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Children's Health

3 year old girl becoming more violent

08/30/2006

Question:

My fiance has been raising her 3 year old girl on her own up until October of 2005, when I began to assume the role of her father figure. Her 3 year old has been an angel up until about a week ago when she started becoming rather violent towards most people. She has been biting, hitting and spitting on her teachers at daycare and I don`t know what could have changed so drastically in her life that could make her this way. There has not been any big changes in our home and it really came out of nowhere. I understand that this can be normal at the age of 2 or 3, but I grew up around 27 kids younger than me in my family and I haven`t seen anything this violent from any of them. I am really worried and would appreciate any help you could give. It is affecting both of our jobs because her daycare won`t even take her half of the time now.

Answer:

This has to be a truly distressing situation for all of you, including this little girl! Clearly something has changed that is causing her to act aggressively when she has not done so before. However, there are few three-year-olds with the language skills to tell adults what is wrong in their world that has resulted in undesirable behavior. Mostly I am going to offer you food for thought about what the source of the stressor might be that has lead to aggressive behavior.

1. Even if you are a part of her world now for quite a few months, have you recently moved in with her mother as opposed to coming and going in her home? Did you marry so that things are now permanent not temporary or uncertain?

2. Does she have a secure, predictable daily routine? This is incredibly helpful in supporting feelings of safety and security in young children because they know what to expect. Some children are extremely distressed by a lack of routine.

3. If she has a routine, has it changed in some way? Is she having to adapt to new routines that cause her to miss old, familiar ways of doing things?

3. Is she getting enough good quality sleep? Many behavior problems among young children result from inadequate sleep. Three-year-olds develop imagination and this is reflected not only in pretend play but also in nightmares and night terrors that make sleep less restful and restorative. If this is an issue, go to the National Sleep Foundation web site (www.sleepfoundation.org) for many free materials and tips on helping her sleep well.

4. Is she able to express herself in language well enough that most people understand her? If not, has her hearing been evaluated recently? Difficulty expressing herself can lead to frustration about communicating her needs that is expressed in aggressive behavior. Consult with her doctor if this is an issue.

5. Has anything changed with day care itself? Is it the same day care setting she has always had? If so, are they making new demands? Does she have new teachers/caregivers? Have you both recently visited the day care setting to observe how the day is structured and how the staff interacts with the children and handles problem behaviors? It may no longer be the best match to her needs and this is reflected in behaviors that get her sent home.

6. Is she exposed to aggressive behaviors by others in day care, at home between family members or on TV, or in the neighborhood that she is mimicing as a way to handle anger and frustration? Children imitate how others behave.

7. Is there a chance that she being abused in any of her care settings? Do you see unexplained bruises, burns, or cuts?

8. Has her aggressive behavior been reinforced unintentionally by admiring remarks about her ability to stand up for herself or fight like a big girl when she is right?

9. What new stressors might there be? A new home or apartment? New sleeping arrangement? New day care? New brother or sister?

For sure, preserve a predictable daily routine for this little girl, give her extra loving attention, and give her low key praise for good behavior. Underneath the aggressive behavior is a vulnerable little girl who really does need support and love to deal with whatever  stressors are causing her undesirable behavior.

When she exhibits aggressive behavior do not ignore it ever! Always promptly and calmly express your disapproval. Remove any toys or objects used in aggressive behavior. Place her in 3 minutes (one minute for each year of life) of time out in a boring location such as a chair facing the corner. Tell her simply that biting or hitting, or whatever she did, hurts others. That hurting others is not OK.

Teach her turn taking skills, the use of asking or trading to get what she wants, and make a game out of who goes first by racing to the swings, etc.

These can be very difficult issues to handle without professional help. Start with her doctor or ask for a referral to the Child Guidance Clinics or behavioral and developmental  clinics at a major pediatric medical center. They help many families with similar behavioral issues to those you are facing. Major pediatric medical centers in Ohio are in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, and Toledo.

In addition to helping this child, be sure to take time out to rest and restore yourselves for the hard work of being parents and new partners.  I hope this information is helpful.

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Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University