten.

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I think the first thing is to take a step back and consider that they are both acting normally for their age. It's normal at age 2 and 3 to have limited social skills, limited empathy for others, and very little impulse control. It's not likely that the little girl is intentionally setting your son up to get in trouble when she gets an aggressive response from him and then cries: She acts in a normal small child selfish fashion, he responds aggressively in a normal small child no-impulse-control fashion, he hurts her, she cries.

Put thoughts of your son "playing the fool" or falling prey to some advanced strategy of manipulation out of your mind here. The social dynamics of such young children are not that complicated.

My suggestion would be to take several steps. First of all, continue to reinforce that it's not acceptable to hit/bite/otherwise hurt others (even if they tease or annoy him), second, begin to teach him to use words and other social skills to stand up for himself. Teach him that when he says, "No, stop" that he should expect the other person to listen to that. Teach him to walk away if others are not playing nice with him.

Also be ready to step in yourself. I think lingering at the top of the slide is likely not anything more than a child who is distracted and hasn't really learned the abstract skill of noticing that she's inconveniencing others, but if there's excessive toy snatching or teasing, or unwanted touching, etc, adults often need to intervene, especially in the form of providing guidance to help kids work it out. For example, you can remind your son that he can say, "No, I am playing with this." You can take him aside and calm him before he gets to the point of biting. You can tell his little playmate "We don't grab things from others in this house. You can have a turn when Son is finished."

You can, as you said, also give him tools to handle his frustration, like taking a deep breath, or walking away from the thing upsetting him. My son responded well to taking a deep breath and 'blowing out a candle' (his finger as the imaginary candle) to cope with frustration, whether caused by another child, or just because he's having difficulty with a task or similar. Whatever tactic you choose, you should practice it together at first when he is calm, then together when he is slightly upset, and then together during bigger upsets and encourage/remind him to do it himself as needed. If he succeeds in coping with his feelings without hitting/biting/tantrum, let him know he did well!

Teaching him to name his feelings and identify what others are feeling can also help reduce instances of frustration related aggression in children. Although it's clear that your son's behavior isn't happening at no provocation, your best best for improving the situation is to work with him, and keep a close eye on both children when they are together, since you don't have as much chance to shape the little friend's behavior.

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    +1 for the last paragraph. The world isnt always a friendly place, learning to deal with that is a valueable skill. – Martijn Oct 7 at 11:13
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    I am willing to agree that the behaviour is not with malice aforethought, but I am not willing to put it off as "poor impulse control". As much as a three-year-old does anything intentionally, this is probably intentionally, too.Humans are pattern recognition machines. And there probably is a pattern: Child teases competitor for commodity, competitor escalates to violence, competitor gets removed by parents: child wins use of commodity. - It is extremely frustrating and feels unfair to be in the role of the outsmarted competitor here. It destroys trust in parents, if they fall for this, ever. – I'm with Monica Oct 7 at 22:30
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    I'm with @I'mwithMonica on this. The child is not malicious in any usual sense of the word, but is manipulative in the precise sense that she has learnt and is deliberately using the most effective ways of annoying him. This is exactly the same way some young children get what they want by throwing public tantrums. If this behaviour is not stopped early, you may get worse problems in the future. – user21820 Oct 8 at 5:33
  • If I knew more about game theory I would formulate their relationship in terms of the theory and ask what strategy my son should play. The strategy should avoid being manipulated into aggression and not always to give up his position (a toy or whatever moreover if we know that giving the toy up does not help as the next toy he plays with attracts her interest as well). – David Oct 8 at 8:48
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    Either way, the strategy is to stand up for himself non-violently at the onset of teasing or toy-stealing, not to tolerate it until the point of losing control and acting out aggressively. This is also true of adults, an important relational skill is to address problems as they come, rather than seethe for ages until you reach the last straw, snap and implode the relationship (and look like a crazy person who just ended their marriage/friendship/etc over a trifle). It still also helps if you have a close eye on this and don't allow her to harass him until he reaches the point of biting. – Meg Oct 8 at 13:57
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Get your child other playmates in addition to this friend. I am not suggesting to avoid this friend, but instead dilute their interactions with hopefully more positive ones.

Talk to your child, ask him what he feels when playing with that friend. Listen and pay attention. Ask him to name the feelings. Acknowledge the feelings. This does not mean approve of misbehavior such as biting or hitting. Naming and acknowledging the feelings is one step towards better and more mindful behavior. See more in Faber & Mazlish (2012).


Details:

Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings

Children Need to Have Their Feelings Accepted and Respected.

  1. YOU CAN LISTEN QUIETLY AND ATTENTIVELY.
  2. YOU CAN ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR FEELINGS WITH A WORD.
    “Oh... Mmm... I see...”
  3. YOU CAN GIVE THE FEELING A NAME.
    “That sounds frustrating!”
  4. YOU CAN GIVE THE CHILD HIS WISHES IN FANTASY.
    “I wish I could make the banana ripe for you right now!”

All feelings can be accepted.
Certain actions must be limited.
“I can see how angry you are at your brother.
Tell him what you want with words, not fists.”

(Faber & Mazlish, 2012, pp. 81-82)

REFERENCES:

Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish (2012) How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Scribner Classics, New York. https://www.amazon.com/How-Talk-Kids-Will-Listen/dp/1451663889

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It's not your son's fault - you need to control other people's children instead

Especially if you've invited them around your house. And especially if they're doing things which are unfair on your child. As far as possible, you let their parents intervene - but if they aren't on hand, or they're distracted, or they just haven't noticed, then you can and should do it.

