How to handle a hitting toddler: What you should never do
Telling a hitting toddler to stop is like telling an angry bull not to charge. Read on to learn effective ways on what you can do to tame a spirited child.
Maybe you're reading this because your toddler has been hitting and continues to do so no matter how many times you say "No!"
Before you despair, here is one way to handle a hitting toddler situation.
Why they hit
Toddlers are just learning how the world works and how to communicate. Sometimes, maybe the first few times, hitting is just an experiment. They want to know what your reaction will be. Other times, it is their way of expressing emotions.
Extreme emotions like disappointment, anger and even excitement, are particularly challenging because it is easier for them to use actions rather than words.
Psychologists agree that most children below 7 years old hit because they want something (this is called instrumental aggression), not because they want to hurt someone (hostile aggression).
What not to do
Our instincts prompt us to react strongly with an empathic "No hitting!" and to remind the child that hitting is wrong.
However, this may not be the most effective response. The strong reaction may just elicit giggles from the experimenting child and prompt him to try to reproduce the response.
A mild statement of "No, hitting hurts" and finding something else for the child to experiment on will suffice.
In the case of an emotional child, the child is no longer thinking clearly and is already overwhelmed by strong feelings. Telling an angry bull not to charge may not be the best strategy.
How to handle
Like a bull fighter, sidestep and avoid getting hit as much as you can. Gently but firmly hold the child's hand and move him to a less distracting place.
The best course of action is to actually acknowledge what the toddler is feeling: "Mom can see that you're really angry!"
Only when a person feels understood will he stop trying to communicate (hitting is just one of the child's ways of expressing himself). So put yourself in the child's shoes and attempt to express for him what he cannot.
"You're so angry because you really want more sweets. You're so disappointed when I said no, that's why you want to hit me."
Feelings are very personal. What makes you upset may have no effect on another person. This does not mean that you shouldn't feel upset.
Instead, you feel better when someone takes the time to listen and, importantly, does not judge your feelings. The same is true for our little ones.
Listen, hold the child and allow him to cry.
What alternatives to offer
Only when the child has calmed down can you start to offer alternatives. Say, "Next time you're angry, no hitting because hitting hurts. Do you want to practice? You can show me how angry you are." Then, demonstrate the following examples:
- stomping your feet really hard
- hitting a pillow with all your might
- letting out a loud angry roar
- using your words and saying, "I'm angry!"
If the hitting or swatting was caused by excitement, demonstrate what gentle means by holding the child's hand and have that hand stroke your face while saying, "Gently, gently."
Homeschooling mom Mariel Uyquiengco suggests singing, "I am gentle, I am gentle, yes, I am" to the tune of "Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, brother John?" The soothing melody helps the child calm down a notch, too.
When to reinforce
Consistency is very important. This is how children learn the consequences of their actions.
When playing pretend or watching shows and your toddler sees someone hitting, remind your child again that hitting is wrong.
"That minion hit his friend because he was annoyed! We better remind him that hitting is wrong and hitting hurts." It is so amusing to hear your toddler say, "No minion, no hitting!" and it becomes easier for him to remember not to hit when the intense emotions strike.
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