Yelling, pushing, and hitting can be hard for us parents to see. It can bring up so many different feelings – fear when they are hurting someone, embarrassment when it happens in public, and painful and not easy to experience when we are the target of their hitting.
We might be worrying whether this is normal behavior, and rest assured that it is. Children hit for many different reasons – big feelings, unmet needs, feeling overwhelmed or disconnected. A child’s brain isn’t fully developed until they hit 25, so they are still learning their emotional regulation skills.
Knowing it is normal is great, but how can we teach them impulse control and better ways to handle their feelings in the heat of the moment?
Do give them alternative positive behavior strategies.
As soon as they hit we can get down on their level and establish eye contact. Then tell them what they can do instead. When we tell them to just stop hitting they don’t know what to do instead. However, when we tell them what they can do they start to learn appropriate ways to act next time. As an example, we can say “It is okay to be angry but not okay to hit. You can stomp your feet or say I’m mad.”
Do show them the effect of their behavior.
Show their impact on the wronged party: “Look at his face, he’s sad because he was hit.” This shows them the natural consequences of their behavior – that the person they hit is hurt and upset.
Do role model.
It is then important to role model caring for the injured party. As an example, if they hit another child, we can take them over to the child and check that they are okay. That doesn’t mean we force them to apologize. When we force an apology they are often just saying it by rote because they’ve been told to. And the wronged party isn’t going to feel any better after a forced apology. Kids can blurt out their apology because they’ve learned that saying sorry can help them quickly move on as it quickly fixes things. However, if our child expresses caring towards the injured child we can congratulate them. “I love how you asked if he is okay, it shows you are sorry you hit him.”
Don’t use corporal punishment.
It is important to show unconditional love even when our kids’ behavior is not so good. We love our kids, but we don’t always love their behavior. When we use physical punishment like hitting we are teaching our kids the opposite of what we want to teach them. The message we are sending is that hitting is okay, and that it solves problems.
Do help them calm.
The way our children will learn how to regulate their emotions is through us. Through us teaching them how to calm down and role modeling our emotional regulation. We can hug them, talk to them about taking deep breaths, or other ways to express their anger that won’t hurt others. All emotions are okay, it is what we do with them that can sometimes not be. As they learn to regulate their emotions in different ways this will prevent hitting in the future.
Don’t give time outs.
For a long time, time outs were considered a good first step in dealing with behavior problems. The problem with time outs is it just sends a child away when their emotions are high and expect them to learn from their behavior while sitting there. But, when young kids are sitting in time out the last thing they are doing is sitting there thinking about what they did wrong or could do better, and they don’t always know what they could do better if we don’t teach and role model ourselves. In time out they are feeling more negative emotions – confusion, anger, and sadness.
Do remove them from the scene, if needed.
If it is the first time they have hit, you do not need to remove them. We can always give them a second chance to stop the hitting behavior. But if our child is having a hard time stopping hitting, it is best to remove them to a different room, to a safe place, and give them a chance to calm down. we aren’t punishing them when doing this, it is just a chance to rest, breathe, and stop hitting. When we remove them we can let them know that there is good news and that next time they can try to make a better decision and not hit.
Do talk about how to handle it differently later.
When they are calm – whether it be tomorrow or the next day – we can talk through the hitting with our child and discuss positive ways to handle things instead of hitting. Make it a collaborative discussion. The sharing of ideas between us and our child. This will help them learn to choose appropriate behavior in the future.
Good luck! We hope this helps you address your child’s hitting behavior next time it happens. For more help on handling your child’s behavior, setting clear expectations, and positive parenting, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d love to help you feel more confident in your day-to-day parenting.