Dear Dr. Debbie,
My 18-month-old son has taken toys away from other children and has even thrown things at them when we have meet-ups with my mom friends.
The moms are all pretty nice about it, but I feel like at any minute my son and I will be asked not to join them any more. He’s destined to be an only child if this doesn’t get better.
What Am I Doing Wrong?
Let’s look at some child development norms to understand why he is behaving this way.
That Looks Interesting
Taking a toy from another child is normal during a stage of social development known as Parallel Play. From about 1 ½ to 3 ½ years of age a child has a strong impulse to imitate other children. Your son sees other toddlers as examples of what he himself could be doing. If there is a toy involved, your son can only imitate the behavior by having the toy. Usually the urgent need to have the toy soon passes – especially since the first child is no longer tantalizing the second child with it.
Support your son’s desire to mirror the actions of another child by having parallel items (enough acceptable duplicates for each child to have one) or direct them to activities that don’t require any objects. Singing and dancing are good examples. When you help him have a matching toy, rather indulging him you are acknowledging his limits at this age for being able to see anyone’s desires but his own. When you switch the activity to one in which everyone can participate at the same time, you are teaching your son to enjoy being with others. The more you support him to do what another child is doing, the more he will be able to identify with his playmates and eventually understand how they, like he, can have needs and feelings, too. Your son is taking beginning steps toward friendship.
Away It Goes
The ability to throw an object is a milestone of physical development that usually occurs by 24 months. This requires balance, strength, and a growing ability to control the direction of the trajectory. Constant practice is how a child gets better and better at a new skill.
Provide plenty of opportunities for your son to toss things. You and he can play catch with a towel. You and he can take turns to throw plush animals into the laundry basket. If you have a dog, show your son how excited Spot will be to retrieve a tennis ball or Frisbee. When you meet up with other moms and toddlers bring along a couple of beach balls. If they’re slightly underinflated it will be easier for the children to catch the balls as everyone tosses them amongst the children and adults. Balancing on one foot to kick a ball is another skill for your son and his friends to master. Squishy beach balls are just the thing for this.
Frustration with Communication
How are his language skills? If he is developing typically, that is, according to well-documented norms of abilities for each age, he has a spoken vocabulary of only about twenty words or meaningful sounds. Children that have to compete for toys get proficient at saying, “Mine!” or “Pweez!” to try to get their Parallel Play needs satisfied.
Support your son’s limited but growing ability to use language to solve his challenges. Speak for him. Use simple words and short sentences to model speech that he can soon copy and use to speak for himself. American Sign Language is even easier for toddlers to copy. “Mine” is communicated by putting your palm on your chest. “Please” is indicated by making a small circle on your chest with the palm. Adults can also reduce a child’s frustration over sharing with quick distractions while he awaits his turn. This is one reason I have stuck with wearing a watch with a second hand. It helps the waiting child to have something to focus on as that minute ticks by until his turn! Remember until at least the age of three, a child doesn’t yet understand that anyone else could have a need that conflicts with his own.
Frustration in General
Toddlerhood has many frustrations. Limited language, limited height, limited freedom to explore, limited ability to control others, limited time between the urgent need for snacks, etc., etc., etc. Try to limit the limits he faces. Your son and his would-be playmates should meet in a space that is well-suited to the curiosity and exuberance of toddlers. The area should be free of breakables, choke hazards, climbing temptations, and escape routes. Toys should be accessible from shelves and or bins that are easy to put back in order. Any container that is dump-able will be dumped so only have two “dump sets” out at a time. Food should be available for the frequent and rapid drop in blood sugar that ever-moving toddlers experience. That being said, plan for, and relax about, the mess of crumbs and drips accordingly.
It is possible that you see your son’s behavior as very different from the other children’s because it is. Could he have a hearing impairment that prevents him from overhearing people and learning the grunts and words commonly used to gain access to a toy? Alternatively, a language delay might be due to a language processing disorder which either scrambles his reception of other people’s words, or impedes his ability to get his own words out.
Personality differences, which are largely inherited traits of behavior, could be at play. Your son might be the most physically active child of the group which makes him stand out since he’s the one mostly likely to throw things. He could be the most emotionally expressive of the group, which is evidenced by more frequent bursts of adrenaline at his frustration in not having the toy he needs. Adrenaline can cause tight muscles, which can compel him to throw things. He may be the least in need of social stimulation – overwhelmed by the movements, chatter, and seemingly unpredictable behaviors of any group larger than you and himself.
Ask if your pediatrician can assess and advise you on developmental concerns, or can recommend a child development specialist who can. The sooner you have an explanation for atypical patterns of behavior, the sooner you can address them appropriately and support your son’s needs. Unlocking the mystery of why he throws toys at other children will help you to prevent it from happening, and help to prevent the other children from not wanting to be around your son.
Confide in a mom friend or two as you weigh which tactic or tactics to pursue. Your own peers can be invaluable for support and feedback as you guide the children in enjoying each other’s company.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.