Submitted on behalf of Advanced Psychology Services by Dr. Anna Kaminsky.
Imagine if you had no way to voice your frustration, anger, worry, or sadness—those feelings would likely bottle up until you finally expressed them through physical actions. This is the reality experienced by most small children; unable to properly translate their emotions into words, they act out, often using hitting as a way of expressing their anxiety, irritation, and displeasure.
However, while this kind of behaviour is natural and normal for toddlers, it should not be encouraged or unconditionally condoned. Gently correcting the use of physical violence early on will help your child to develop better anger-management skills as the years go by. Listed below is a selection of methods that have been shown to help very young children curb their impulse to hit:
1. Gently restrain your child.
If you see your child hitting another child (or if your child hits you), calmly and gently take hold of your child’s hands so that he or she ceases the hitting. After you have done so, make direct eye contact with your child and explain (using simple, clear language) that we do not hit other people. There’s no need to elaborate on your morals at this juncture—your toddler is probably too young to understand the philosophy behind non-violence, particularly when she’s distracted by her own intense feelings. Focus on getting your child to calm down; if she will not, you’re probably better off removing her from the situation entirely. Doing so will both take your child away from the offending stimulus and allow you to think clearly about how to best discipline her for her behaviour (parents who attempt to control violent behaviour in public often end up trying to placate their children with promises ooftreats, essentially rewarding and reinforcing their bad behaviour).
2. Try to help your child find words for his or her experiences.
The sooner your child can learn to vocalize his or her feelings, the sooner he or she will cease to use physical violence as a “first response.” Before you discipline your child for hitting, ask him why he hit in the first place; if he can’t vocalize his reasons, make suggestions in the form of questions, e.g., “Are you upset because the other children were ignoring you?” Likewise, if your child is only just learning to talk, try equipping him with phrases he will find useful in social situations, such as “Can I play with you?” and “Stop that.”
3. Look for any unmet needs your child has.
Just like babies cry to get their needs met, small children often hit or have violent outbursts when they feel their needs are going unfulfilled. Check to see if your child is hungry or tired, in need of attention, confused, or feeling ignored or helpless. Give your child the words and strategies she needs to manage these situations; teach her how to express that she’s hungry or tired with words (and make a habit of offering snacks, naps, etc. when your child seems cranky), indicate how to get your attention without hitting, and so on. It’s also a good idea to clarify choices for your child when they are present; for example, rather than telling your child bluntly to put on her shoes, tell her it’s time to put her shoes on and then ask whether she would prefer to wear the red or blue ones. Be open to discussing these choices if your child attempts to do so.
4. Provide alternatives to hitting.
To keep hitting from becoming a lasting habit, provide your child with the following alternatives:
- our child how to say “no.” Children often hit other children because their boundaries have been violated (e.g., another child has taken their toy without permission), so it’s a good idea to give your toddler a repertoire of ways to say “no” to others. Phrases like “Stop that,” “Please move,” “Give that back,” and so on, can be extremely useful when trying to resolve interpersonal conflicts without hitting. Likewise, try to respect your child when he or she uses these phrases at home.
- Teach your child to walk away. Tell your child that it’s better to simply leave if another child is provoking him or her.
- Teach your child how to release physical aggression without violence. Activities like stomping and/or punching a pillow provide excellent outlets for any physical tension that words alone cannot alleviate.
- Encourage your child to ask for help when disputes erupt. Though we all want our children to learn effective conflict resolution skills on their own, the reality is that very small children often need help from adults to learn the basics of nonviolent compromise. Ask your child to seek adult aid when disputes start to escalate.
5. Never hit your child—not even as a form of punishment.
When you hit your child, even as a disciplinary action, you teach your child that hitting is an acceptable way to resolve conflicts… And this lesson often remains in place for life. Never spank your child and never, ever hit your child back if he or she hits. Additionally, you and your partner should never strike one another under any circumstances. It’s essential to model gentle, rational responses to conflict as much as you possibly can; toddlers learn primarily through observing their parents, so they absolutely will pick up on how you handle tense situations and imitate you.
As your child grows older, remember to discuss violence—and why it’s wrong—even when things are calm at home. Remind your child regularly and consistently that hitting is never “okay,” not even if we have been directly provoked. Emphasize that there is always a better way to handle interpersonal conflict; it is never acceptable to either hit another person or to be hit. If, despite your best efforts, your child continues to use hitting as a means of communication well into his or her school years, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional; it’s likely that there is another factor (such as a developmental disability, ADHD or language delay) at play.