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Q&A: Toddler Behavior

Dr. Clare Albright


Q: My 2.5 year old son, whom I love dearly, is biting, pitching and hitting his 9 month old sister. Recently he started doing the same to his cousins. We have tried times outs, taking away favorite toys, talking, a slight tap on the tush, etc. My husband and I are at our wits end. We don't know what to do. Nothing seems to be working. Any advise?

A: First, this is a very common behavior. Many two-year-olds will show physical behaviors like this. Sometimes it is an attention-getting behavior, and sometimes from frustration and/or anger. Here are some ideas you can try for his age group. (I am assuming his language and comprehension are pretty standard for a 2.5 year old).

If you think some of this is for attention (often unprovoked or barely provoked), try ignoring him initially and giving your first attention to the victim (younger sister). Ignore him for a few minutes, and then give a time-out. Sometimes, what I call a "restraining time-out" is more effective at this age. Hold him in your lap, facing away from you, and restrain his arms to his side in a hug. Most children will not like this type of time out. Tell him calmly that you can not allow him to hurt his sister, and you will let go after he calms down. The first time, this may take several minutes (or more) and then subsequent time-outs are usually shorter.

Set up a positive reinforcement chart. Tell him that you want to help him control his anger by teaching him some other things he can do when he is mad. If he as able to do one of these other options rather than hitting his sister, he can earn points. So many points will earn him a reward, that you can agree on ahead of time (a toy he wants, a special outing). He might have different "levels" he can earn towards, with prizes gaining more value. You can tell him that he should say some special word when he is mad or thinking of hitting (sometimes a funny word can help to defuse the situation), he can hit a pillow, or can stamp his feet. He can earn a point for any of these tactics. If he goes a day without any physical aggressions, he can earn a few points (3 or 4). You can also take points away if he does the negative behavior.

Hope this helps.

Christine Wood, MD
KidsEatGreat, Inc Click here to Ask Dr. Christine Wood questions about your baby's health

Dr. Christine Wood is a practicing pediatrician in Southern California. She attended the University of Detroit for her undergraduate degree in chemistry and received her medical degree from the University of Michigan. She completed her pediatric residency at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. She was Chief Resident there and then worked in the emergency room at Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. After three years doing pediatric emergency room medicine she went into private practice. She received her lactation educator certification from the University of California, San Diego.

She is the author of "How to Get Kids to Eat Great and Love It," a book that addresses the issues of why and how to feed kids healthy. The book also covers information about environmental threats and the role of nutritional supplementation for children. She lives in Southern California with her husband and son.

Christine is also the cofounder of Call Your a website designed to give concerned parents with non-emergency medical questions, solid, no-nonsense information that can give them information in deciding when to call the doctor and some home treatment advice. You can visit her website at

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