When Matteo scratches or pulls the hair of another child, it fills me with so much anxiety and shame. That sting of embarrassment as the other parent tends to their injured child and tries to hide their shock. That deep feeling of disappointment as I think “Matteo, you’re so much better than this! What is wrong with you?” Or worse, “What did I do wrong as a parent? Did I fail in some way?”
It all started months ago at the park. The first time he scratched a cute little red-head at the park, I was shocked to see a “mean streak”. I can’t remember my reaction, but I’m pretty sure I made the scratch a very big hooplah. Clearly this wasn’t effective because he did it again. And again. In the church nursery, at the playground, in the library play room. Always with kids his size or smaller, when they seem to enter his territory or show interest in something he’s playing with. What started out as an occasional defensive scratch or hair-pull has now turned into a habitual and preemptive strike anytime a little one comes near. It’s gotten to the point when I dread seeing babies or young toddlers at the park. I’m tempted to high-tail it home.
We HSPs are pretty good at seeing patterns and consequences. If we’re the anxious types, we tend to imagine worst case scenerios. That’s what I did- I imagined that Matteo’s behavior, if unresolved, could lead to serious aggression and even violence down the road. Maybe he’d be a bully! This talent for forward-thinking causes me a good deal of anxiety. But thankfully, it also motivates me to action. I’d rather take this problem too seriously than too lax. It always baffles me when people only tackle problems after they have turned into crises. That’s not really the HSP way. It’s certainly not my way. When it comes to parenting, I’m a nip it in the bud kind of girl.
So I came up with a game plan. But first I did my research. I turned to the parenting expert I admire most, Janet Lansbury. One of her podcast episodes (My 2 Year Old is a Bully) was exactly what I needed to hear. She said the most important thing you can do is remain unruffled. This scratching behavior makes sense to Matteo. He’s not a “bad child”, nor am I a “failure.” He’s trying to communicate something with actions. I need to answer him in a way that will take away this need to scratch.
- Notice a pattern. Matteo scratches or pulls hair when a young, small toddler gets in his space, looks him straight in the eye, or tries to touch him or something he’s interested in.
- Figure out what he’s communicating. What I think he’s saying is, “I don’t like when little kids are too close. It makes me feel scared and I don’t know what they’re going to do, so I will protect myself because you haven’t protected me from other smothering or aggressive toddlers in the past.” In the past, I should probably have spoken up to parents whose children were violating his space, but the people pleaser in me really really really didn’t want to do that. I tried to make it no big deal because toddler aggression is just a part of life. But my lack of response when he was clearly uncomfortable has caused him to strike first before others can hurt him. When I look at it that way, his scratching and pulling is actually quite reasonable. But of course, it’s not acceptable.
- Try to prevent the aggression. I pride myself in letting my kids loose at the park to discover things on their own. I never wanted to be a helicopter parent. But because Matteo is feeling scared and vulnerable in these situations, I probably need to shadow him a little more, even keep him in the carrier at times if he’s showing me he’s overwhelmed. I may even opt out of social engagements and stay home a little more until he’s ready to face little ones.
- If he does scratch, I will calmly restrain him by holding down his hands and say, “Grabbing hair hurts. I won’t let you grab hair. We need to be gentle with our friends.” Then take him somewhere else where he’ll have his own space. The goal is to sound calm, unphased and confident, even though inside I’m probably freaking out. I just need to practice that calm demeanor, and hopefully I can internalize it.
- I don’t believe in forcing aplogies, but I will check in with the other child and say sorry on Matteo’s behalf.
You guys, it feels so good to have a game plan. How do you handle biting, scratching, and other aggressive toddler behaviors?
I also found this article super empowering.
Update 12/22: My game plan is working, or maybe the phase is just passing. He is scratching much less often. And I’m responding with the calm, unruffled confidence of a mom who is in charge. So yay me!