My two year old is acting like a bully

tantrumQ. My son whom I cherish and adore seems to be a bully. He attacks other children for no reason whatsoever. He pushes, shoves, pulls clothes, scraps, slaps them, and so on. Today, we were at music class and he carried out four attacks, one of which was quite nasty. The other little boy got a few scrapes on his face. I have tried the “Do not do that, it’s not nice and it hurts” and when I ask him to say sorry he goes over and kisses them and gives them a hug. He is a very affectionate boy, but he would turn around and do it again in a few minutes. I watch him like a hawk when he’s around other children but he does it so fast.

He is a very big boy and looks like a four year old. He also does the same to me. I have lots of scars and marks – I am like a battered mother. I am at the stage of just not going to things with him in case he attacks someone. I know other mothers are talking about him and I just don’t know what to do. The teacher of the music class said to me that he was not a bold boy, but that he had a behavioural problem. I have read books on managing toddlers which have helped a bit, but I can’t seem to sort this problem out.

A. At the best of times, toddlers can be a real handful to manage. They are fully mobile and active, yet are only beginning to understand rules and boundaries. At one and two years of age, everything is about “what I want” or “mine”, and they are only learning how to get on with other children. In addition, most two year olds don’t have enough language to fully understand what you are saying to them as a parent, so this makes it harder to “reason” with them and explain things. This all leads to tantrums, scrapes with other children, and the “terrible twos” that everyone is familiar with.

Things can be harder for boys, who tend to be more physically active and “rougher” than girls, yet have less language and social skills. On top of this, things can be particularly challenging for boys like your son who are physically bigger and who look older. Everyone expects them to be behaving at a much older level, when they are only two years old, and everyone is a little afraid of their strength which can make other parents anticipate the worst.

However, the good news is that there is lots you can do to help your son be calmer and avoid getting into fights. When he gets into a scrape, be wary of using too many “Don’ts” such as “Don’t hit that boy” as this focuses him on the “hitting” and can actually make him more likely to do it again. Instead, use a “Do” to focus him on the good behaviour you want to see instead, such as “Let’s play gently”. If he does hit, you might have to remove him from the situation for a moment – “You can come back to play when you play gently”.

The ideal is to intervene early before he hits out, so you can divert him to a “good behaviour”. To do this you need to closely supervise and coach him in difficult social situations such as the music class. Spot when he’s getting stressed and about to hit and then jump in and distract or redirect him – “Let’s sit with Mummy now for a minute”.

The more you can concretely show him the good behaviour the better. For example, if he is too rough, you might take his hand and say, “We play gently now”, and guide him through, handing a toy gently to a boy and waiting his turn, praising him all the way. Often it is best to teach him these positive behaviours at home, where you are more relaxed and in control of the agenda.

In addition, when he misbehaves, avoid too much criticism or giving out or over-explaining what he has done wrong as the danger is that then he is getting too much attention for his misbehaviour (even if it is negative attention). The goal is to reverse this and make sure he gets all your attention when he behaves well. Notice any small things he does well and make a deal of them – “Good boy waiting” or “Gentle boy, well done”. Remember a positive tone and warm facial expressions are as important as the words in getting the message through.

To help him get rid of his excess energy, it can be useful to have a daily routine that includes boisterous and active play as well as quieter times. For example, you might include lots of physical play or even set aside a “wrestling time” with him during the day – when he can have a bit of closely supervised rough and tumble in a safe place.

Afterwards, you can have a quieter wind-down time, maybe with a book reading or jigsaws or anything quiet that holds his interest, as a preparation before bedtime. The key is develop simple communication to help him learn the parts of the routine, for example, now it is “wrestling time” and then later, “Sssh, it’s quiet time now”. You can even do up a little picture chart with him to explain what he has to do.

Dealing with fights and teaching your child how to behave takes a lot of work and it can really help to seek some extra support. It is hard to put ideas from a book into action and it can be more effective to attend an evidence-based parenting course, particularly one that deals with managing behaviour problems in preschoolers such as the Parents Plus programmes ( A good parenting course will provide you week by week with several ideas to manage the difficulties with your child in a positive way.

You should also consider getting your son assessed to rule out any developmental problems that could contribute to his behaviour. Contact your public health nurse or GP, who should be able to advise about assessment and local parenting courses and supports.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, October 2010.  John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.