A lot of toddlers go through a stage of hitting, kicking, biting, pinching, slapping and scratching because they are still too young to know how to handle big emotions. At this stage, it's typical behavior, says pediatrician Dr. William Sears in a column for Parenting. They can't express themselves well yet, so their hands are their communication tools.
It doesn’t mean, however, that you should let your child get away with physically hitting you, a caregiver or a playmate. He needs to understand it is not acceptable behavior. One of the most effective ways to get your child to stop hitting when he’s frustrated is to help him manage his emotions. “They need our help to deal with whatever feelings are driving their behavior,” says Dr. Laura Markham, a child psychologist and parenting expert, in an article for Psychology Today.
How do you do help your child manage his emotions? Instead of shutting him down with a "stop crying!" acknowledge his feelings. Use this situational script as a guide by Dr. Markham. The mom has just said no to something her 2-year-old Sam wants, and now he’s angry and hitting her. Here's an excerpt from the script: Mom puts her hand out to hold Sam off and speaks firmly: “You are MAD! Still, NO hurting Mummy.”
Sam: (flailing at her) “NEED hurt you, Mummy!” Mom: (reflecting his feelings as she fends him off) “You are so mad you want to hurt? You are really, really mad?”
Sam: (still flailing but looking at her now that she's showing him she understands) “MAD!” Mom: (looking him in the eye with understanding) “Yes, you are VERY MAD! Show me! Stomp your foot! Shout ‘MAD!’ But NO hurting.” Sam stops flailing at Mom and shouts at her: “MAD!”
Sam's looking at mom's eyes now that he feels understood. With the eye contact, Sam's face crumples, and he begins to cry. Mom gathers him onto her lap. He cries and cries. Finally, he stops, sniffling.
The scene ends with the pair, both calm now and holding each other, going over Sam’s feelings one more time and stressing again that hurting other people isn’t okay to do. (You can find the whole script here.)
Sam learned “that his mom understands when he's upset and will help him with his feelings,” Dr. Markham explains. Also, “that when he feels angry, there is something he can do with the anger to let other people know, without hurting them…And, maybe most important of all, that his mother's love for him is unconditional -- no matter what.”
When trying out this parenting tactic with your little one, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Establish a connection. To be able to get your child to understand that you know what he’s going through, you need to be fully present and mindful. Just like the mom above, look in your child’s eyes when you speak to him. Then, be ready to hold and cuddle your child to comfort him when he stops hitting.
2. Be calm but firm. Your child needs to know that hitting is not acceptable behavior. “Kids need our clear, firm limits when behavior is off track,” says Dr. Markham. Shouting, however, is not a good way to get the message across. It will only make the situation harder to handle.
Instead, keep calm (a difficult but crucial first step!) and speak in a firm manner. With your voice, tell your child that you’re telling him something serious. You can stress certain words as the mom did above, but avoid yelling.
3. Let your child know that feeling angry is okay. Your child has to know that emotions like anger or sadness are okay, and it’s what we do when we feel them that matters. “Those who are taught that certain emotions, such as sadness or anger, aren’t acceptable often struggle to understand and express themselves,” says psychiatrist Dr. David Sack in an article for Huffington Post.
In the situation above, the mom first labeled her child’s feelings (“mad”). Then, she gave examples on what he can do to let them out (stomp his foot and shout “mad”). She also made sure to send him the message that hitting and hurting when he’s frustrated is not something he should do. 4. Avoid spanking your child as a response to his hitting. Your child will never get the message it is wrong to hit someone when you are spanking him even if you see it as a disciplinary approach. “You're simply reinforcing the message that it's okay to use your hands to resolve a situation. Using spanking as a consequence can especially confuse her because you are trying to teach her that hitting is wrong,” Dr. Sear says. 5. Show your love! Both Dr. Markham and Dr. Sears agree that being loving is a great response to a child who hits. “Modeling appropriate touch helps [your child] learn how to use her hands in a more gentle manner,” said the latter. “Spend as much time as you can holding and snuggling [her].”
Good advice for us moms who love to cuddle, right?