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 QUESTION FROM PARENT:

"My 21 month old baby girl started hitting everyone and is a cranky child. She does not want to share anything in playdates and starts crying . Please suggest some tips to improve her behavior."

RESPONSE FROM  Early childhood specialist at  Building Healthy Minds and Healthy Families

At 21 months old, babies are just learning to be independent, they have not yet developed a full vocabulary nor have they established any impulse control. It’s not a coincidence that your baby is being a bit difficult – there is a lot going on with her right now.

 

Firstly though, it’s important to rule out physiological and psychological reasons for her being “cranky”. Is she sleeping and eating well? Have there been any changes in her life recently that could be causing her to act out? If not, then let’s put it down to age-appropriate behavior for now and think of ways to curb it.

 

Teaching children to recognize some basic emotions can go a long way in preventing them from acting out because even though their level of comprehension is significantly developed by 6 months they don’t have the ability to express their feelings through words. You can use books, puppets or even just draw “feeling faces” on paper and teach her what feeling sad, mad and happy look like. Ask her to point to one of those pictures or pick up a ‘feeling’ puppet when she demonstrates any of those emotions and you do the same when it’s your turn. Make statements such as, “You seem sad,” or “looks like that made you are really mad” etc to help her understand the context. (Feeling frustrated, though a difficult word, is a useful one to teach as well.)

 

Since children’s receptive language develops sooner than their expressive language, it’s important to talk to them and explain what your expectations are and what consequences there will be if those are not met – even at 21 months old. Set clear and consistent limits in simple language that she will understand. If she hits somebody, remove her from the situation. Speak in a calm but firm tone of voice and tell her that’s not okay, pick her up gently and carry her away from your body. Take her to a quiet place and help her calm down. Once she is ready to play again, encourage her to give the other child a hug. If she is unwilling, model behavior for her- go over to the child that she hit, rub the part of the body that was hurt (if the child allows you to do so) and ask if they are okay. Then step away and let them continue playing. If it happens more than twice end the play date if possible.

 

Instead of using the phrase, “time-out,” which often has a negative connotation use the words, “take a break”. Help her learn how to calm herself down with a favorite cuddly or a blanket when the emotions are running high. This helps children learn how to self-soothe and begin to understand the concept of impulse control.

 

For play dates, act preemptively. Before her friends come to your place, separate some of her favorite things and let her know that she doesn’t have to share those if she doesn’t want to. Remind her during the play date that she needs to share everything else and if she would like to separate more things for next time she may do so. This allows her to have some sense of control over her things.

 

Also substitute the word “sharing” with “turn taking” and explain how that works. Often children perceive “sharing” as having to give up what they have, whereas with turn taking they feel like they only have to wait until it’s time for them to have it back. Make sure she gets the toy back within a few minutes so she understands this concept.

 

Once children learn how to express their feelings through words rather than through their behavior and begin to practice some form of self-control, it becomes much easier to reason with them. Until then, try to think of every challenging situation as a teaching moment – these are important life skills that every child needs to learn.

 

For more techniques and suggestions on discipline see the previous post and the parenting blog at Building Healthy Minds and Happy Families.

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