Your Toddler is Not a Bully

By Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C 

Having a two-year-old myself, I know firsthand how challenging a toddler can be!  First he wants me to play with the giraffe, then immediately takes the giraffe from me (“Mine!”)  and insists that I be the elephant… only to change his mind five seconds later, determining that I get no toys (“No elephant, Mommy!”), leaving me with only the pleasure of watching him play while I am both not permitted toys, nor am I allowed to leave the vicinity (“Mommy sit!”).

All toddler parents know that the second they put a toy away, that is the toy that becomes the object of a child’s desire.   We see them pummel other kids for a preferred toy (even one that was rejected only minutes ago), and play alone in a corner rather than participating in circle time.

This is totally normal.  COMPLETELY and without question, your child is just like every other toddler out there!  Your child is not a bully!  They are not anti-social!  They are not bi-polar!  They are simply toddlers, doing exactly what toddlers are supposed to be doing at this age.

As a child clinician, parents come to me routinely with worries that their toddler is a bully, self-isolating, or moody.  And guess what, they are right!  Toddlers do not have the social skills to understand another person’s point of view, so they are more likely to take what they want when they want it, without worry about how anyone feels about it!  We see this often when they may teethe on the arm or cheek of an unsuspecting friend.  Toddlers also engage in a type of socializing called “parallel play,” which means that they simply have not mastered playing well with others and instead may play with the same blocks as another kid without ever acknowledging that they exist – or, may sit off to themselves playing or reading independently with seemingly little to no interest in other children.

Toddlers ARE moody!  This is for a multitude of reasons:  they are starting to have big emotions with only a 20+ word vocabulary; they get told “No” A LOT; they don’t comprehend things like safety, transitions, time, or how to negotiate with the needs of others; and, they have not yet learned the skills to effectively regulate their moods.

While the behaviors described above are expected, and age-appropriate, there are constructive things a parent can do to help.  It’s very important that our children have us to guide them in learning more appropriate social skills.  This will prepare them so they can be ready for collaborative play when it’s time (usually beginning around 3 or 4).  We can teach them to calm themselves by helping them to calm down when they become upset.   We can teach them empathy by saying things like, “we do not hit – hitting hurts other people.”  We can label their emotions to expand their vocabulary by saying things like, “I know you are sad right now.  You really want to use that toy.”  And teach them to share by assuring (and reassuring) that they will get a turn after their friend takes their turn.

These behaviors may feel frustrating or embarrassing for parents, but rest assured that you are not alone.  Do your best to stay calm and plan a response that models how you would like them to handle these big challenges.  Make sure to have reasonable expectations for your toddler’s social skills, and to remind yourself that this sassy, moody, socially awkward little person is right on track and doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing!

Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C is Manager of Child Therapy Services for JCS.

Because parenting doesn’t come with an instruction manual, JCS offers a variety of programs, services, education and support for parents and families with children of all ages. Click here or call 410-466-9200 to learn more.

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