Ask Mrs Manners: Pushy Toddlers

Cynthia Dermody

toddlers who push

Photo by Susan1001

The toddler years are the perfect age to start teaching your kids manners. And MrsManners aka: Angela Pitrie, owner of the CM group Manners for the Modern Family and, is here to help. 

Dear MrsManners,

My almost 3 year old son will not quit pushing his sister down. She is only 15 months old, and he knows he's not supposed to do this, that it's wrong. But how can I get him to understand that he could seriously hurt her? I've tried telling him it will give her boo-boos, since he knows that that means. It just doesn't work. He has pushed her down and she's hit her head on the coffee table, entertainment center, high chair, bed, couch, dining table, toy boxes, etc. Please help me; I'm desperate. I'm afraid that one day, he is going to push her and she'll hit her head the wrong way and get hurt badly. -- rissa_mommyof2

MrsManners says:

This is a scary situation and not one to be taken lightly. I'm concerned that he really doesn't understand he could hurt her, because if he did, he probably would stop. Toddlers aren't naturally empathetic; this is something that they need to be taught and it takes time to learn. He most likely understands the fact that you are upset with him and he doesn't like that, instead of understanding she is going to be hurt. 

There are two approaches to dealing with this behavior. Let's touch on a couple of these and go from there:

1.       This is just a normal phase that children go through and in order to curb it, you must stay on top of the situation. If he looks like he is about to push her, then you must intervene immediately and remove him. This takes nonstop attention on your part. I don't know that you have that kind of time to commit to working on this problem, but it sounds serious enough to me to warrant it.  When removing your son, you calmly explain why you have to remove him and place him in an immediate time out.

2.      A child pushes to get attention, even though it isn't positive. In other words, in order to get your attention, they continue the behavior. If this hadn't been going on for quite so long and you hadn't already had so many incidents, you could try ignoring the situation a touch.

Meaning, he pushes, you respond only to your daughter's needs initially, not his behavior. You look at him sternly and say you know that was not nice, you could have hurt her, be very calm and almost dry or emotionless with your tone.  This way, there is no behavior for him to respond to. If you subscribe to this line of thought he will eventually lose interest in the whole idea.

Try both of these methods above, and start trying to touch on what empathy is. You do that by talking about emotions, what they look like, sound like and feel like. A great book that I use when teaching is called "Today I Feel Silly", by Jamie Lee Curtis. It will help explain some of these ideas and has a great interactive face in the back where you can change the way the eyes and mouth look.

Also, ask your son to show you what he thinks it looks like to be hurt using his face and body, what it looks like to be sad, happy, etc. You can take a turn and have him guess what you are feeling based on the expression you are wearing. This is also a good way to find out if your child is ready to work on these complex ideas. I know some adults who have a hard time being empathetic, let alone an almost 3 year old. 

I would say that if the behavior continues and you have tried all of these ideas, then maybe it is time to bring it up with your pediatrician.  It can never hurt to talk to a doctor about something like this, especially when another child is at risk.  As a medical professional, your doctor may have some other great ideas to help you work on this problem.

Don't forget to submit your questions, and I look forward to answering the next one.  Until next week! 

Angela W. Pitre, aka MrsManners

Past Ask Mrs Manners columns:

Taming the Messy Eater

How to Have Well Behaved Toddlers

My Son Won't Stop Touching Other Moms' Breasts!

Is Shyness Impolite?

Stop Peer Pressure Early

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