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A recent thread from the Dr. Robert Forum:

Dear Dr. Robert--

My therapist and I were arguing about this today: can a two-year-old be sadistic? That is, can he intentionally derive pleasure from abusing and tormenting some person he finds who is weaker and more vulnerable than he is? That therapist admits that the little critter would kill somebody in a rage if he could.


Without knowing and observing the child, I can only generalize. But for whatever it is worth, I think it unlikely that the motivation in a child so young is sadism, but rather frustration eventuated by an inability to communicate. I would suspect autism or some other condition which leaves the child feeling cut off from those around him and unable to make his needs and feelings known. I would be interested to hear what your therapist has to say about this, so please do continue the thread if you can.

Be well.


Who exactly has he "abused" and "tormented"? Those words seem rather dramatic to describe what may well be regular behavior from a two year old.


Does a two year old even have a clear enough concept of other people that they can be said to abuse or torment? Do they have a concept of alive and dead? I can see that a giant two year old in a tantrum might well flatten someone - I know they can punch and kick and bite - but can you assign intentionality and sadistic pleasure to someone who isn't old enough to have a theory of mind - the ability to imagine the mental states of others?

I also think if the problem is that the child can't communicate his needs, the communication breakdown might rest with the other party, too. A child with a real behavioral problem is a heavy handful, so I don't want to go throwing stones here, but if the child's caregivers are assuming the child is trying to hurt for fun when the child is desperately trying to communicate, that might be part of the communication breakdown. I once saw a mother accuse a 2 month old infant of deliberately biting her nipple to try to punish her for something. All kinds of unnecessary bad feeling enters the relationship at these moments.

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