Toddler Behavior: Help! How Can I Stop My Toddler from Hitting our Pets?!

Dear Dr. Heather, My 15 -month-old terrorizes animals. We have a small dog and a few cats, and any time the child sees one of them she goes running over with her arm cranked back to whack it. If she has anything in her hands she will use it as a club. If the animal is on the ground she will grab it by the back and try to crush it into the floor and sit on it. After this greeting she will say "gentle" and pet the animal nicely, evidently to make sure it appreciates the difference.

We don't smack her, we don't smack the pets, so why is she so violent? How do I get her to stop before she gets bitten? Luckily we have very complacent pets but I'm sure even the most patient animal will defend itself eventually.

Thanks for your advice, Christine

Hi Christine,

I know it's hard to see your baby so aggressive with animals. Now that your toddler is big enough to move around and check out her environment, she wants to feel, grab, and test everything out. We're all born with aggressive instincts; it comes from evolution and our animal roots. But she has no way to understand that aggressive handling of things will negatively affect them permanently. She can't yet understand that crushing the kitty will HURT it. (And she won't understand it yet, even if you explain it to her a million times.)

She's not yet cognitively able to understand the impact of her actions on others. She's just exploring, and using her own natural (and normal) aggressive instincts. But it's not really "violence", in the sense of really intending to hurt someone. So don't jump to conclusions about your toddler's personality or temperament. She's just doing the usual toddler thing. And she's clearly also trying out the "gentle" actions she has seen you model.

So, what to do? Your daughter is at what I consider to be the most difficult age of childhood; the 10-20 month window is when babies become toddlers, physically, but they haven't yet fully transitioned into their non-baby minds. So what you get is a big, mobile baby, not fully in control of her body, with all this pent up energy and interest in the world, and not a lot of coping strategies to manage the unavoidable frustration that comes along with it. My shoulders still tense up when I recall my own kids' passage through that very tricky time.

Johnny Depp said that having a toddler is like constantly being on suicide and homicide watch. You always have to be prepared to prevent your toddler from killing herself, or someone else. It's a dangerous time! All you can really do is provide as much safety and structure as possible -- and this usually means a 1-1 parent-kid ratio at all times, until she gets into a slightly more predictable (and manageable) stage.

But with all that parent-toddler time, you do have the opportunity to model good behavior, demonstrate how to touch others (including animals) appropriately, and generally navigate around the great big world. Many of your lessons won't bear fruit for quite some time, so pace yourself. But feel confident that eventually, your daughter and your kitties will be the best of friends!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink