Hi Dr Justin,
My 2.5yr old son is treating my mother awfully! He tells me he loves his nanny, and gets along well with her, but when she visits his first reaction is to push her away, kick or punch. He knows this isn’t acceptable behaviour and tells me he doesn’t want to be a bully (but he is!).
There has been no incident that I could say started this behaviour. He’s generally loving and affectionate with friends, family and even strangers! Why is he being so horrible to his nanny?
She just wants to love and cuddle (and spoil) him without abuse. It’s like he needs a good amount of time to “warm up” to her – he’s not like this with anyone else.
Dr Justin responds:
From an early age, humans seem capable of treating the ones they love the most in the worst of ways. Grandparents are no exception. You indicated that your little boy understands (at least at a basic level) that his behaviour is inappropriate. This is important, but because he continues to hurt his grandmother, he may not understand at a level sufficient to change his behaviour. The challenge it to help him understand why he needs to learn to treat Nanna with respect – always.
It may help to understand why he is doing this.
First, grandparents have a special relationship with their grandchildren. They love to be close to them, indulge them, and have fun with them in ways that parents are often too busy (or serious) to enjoy. Because of the fact grandparents see their grandchildren as being so ‘cute’, they often do not have boundaries, so little ones get away with more than they should.
Second, toddlers are particularly interested in ’cause and effect’. They are learning how the world works, how to treat others, and what kinds of behaviours draw what kinds of responses from those around them.
If we tie these two points together, we can observe that toddlers typically act in the most challenging ways with those they feel safest with because they sense that they can test the boundaries without any negative effects. The same outcomes can not be guaranteed with someone who is less ‘safe’.
What can you do?
Many people would argue that your son needs consequences. After all, the boy’s got to learn to respect his Nanna. Common suggestions might include time-out, withdrawal of privileges, and other ‘consequences’ (a troubling euphemism for punishment.) No! I know it seems logical, but don’t go there! There are better ways of responding.
Try these ideas instead:
If your son hits anyone at all, including Nanna, immediately grab his hand and clearly state, “Nanna is not for hitting. We are kind and gentle with our hands.” If you are not there, teach Nan to do that as well. This should be firm but kind. He must know that we don’t hit, but that our hands are for helping, or being gentle and kind.
In some instances it might be helpful to remove him from the situation and go for a short walk. The idea is not to get him in trouble. It is to teach and to problem-solve.
Rather than lecturing him, ask him what the rules are about hitting. Ensure he can explain it to you. Spend time listening. He will usually not say anything informative while he’s upset. Focus on getting him calm and then listen to see if you can understand why he thought it was ok to hit his Nanna.
Whatever you do, don’t hit him. You’ll only reinforce the exact behaviour you’re seeking to extinguish by modelling it for him.
Remember that the key is for him to understand why hitting is not ok. Asking him questions will typically work better than lecturing him. Helping him to take his Nanna’s perspective may be useful too, although at his age this will take some time and effort.
Recognise that regardless of your strategy (whether punitive, or closer to what I’ve outlined above where the focus is on teaching him), he will fail several times before he finally gets it. Be patient, be consistent, be clear, be kind. Eventually he will mature, respond better, and treat his Nanna the gentle way she deserves to be treated.