"I have two girls, 4 and 11. My brother has a 2-year-old daughter who ALWAYS hits, scratches, bites, pulls hair and pokes my younger daughter's eye. This happens at every family event and even on a trip when our families shared a suite. My daughter had bite marks after the trip. I baby-sat my niece recently and she bit again. The last straw was when she pulled out a chunk of my daughter's hair. I told my brother she could not be around until she learns to stop hurting others. He agreed, but in a few weeks we were all hanging around and it happened again. When my brother sees her hit, he says she doesn't like anyone in her space or she's tired. Sometimes I avoid telling him that my niece hurt my daughter just to avoid confrontation. Please help."
I feel sorry for both your niece, who is not getting the discipline she needs, and your daughter, who is getting her hair pulled out by the roots. I understand your desire to keep peace in the family, but your brother's casual attitude toward discipline would drive me nuts!
You did the right thing when you said no more play together until your niece stopped her aggressive behavior. Your job is to protect your daughter. You also did not tell your daughter to hit back, a decision I approve. First of all, your daughter is two years older and bigger. Second, it's downright silly. Why advocate aggression when trying to teach children to stop aggression?
Waiting a bit and then getting together with the family was an OK parenting move. Children do change as they grow and develop. But when you try to keep peace in the family by not telling your brother that the aggression continued you did not do him or his daughter a favor. And you were not protecting your child.
In the meantime, until Little Niece is civilized and can play with others without maiming them, you have two choices: 1) No more hanging out as a family with the kids. Meet your brother occasionally at night without the kids. 2) When the children are playing, appoint a "designated toddler watcher," one who knows enough about the behavior of young kids and is mature enough to take this job seriously like a teacher would. This person never takes his or her eyes from the group and swoops in when trouble starts or your niece gets an aggressive look in her eyes.
I favor the first option because of Little Niece's track record, but if you served as toddler watcher it might be OK. However, big family get-togethers that last a long time may not be fun for young children. They do better on short visits with just a few people.
Aggressive behavior is common among 2-year-old humans and is part of normal developmental behavior. Two-year-old children haven't yet learned how to take turns and have no manners. Play with other children can be hampered because these children have not yet developed communication skills. Peaceful interaction depends on being able to say what you want and understand the other person's wants - pretty advanced skills that some of us grown-ups have not perfected.
However even though this is normal behavior, it is not acceptable behavior. Parents must teach the child that aggressive behavior is never acceptable and always results in consequences.
Parents must be firm and consistent. You act promptly with stern firmness to remove the child from the other children. You do this every time the child hits or kicks or bites because aggression is a non-negotiable matter. The lesson: When you hurt people, you can't be around people.
Parents should always try to prevent aggressive behavior. Use the "designated child watcher" at all occasions when young children are brought together. Avoid rushing by leaving plenty of time to get ready. Savvy parents know that overtired or hungry children are prone to misbehavior. A common source of frustration is not having the words to express feelings, so parents should work with young children on language acquisition by naming things and strong feelings. ("You are angry because I said you couldn't play with my pocketbook.")
Send your brother this column and my ParenTip on aggression in young children: www.parentkidsright.com//html/aggression.html
Your brother and his wife are not helping this little girl at all by ignoring or excusing her aggression. They should be helping her understand that her behavior is not acceptable and helping her learn how to deal with other children in a socially acceptable way.
Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of ParentKidsRight.com. She welcomes your individual parenting questions. Email info@ParentKidsRight.com for a professional, personal and private answer to your questions.