I have two boys who recently turned four and two, and the oldest cannot pass by his brother without hitting, pushing, or rolling on top of his brother all of which causes the younger to cry and scream. I have had the oldest to go to his room, and have spanked him and he also has to apologize and ask for forgiveness. There are times he is kind but the above is most often seen. I'm at my wits end, what can I do without doing bodily harm to him?
With that said, let me give you some tips as to how to approach this situation. Firstly I would suggest that you analyze the situations where this behavior occurs. Consider the following questions:
1. In what specific situations is this behavior more likely to occur?
I know you said that it happens constantly, but perhaps by thinking over the last few occurrences, you will see a pattern. In this way you can both try and prevent it before it occurs or try and work on a specific problem that may be causing the behavior. Does your two-year-old often play with his older brother's belongings (or belongings that he perceives of as his)? Then perhaps you need to define better for your son what items belong to him or you need to talk more about the issue of sharing. Is your son more likely to display this behavior right after seeing you give his younger brother a kiss or a hug? This might indicate that the underlying problem might be jealousy towards his brother. If so, then perhaps he needs a little extra love and attention from you and you can discuss with him how much you love both him and his brother.
2. What role, if any, does your younger son play in this behavior?
Of course, a just turned two-year-old cannot be expected to always behave appropriately or understand the consequences of his actions, but perhaps there are specific behaviors he has that contribute to the problem. It might also be that your older son does not understand why you have different behavior rules for him and his younger brother. While of course, you can not have the same behavioral expectations for your two-year-old as your four-year-old, it may help to keep in mind if there is anything your two-year-old does that may aggravate the situation.
If you analyze the situation, you may see a pattern that will help you know how to deal with it. You will also then be more aware of when it is likely to occur and can try and intercede before rather than after it happens. Watch as your four-year-old approaches his brother and quickly remind him "Remember to act nicely to your brother. No hitting." You can also physically intercede and "help" him to pass by without hitting. Hold your son's hand as he nears his brother and as you pass say, "Good job, you are behaving nicely."
While considering the situation may help you to come up with a probably cause, it is unlikely that you will be able to totally avoid or change the behavior in this way, so here are some suggestions as to how to deal with the behavior when it inevitably occurs.
1. Set up a time-out program.
You mentioned that you sometimes send your son to his room. This is a form of time-out. Your son may benefit from a formal time-out program. I describe how to set up a time-out program in my article: Time-Out: What Is It and How Can You Make It Work For You? You may want to read this article and see if this is an approach that can work for your son.
2. Make the Punishment Fit the Crime.
While time out is an approach that I find very helpful with many children, it does not work for all children. Also, you do not want to overuse time out, since no young child should be spending a significant period of time just sitting in a chair. I therefore recommend that as much as possible you respond in a way that shows your child there will be related consequences to his actions. If your son hits your younger son at the park, then take him home. Tell him that if this is the way he acts at the park then playtime in the park is over. Of course, there is not always an obvious response. If there is one, however, this reaction is often effective. To read more about this approach, you can check out the article Make the Punishment Fit the Crime.
3. Reward Good Behavior
Make sure to give your child praise and encouragement when he behaves appropriately. Often parents give children more attention when they misbehave than when they behave. This is natural. After all, you cannot ignore when your child hits someone. You need to get him to stop and you need to comfort the injured party. You can, however, forget to say "good job" when he picks up his toys or finishes his plate at lunch. Children crave attention. Any kind of attention. So if they get more attention for bad behavior than for good behavior, bad behavior is more likely to occur.
Try and pay careful attention to the good things that he does and compliment him whenever possible. Let him see that he will get more attention for 'behaving nicely" than for "hitting." You may want to make a chart that lists his good qualities and reward his each evening for all his "great work." To read more about this approach you can check out Parenting With Love and Don't Forget Time-In.
These are some basic approaches and ideas that I hope will help you and your sons deal with this difficult behavior. I know it's hard, but try and keep in mind that this behavior is common and normal for a four-year-old. This does not mean that you should not teach your child what forms of behavior are acceptable. But you can take comfort in knowing that with the consistent and caring parenting that I can tell you are working to provide, your son will gradually grow to understand the boundaries of appropriate behavior.
Good luck and best wishes,
Esther Boylan Wolfson
Director, Early Childhood Development Center