My three-year-old keeps attacking his little brother. How can I stop him?

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: pbombaert/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: pbombaert/Getty Images

My three-year-old keeps pinching and pushing over his little brother. What can I do?

A weird thing happens when we see kids using violence. Suddenly, the child who five minutes ago seemed completely innocent, in need of our guidance, care and protection, is suddenly transformed in our minds into a fully rational, autonomous and morally responsible being who knew what they did and why.

Our instinct is to place the two children into different categories: victim and perpetrator (and this is even more tempting when, as in your situation, one of the kids is considerably bigger and older). For the victim, we offer our sympathy, hugs, care and concern. We tell them everything will be OK, that they didn’t deserve to be hit and that we’re so sorry it happened.

To the perpetrator, we usually offer some kind of lecture. We tell them it was wrong, that we don’t accept that kind of behaviour in this house. We tell them to apologise, to see what they’ve done to upset the other child.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re trying to engender two different emotions in the two children. In the victim, we’re trying to create a feeling of safety. In the aggressor, we’re trying to create a sense of guilt. If we can’t stop the violence, we can at least make sure they feel bad about it.

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This isn’t without justification. It’s pretty much exactly what we would do if the victim and aggressor were adults. We expect adults not to use violence. If they do, we focus our moral attention on the victim, ensuring they’re supported. At the same time, we want the wrongdoer to face justice, feel guilty and try to make it up to the person they’ve harmed.

But as deeply held as our beliefs about violence and the perpetrator-victim dichotomy are, they’re not helpful to us as parents for an obvious reason. We’re not dealing with adults. We’re not dealing with people who can reason, or who we can hold responsible for their actions. We’re dealing with a three-year-old who is – no matter how smart – pretty stupid, morally speaking. And this means we need a different way of framing the child who hits and our response to them.

The problem is it’s super hard to have the clear head we need to frame this differently and take another approach. As parents, we typically struggle to handle situations where our children are being violent. One of the quiet, unspoken fears for many parents is that they’ll be the one with that kid. You know, the one everyone else looks at in the playground, the one who makes other kids cry.

Feeling that we’re the parent of a kid who doesn’t fit the socially acceptable script is awful. It leaves both us and our kids alienated. It can also make us feel powerless. I’m betting your three-year-old isn’t particularly open to being reasoned with, and the whole “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” speech won’t cut it for a few years. Which means you’ve probably given some variation on “we don’t push in this house, we use our words” about a thousand times.

What’s more, you’re not just processing having a kid who hurts other kids. You’re also the parents whose kid is being hurt. That’s distressing. You don’t want your son to be hurt. You don’t want him to feel unsafe or unaccepted. You want him to feel loved. And you don’t want an upset child clawing at your leg all day either.

So if we do an emotional stocktake we’ve got a lot of fear – of alienation and social judgment – exhaustion, powerlessness, heartbreak at seeing your younger child hurting and extra exhaustion because now you’ve got crying kids. And of course, you’re the parent and it’s your job to preside over a fair, respectful, non-violent household, right?

You’re feeling alone in your troubles, scared of what they mean, heartbroken at the hurt your son has suffered and somewhere between angry, exhausted, disappointed and devastated that it’s happened at the hands of his older brother. It’s hardly the time to get philosophical about what’s happening. Still, I’m a philosopher, so I’m going to tell you that you should –and you can throw something at me later if you want.

In Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges, parenting expert Patty Wipfler makes a bold but fairly intuitive claim. She argues that a child who is feeling secure and safe doesn’t hit. Violence – in kids, and often in adults – is driven by fear, loneliness and a need for connection.

If you think about it this way – taking as your starting point that your older son doesn’t want to pinch and push any more than your younger son wants to be pinched and pushed, then you can find a way to see what the two kids have in common. They’re both stuck in a situation they don’t know how to manage. They both feel unsafe. They both need the care, hugs and attention.

This doesn’t mean we overlook what’s happened. You should make sure your younger son knows it wasn’t OK that he was hit, that he shouldn’t be treated like that, and that he’s loved.

And we shouldn’t continue to explain away violence as a sign of insecurity as our kids age, either. The thinking I’m advocating here expires as your son develops his own autonomy, sense of freedom and responsibility.

Here’s one thing I wouldn’t do though: fight fire with fire. When we’re at our wits end, we can resort to shouting, punishment, smacking or roughly moving the older child away. We meet the violence with violence and, in so doing, we legitimise violence as a form of communication. And, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt said, violence is a language that understands only itself. If your home communicates in violence, there’s no doubt your kids will take that lead.

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