This week, I received a couple of questions about toddlers who hit and bite from parents wondering how to teach their youngsters about emotional intelligence. I also received similar questions about teens which I will cover in next week’s blog.

I was drawn to the toddler questions when my youngest son Rowan, now 2 1/2 years, came to me and said, “me sad ‘bout Malcolm do dat”. His older brother was crying after being hit in the head by a hard block. Clearly, Rowan had expressed his dissatisfaction with being told “no” by throwing a block at his older brother Malcolm. After spending a few minutes checking out Malcolm’s head, giving him a hug, and connecting with his hurt feelings, while Rowan was in my arms, I turned to Rowan. “Are you disappointed because you wanted to play?”, I asked. He said, “Ya ” and we shared big hugs. I shared that I would enjoy finding ways to play safely. “Could you have a gentle touch for Malcolm?”, I asked showing Rowan what that looked like. After a few minutes of hugs and gentle touching, Rowan felt energized and found something else to do. Malcolm re-directed himself and was playing with his own toys by himself the way he wanted.

As a parent, you can keep physical health, safety, and emotional well-being in mind while honouring the needs of your growing toddler. Toddlers are focused on meeting three basic needs:

1. Autonomy: choosing what to do, freedom to decide what’s best for them, adventure, and self-empowerment
2. Independence and interdependence: competence, learning to do things on their own, and learning when to ask for help
3. Self-assertion: growing self-awareness and unique talents, self-expression, developing language skills, determined to do things their own way, and wanting to help out

Can you now imagine why hearing “no” is one of the most difficult messages for toddlers to hear? Toddlers also have a growing interest in other children like themselves. So, as much as they want to be with other toddlers, parallel play (playing side-by side) is more successful than sharing together since conflict over belongings can’t be completely eliminated. So, frustration and anger is a result of constantly learning new things, wanting to choose what to do, and having little to no self-regulation.

It’s no wonder the language of toddlers includes: “no”, “mine”, “me do” or “do by myself”. The toddler rules of ownership according to author John Gottman (a) are: “1) If I see it, it’s mine; 2) If it’s yours and I want it, it’s mine; and 3) If it’s mine, it’s mine forever.”

How can parents help?

You’ve probably heard it before. This time is so precious and it will pass by quickly. It will. Meanwhile, some days you’re ready to pull out your hair, cry, or run out of the park in embarrassment because you can’t believe your little angel just took a chunk out of his best friend.

Here are 5 tried and true ways to help you and your toddler survive these months.

1) Listen closely and see the challenges from your toddler’s perspective. See what needs he is trying to meet and assume he has the best intent. Revisit the needs I listed above.

2) Accept and acknowledge feelings and needs not only with your words; but also with all your heart and body. You’ve probably heard me say before that 90-95% of our communication is in our body, tone, and mannerisms. If you’re only paying lip service to your child’s present needs, she’ll see right through you. Your child wants all of you. Our children ask for nothing less than our presence.

Labeling feelings can be helpful in the same way we label inanimate objects. For example, your child says “baw” and you respond, “yes, that’s a ball.” However, with feelings, you “point” to the sensation best with your connection and presence. You’ll notice a shift in your toddler’s body language when that connection is made. I notice a deep sigh or my child’s body will sink into mine if I’m holding him. Let the tears flow. On average, when we allow the expression of feelings like frustration or sadness, they are released within a few minutes. You can try saying “Do you want to show how sad you feel?” or “Are you so, so sad?”

3) Model emotional intelligence and self-care.
Toddlerhood is a time when symbolic and pretend play is emerging. Toddlers act out behaviours and words observed from family members and friends. They are able to remember events and imitate them later. Your toddler is watching you to see how to manage emotions and meet needs.

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where parents say they have the most difficulty. Bear in mind, you’re likely going to find steps one and two difficult if you’re exhausted and criticizing yourself. Taking care of yourself is one of the most important ways you can contribute to your own well-being and take care of your family. That way you can take your time to figure out what needs of yours you want to meet, and make requests of your toddler that help move you in that direction. Please be compassionate with yourself though. Connection is more important than “getting it right”.

