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Carolyn Hax: Is it normal for a 2-year-old to be biting and hitting?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I’m really struggling with my almost-2-year-old right now, just knowing what is developmentally normal behavior and how to manage discipline for hitting, biting, food throwing, hunger strikes, etc. Do you have a good book recommendation?

— Struggling

Struggling: “Hitting, biting, food-throwing, hunger strikes, etc.” are all forms of communication for people who don’t have the words (yet) or the ability to think deeply, long-term and in context about their feelings.

So, it's aberrant to an adult's eyes, but it's just something else on the menu of what's available to a frustrated toddler.

Framing it this way might be helpful in the moment, to set aside the larger developmental worries and just focus on what your child is trying to say.

For reference, I recommend Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby” books.

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk” (Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish) was my go-to for post-toddler kids, and now there’s a “ … So Little Kids Will Listen” spinoff.

Our schools and pediatricians handed out enormously helpful pamphlets with the developmental traits of a specific age — because pamphlet-size is more realistic than book-size — and maybe that’s where to start. Ask your pediatrician. Try the Parent Encouragement Program, too.

Re: Toddler Resources: I found the “Aha! Parenting” blog helpful. Healthychildren.org is the American Academy of Pediatrics resource and it has a great Ages and Stages section.

That said, I do wish we'd extricate ourselves from the “normal” word. My friends who had kids before me ended up with these perfect, obedient kids. I had a wild thing, and I spent three years in hell wondering why my kid wasn't like all the other kids. Then my friends had second kids and now we have a wild child support group, of sorts. It turned out I wasn't just improperly reproducing; having kids who display so-called “normal” behavior is a crapshoot. And some of the older, perfect/obedient kids are turning out to be … less so. Life, eh.

I will say this, though: I wish I could redo those three years of worry and see the world through his eyes instead of through my judgy, is-he-normal eyes.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Good stuff, thanks.

To be clear, normal is not a behavior, it’s a range of behaviors, with room for obedient kids and wild children. Good references will cover general capacity to understand a rule, grasp the wider world, feel self-conscious, etc. These in turn can help parents adjust their expectations to minimize the child’s and parent’s frustration. An understanding of a developmental range of normal can be the difference between setting kids up to succeed and setting them up to fail.

You are so very right, however, that different kids will have wildly different personalities and develop at wildly different paces.

Re: Resources: Your fellow chatter, Meghan Leahy, in On Parenting — her advice is as common sense as yours!

— Parenting Reader

Parenting Reader: Thanks, I appreciate (and refer to) Meghan’s work.

Hi Carolyn! Thank you for suggesting PEP many times over the years. Quarantine stress pushed us to take one of their classes (over Zoom!). It really opened up discussions between me and my husband, and I feel like we’re communicating better and working better together.

— Parent

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