Does your child use hitting as a way to express displeasure? Do they smack other kids on the playground? Do they hit you if they don’t get what they want? This is natural and normal behaviour for children who do not always have the words or the skills to handle difficult situations. Toddlers and preschoolers will often respond physically to situations that upset them because they have not yet learned other ways to respond. Toddler hitting is a learned behaviour and you can teach them to stop. It is good parenting to tell your child that it is not acceptable to hit anyone. Here are some ways in which you can challenge and change this behaviour.
1. Stop the Hitting
The first thing that we do is to stop your toddler hitting. As gently as possible, you will hold your child’s hands and look her in the eye and explain in as few words as possible that we do not hit. A child who is angry and lashing out is not likely to listen to a long philosophical explanation of why physical violence is wrong, so I keep it simple.
If she hit you or another child and is able to calm down immediately, then you wouldn’t remove her. However, if she continues to lash out at you or at someone else, then you would pick her up calmly and take her somewhere else before dealing with the situation further.
The other benefit of removing your child is that you aren’t having to deal with the situation directly under the eyes of everyone else who was witnessing it.
2. Give Your Child’s Feelings Words
If a child is hitting or kicking, there is a reason that they are doing so. That doesn’t mean that it is okay for them to hit, but it is important to validate their feelings. We don’t always do that in the heat of the moment, because we find that they are not usually ready to listen at that point. However, once things have settled down, you can try to talk to them and mirror their feelings back to them in words. You can try to express what was making them angry and ensure that they know that you understand that. You can help them to find words that they can use next time instead of hitting.
If your child is very little and can’t yet speak try then teach them how to show you what they need. For example a child may scream for a drink and lash out if they don’t get one. If you recognise this then encourage them to get your hand and take you to the kitchen and point and say ‘drink’, by doing this you are firstly showing them that you want to understand them, you are encouraging them to speak and are also fulfilling their needs. If your child is older and is lashing out, then a great way of expressing how they are feeling is to get creative. Simply drawing and painting can encourage them to express how they are feeling without the need for lashing out. When they are older, it is also really effective simply just to talk. Create a safe environment, give them a hug and simply ask them what is wrong.
3. Address Unmet Needs
Some natural parenting “experts” claim that hitting or other violent outbursts are always related to unmet needs. Kids may hit to get attention, because they are hungry or tired, because they feel that they are not being listened to (by you, by other children), or simply because they feel like they have too little control over their own lives. If your child has started hitting more often, you can try to figure out which of those needs isn’t being met. Often they will not know it themselves. They just know that they are feeling off and end up lashing out as a result.
Sometimes hitting comes from parents telling kids what to do and not giving them any options. If parents give children more control, they should be less likely to lash out. Instead of asking my kids to do something, I prefer to tell them what to do, but provide options. So, instead of saying “would you like to put your shoes on now?”, I’ll say “It is time to put your shoes on. Would you like to wear the red ones or the blue ones?”
4. Give Them Alternatives to Hitting
Some kids hit because they don’t know what else to do. They are angry or feel like they have been treated unfairly and don’t know what to do about it, so they hit. You can try to teach your kids alternatives to hitting. This can include:
Using words: Helping them to express their feelings and use words to solve problems instead of hitting people. Sometimes that is as simple as saying “no”. However, if kids feel like “no” is never respected, then they are unlikely to feel like that is an appropriate option instead of hitting.
Walking away: Teaching them that they can walk away when someone is treating them badly instead of lashing back at that person.
Stomping feet: If they do feel the need to react physically to their anger, you like to give them options like stomping their feet or pounding their fists into a pillow.
Asking for help: It is good for children to learn to solve their own problems and disputes. However, you should rather your kids ask for help with a difficult situation than have them resort to violence. So if they are having trouble with another kid, you could encourage them to ask you, a teacher or other trusted adult for help.
5. Saying sorry
Your child needs to learn that when they do hit someone they are hurting the person they are hitting and that this is not acceptable. Part of this is to encourage them to say sorry. This will show them that they have done something wrong and they need to apologise for it.
6. Don’t Hit Your Child
This probably goes without saying for most of the readers of this blog, but hitting teaches hitting. It is pretty hard to teach a child not to hit if you are hitting them. A lot of parents seem to think it is okay to spank their child when the child isn’t behaving the way they want them to, but then they expect their child not to hit anyone. Or, parents respond to hitting with more hitting, which may appear to “work” in the moment, but in the long-term just teaches the idea that the person who can hit the hardest wins. Modeling gentle responses and teaching our children how to handle difficult situations without resorting to hitting is the best thing we can do in the long-term to teach them that physical violence is not only wrong and disrespectful, but also unnecessary.
Remember that when children hit out it is often their way of communicating something. By following the above we can help them to express themselves and encourage them to deal with their emotions in ways other than hitting. At the same time we are also teaching them how to behaviour in a way which is acceptable in other environments too such as school and when at a friend’s house.