For example, if you want your child to fall asleep because you want alone time with your partner, be clear about that within yourself. Your toddler is unlikely to understand it. However, if you try to tell him that getting to sleep is better for him, he’ll read your body language and detect you’re lying. Instead, identify the needs that you want to meet and how you want to contribute to your child’s well-being and come from that energy. The congruence of the messages from your body and your words will invite relaxation. Now, it’s up to your toddler of course.

4) Safety and peace of mind are met when a stimulating and safe environment is available for toddler to explore and play in. When you offer choices, offer two or three real choices keeping your needs in mind.

In my first example, I connected with the needs of both boys while ensuring safety. Rowan was kept safely in my arms. He could see my concern for his older brother and my desire to connect with each of them about what needs they were each trying to meet. When a toddler hits or bites, they’re expressing frustration and disappointment. To gain some time to connect and help yourself feel calmer, try a catch phrase that teacher Katy Dawson once shared with me...“Do you feel frustrated because it didn’t work out they way you hoped?”

I found this strategy works well if biting and hitting are occasional and if older children are armed with the knowledge to protect themselves if they see any sign of hitting or biting. If biting or hitting is common, begin to watch for signs that biting may occur and step in before that. Step in with gentleness and connection. You might take your toddler aside, give him a big hug, and ask him to show you the new toy he loves so much. When he shows you, ask him to show the friend. “Tell me all about it.” “Does your friend know that the toy can do that? Wow Fascinating ”

About choices, instead of asking “Will you brush your teeth now?” say, “It’s time to brush your teeth. To have fun with this, would you like to brush first or would you like for me to play the train game with you again?” (toothbrush train over the teeth, for example)
Instead of asking “Will you put on your coat to go outside?” say “It’s time to go outside. Would you like to wear your blue coat or your red coat and sweater?”

To reduce conflict over belongings, invite your toddler to choose toys they want to share. Putting the other toys away will help contribute to trust and empowerment. Be prepared to accept your toddler will change his mind. Don’t you change your mind once you implement a choice sometimes? What would she like to do about that now? If she asks for help, offer a couple of ideas that will work for the both of you.

5) Express appreciation.
Don’t praise You probably have read about the importance of praise for growing self-esteem. If self-esteem were the prize at the end of a maze and your child was the rat, then praise. Heathy self-esteem is our natural tendency and it’s not a prize. Our children see right through our manipulative efforts to make them feel a certain way about themselves. Praise erodes trust and self-confidence. Just don’t do it

Instead, appreciate. Honestly express what it is that your child has done to help meet your needs. Share how you feel about that. That’s it.

That last point is going to be a hard one for parents too. If you’ve read as many parenting books as I have and grown up as a by-product of behaviour theory, you’re going to be learning new habits. Rest assured, appreciation and gratitude is fuel for the heart and soul. The self growth movement urges people to write gratitude journals and recite affirmations with a heart of gratitude. If you’re interested in modeling emotional intelligence with your toddler, begin to share your feelings of gratitude and your met needs. We learn better in an environment that is fun, safe, and calm. Appreciating is all of those things.

Have fun. Learn and play together. Enjoy getting to know your toddler and taking care of yourself. Foster emotional intelligence by beginning to increase your awareness about your feelings and needs and share your learning with your child as you grow together.

Note (a) from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D.

Author's Bio: 

Wendy McDonnell, Hons. B.Sc., CLC, is a Certified Family Communications Coach with training in Psychology, Nonviolent Communication, Collaborative Divorce, Grief and Bereavement, Reiki, and teaching. If your kids are driving you nuts, and your partner is right there with them, visit and receive your gift with a newsletter subscription: 10 Simple Actions you can do today to bring more peace into your life! Free preview sessions and group coaching available.