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Ask Dr. Sears: Taming a Too-Rough Toddler

Q. I'm worried about my 3-year-old's aggressiveness. He's pretty rough when he plays with his 1-year-old brother—his idea of "playing" is to tackle, trip or wrestle. He'll just laugh if his brother starts to cry. We've tried explaining that his brother is smaller than he is and he needs to be gentle, but he doesn't seem to get it. What can we do?

A. Aggressive streaks are common in toddlers between two and three years of age. While some girls also like rough-and-tumble play, most little boys simply enjoy roughhousing—which they often learn from playing with Dad. And, to your three-year-old, his little brother is an easy target. Here's how you and your spouse can teach your toddler to respect his younger sibling, and tame his aggressive streak:

Model mellow behavior.

The most effective way to discipline a toddler is to show and tell him the behavior you expect. Between one and three years of age, children are learning how they're expected to act, and they learn this from several sources: their peers, parents and other people of influence, such as TV characters. If their world is filled with aggressive models, they naturally conclude that this is the way people should act toward one another. Surround him as much as possible with mellow friends. Invite a non-aggressive friend over to play. If he's in preschool or daycare, make a site visit to see if he's learning his aggressive behavior from kids he's befriended. Also, carefully monitor what he's watching on TV.

Tell him the behavior you expect.

When he pushes his little brother, immediately intervene. Let him know that you don't hit, you hug—bigger people should be kind to smaller people. Every time he exhibits aggressive behavior, immediately redirect him toward a mellower action. Eventually, it will sink in that this is how he's expected to act.

Teach empathy.

Empathy is one of the most important behavioral traits you can teach your child—it's an important tool for life. When my children were growing up, we would frequently would use the phrase, "How would you feel if ?" Try it with your toddler. Ask him, "How would you feel if you had a bigger brother that pushed and hit you?"

Role play.

With my children, a successful behavior-mellowing technique was to involve the older children in caring for the younger ones. For example, when our one-year-old, Erin, got a scratch, we would ask our 3-year-old, Hayden, to play doctor: "Dr. Hayden, would you please put a Band-Aid on Erin's ouchie?" If your younger child falls and hurts himself, have your older child hug and comfort him. The sibling-as-caretaker approach is a great way to teach older children the proper way to treat their younger siblings. Or, try the sibling-as-teacher approach. Have the older one show the younger one how to throw a ball, for example. Whenever he shows caring behavior, be sure to praise him for it.

Don't feed aggressive behavior.

The brains of growing children are affected—for better or worse—by what kids eat, moreso than any other organ. This explains why many children are sensitive to the effects of junk food. Artificially-sweetened foods and food colorings, sweetened beverages, icings and other carb-only foods tend to be the main culprits. When our 3-year-old daughter Hayden was going through an aggressive streak, we tracked down the trigger: corn syrup. To prevent aggressive behavior from sugar highs and lows, always partner carbohydrates with two of the three other nutrients—protein, fiber or fat—which will steady the blood levels.

Finally, try keeping a diary of what aggravates your child's aggression as well as what mellows his behavior, so that you can arrive at your own plan for encouraging caring behavior.