Two-year-old becoming aggressive during play dates

Q: What are some ways to address a two-year-old boy pulling my three-year-old daughter’s hair, taking and throwing her toys, and yelling at her during play dates at our house?

A: For a two-year-old, redirection, distraction, and supervision are often your best tools since self-discipline is still a long way off. When it comes to physical harm, prevention is your best bet, which may require gently and firmly removing hard toys or separating the children, which I know can be disappointing on a play date when the goal is for children to play and parents to visit.

There could be several reasons behind your guest’s aggression, such as over-stimulation, desire for attention if his mother is engaged with you, a lack of communication skills to express his wants, etc. While most of the behavior intervention will probably come from his mother, you can still help by offering calming activities (e.g., play dough, puzzles, blocks, books, music), giving the children space from each other, keeping the play date short, and making sure the accessible toys have adequate pieces for both children. While sharing is an important skill to practice, the earliest play dates with their abundance of new stimuli aren’t always the best opportunity.

Though it’s important to protect your young daughter from harm, it’s also important to empower her since she’ll run into similar circumstances throughout her childhood. I suggest teaching her some simple skills, such as putting out her hand in a stop signal and saying, “Please stop,” in a firm voice, leaving the room, and advocating for herself (e.g., “I’m not done with that.”) All these skills are important to practice out of the moment, but in the moment, you can still teach her, by saying, “Hmm. He took your toy and you weren’t done with it. What could you do?” If she doesn’t have ideas at first even after outside coaching (very likely if her emotions are heightened), you could model your thought process in coming up with some yourself.

If she can learn the skills to advocate for herself, she’ll build resilience, one of the most important qualities for developing the characteristics you want for her as an adult.

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