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Ask Dr. Sears: Toddler Aggression

Q  My almost 4-year-old son is showing a lot of aggressive behavior. He hits us when we tell him something he does not like. Sometimes he hits with no apparent reason. He also started pushing and hitting other kids at the playground, usually over a toy. None of our reasoning with him seems to work. We don't hit him. What are we doing wrong?

A At this age, your child is searching for what behaviors are normal. The typical 4-year-old tries on various behaviors to see which one gets him the most attention. Here are six ways to encourage your son's nonaggressive traits:

Model gentleness. It's up to you to show your child what behaviors you expect from him. Fortunately, you don't spank him. Spanking is counterproductive in aggressive children, and it would reinforce the message that it is acceptable to hit. When your child hits, tell him: "We hug, we don't hit!" Show him "instead-of" behaviors: "Instead of pushing or hitting your friend, ask him nicely if you can play with the ball."

Monitor outside influences. Make sure that he is not getting conflicting messages elsewhere. Children often pick up aggressive behavior from older siblings or peers. Establish an overall "kind behavior" rule in your home. Purposely set up friendships between your child and nonaggressive peers. If he's surrounded with gentle children, he's likely to catch the spirit of gentleness rather than aggression. Of course, you should also discourage aggressive TV programs, videos, video games, and toys.

Track the trigger. What situation sets your child up to be aggressive? Is he tired, bored, hungry, or trying to get your attention? Has there been a recent major family change that has triggered some anger? Is he in a playgroup or daycare setting with a lot of aggressive children? Avoid a setup for aggressive behavior. Also avoid situations that commonly lead to aggression (a bunch of boys at a birthday party, for example).

Play show and tell. If toy squabbles seem to be a common trigger, be the referee. If he wants a particular toy, show him there's a better way to get it than by hitting. Either timeout the child or the toy. We would always use the phrase: "If you hit, you must sit!" Teach him to give the other child one of his favorite toys in return for getting the toy he wants. Or, set the timer and let both children enjoy the toy for a specified number of minutes.

Train him to think things through. Help your impulsive child think before he acts by planting gentler ideas into his mind, "As soon as you feel like hitting someone, walk around the room and think about a kinder way." Many of the aggressive children in our office did well with the cue: "Grab your hand and talk to it. Say, 'Now, hand, you should not hit people.'"

Teach empathy. One of the most valuable lifelong lessons you want to teach your child is the quality of empathy - the ability to imagine the effect your behavior will have on other people before you act. When your child pushes or hits another child, take him aside and question him: "How would you feel if Johnny hit you?" Repeat the "How would you feel if..." lesson many times. It will eventually sink in.

It's not your fault that your child is acting aggressively. Many boys go through an aggressive stage and will get through it with good parenting. By repeated exposure to a nonaggressive home and gentle children, your child will eventually learn that kindness, not aggression, is the way to act.