So I'm going to challenge your concept of the problem. Your problem is not that you need to teach your son what to do, because your son's actions are reasonable. You are letting that other child mistreat him, seeing it happen, and taking no action. So your son is learning that parents won't intervene, and he's having to take action himself, and the only thing he knows at that age is to retaliate. The reason he's fighting/biting is because you haven't stepped in. He then gets extra upset because it's unfair that he's the one being told off.

Similarly the other child is also learning that there is no sanction if they do this to your son.

The other child takes a toy off your son? Take it off them and give it back to your son, and say "wait a little bit, baby, you can have a turn after him".

The other child is blocking the ladder up to a slide? Say "come on darling, up you go now". Or "Are you not wanting to slide after all?" If they're hanging off the ladder, that's actually not safe. Children climbing up the slide is the other common issue.

If the other parent isn't anywhere around, the responsibility is on you to do that. And if the other parent is around, they should expect you to do that, just as you'd expect them to intervene if your child is mistreating theirs and you're not on the spot. As parents, you put on a united front when children are taking other children's toys, or doing things on a playground which are potentially unsafe.

Don't forget that this goes both ways too. You need to be stopping your son from doing the same things; and if you happen to miss it, you should expect someone else to step in.

Of course some parents can't deal with the fact that their precious darling might be doing something harmful (or dangerous) and needs to be set boundaries. If that's the case, they're entitled idiots and not people you want to be hanging around with. No loss.

And if this is happening at a kindergarten where you're leaving your son, then I suggest you need a better kindergarten. If they don't have enough staff to monitor who's stealing whose toy, then they also don't have enough staff to monitor who's eating that toy, or stuffing it in their ear, or stuffing it into another child's ear, or anything else fundamentally dangerous.

Of course you should also be teaching your son not to fight or bite, and to wait his turn for the toy without getting upset, as you're doing. It shouldn't be his first answer when something doesn't go his way. But violence always remains everyone's last answer when they're pushed too far, and as an adult you should be de-escalating the situation before it gets to that point.

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  • Indeed; thanks for emphasizing the "your son's actions are reasonable" and "you are letting that other child mistreat him, seeing it happen, and taking no action" part, which I totally agree with but didn't focus on in my answer. =) – user21820 Oct 8 at 11:00
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I see that such situations are frustrating for my boy. What response shall I teach him? On one hand I do not want him to be aggressive, on the other hand I want to find a fair solution for him so that he does not only play [the] role of a fool who gives up and gets out of her way.

I agree with another answerer that you need to get your child other playmates in addition to this 'friend', and I will be more frank and say that you do not want his worldview to be tainted by persistent negative interaction with this 'friend'. It is not a healthy relationship at all, and requires some proper intervention if it is to be improved.

I also think you are not proactive enough. As a parent, your goal should be to provide a safe enough environment for your children (and those they play with) to interact and learn, not to just let things be whatever they be. Just as you should stop them if they start playing with fire, you should also take it seriously when any one of them does something morally wrong or unfair. Although the behaviour you see now is mild compared to what adults do to one another, you need to step in if you do not want to see it get worse over time.

Example 1: They are playing at home, he has a toy, his friend wants it and takes it. Never mind, he takes another toy. However, she takes it again.

In your own house, you should have some basic house rules for them.

Firstly, they should ask permission before taking something from someone else. This is not merely courtesy, but is a necessary ingredient in any environment with harmonious relationships. Anyone who violates this rule should be punished appropriately by being not allowed to play with the stolen toy for a day.

Secondly, they should not hit one another. This is a worse thing to do than to 'steal' toys, so the punishment should be more severe, such as not being allowed to play with any toy for a day.

Note that this world is not an ideal world, so we need to have punishment, but the goal of the punishment is not to hurt the child but to protect the others, and one way to do so is to make it sufficiently but temporarily disadvantageous to the offending child. Ideally, the punishment should match the offense if possible, but not necessarily. Remember that when instituting any kind of punishment.

Example 2: She is climbing a ladder (towards a toboggan), he wants to slide a[s] well. Well, he is waiting [for] her to climb up and slide. However, instead of climbing she is lingering and [t]akes a step back.

If this toboggan belongs to you, then you have the right to stipulate who can use it at any point in time. If you lend it to some children but they cannot play nicely together with it, then you ought to take it back and exercise firmer control over how they get to play with it.

The above applies to environments over which you have control. Of course, at the kindergarten the teachers there are the ones who should be responsible enough to make the environment a good one for the kids. You can give them feedback and suggestions, but if things become unacceptable then you have to seriously consider switching kindergartens.

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  • I'm with you on most of that - I think we pretty much answered at the same time. :) I'm dubious about the effectiveness of punishments at that age though. When the child gets older, then withholding pocket money, TV/computer/phone privileges, grounding them, or whatever, sure - they're at an age where they can connect the consequences to what they've done. For a young child though, there just isn't the long-term connection which lets them handle the concept. The best you can do is fix it on the spot and correct their actions then and there. – Graham Oct 8 at 11:10
  • @Graham: Well, it so happens that I remember enough of my childhood (age 2 and upwards) to know that a protective parenting including appropriate (loving) punishment did me a lot of good. But parents have to see for themselves what works. And yea we answered almost exactly at the same time. =) – user21820 Oct 8 at 12:01

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