LEARN – WHY DO CHILDREN HIT?
In order to solve a problem, we must begin by understanding it. In the case of hitting, we require a fundamental understanding of why children do it. For better or worse, physical contact is an innate human impulse.
A lot of hitting especially at an early age can be playful and natural. Human beings by nature are kinesthetic creatures. The word kinesthetic is derived from the Greek words kin (meaning to move, set in motion) and esthesia (meaning capacity for feeling or sensation; sensitivity). In other words, we learn and sense by moving and using our bodies.
The younger we are, the more natural it is for us to use our hands and mount by default. These are our first resources used for discovery. They are also our first social tools. It is much easier for a toddler to use them as means of expression than it is to use words they have yet to fully grasp.
Beyond approximately 2 years old however things should begin to evolve. Children begin to expand their vocabulary and use words to express themselves. As part of that natural process, they are slowly adding more tools to their toolkit.
When it comes to children who are slightly older, the focus must shift towards the nature and frequency of the hitting that occurs.
ASK YOURSELF – IS MY CHILD’S HITTING AGGRESSIVE?
You must answer the above question honestly in order to help your child change for the better.If your answer is ‘yes’, the hitting habit must be stopped at as early an age as possible.
Typically, aggressive hitting starts between 18 months and 2.5 years of age. This is the period where children meet their first real challenges. As they begin to discover and do things, they feel the urge to express themselves thoughtfully and verbally. The challenge is that they often lack the vocabulary and self-awareness to do so. The results in the physical expression of their feelings. Almost every child within this age group will hit or lash out at you or others around them. It is not uncommon for them to bite as well. Both are easy and natural uses of the hands and mouth. Unfortunately for us, these are the most effective actions they can use to express the emotional spectrum that includes frustration, anger, fear and sadness.
If your child uses physical aggressive often, you must understand why they are doing so. What are they trying to do? What results/outcomes are they getting from such behavior?
Usually the reason a child opts to hit in a given situation can be explained by one of the following. They are trying to:
- Push Boundaries and Test Limits – this is the age when children begin to identify as individuals. This sense of self is completely natural. A common byproduct is their desire and tendency to see how far they can push things before they get an undesirable result. They are testing and establishing their limits in terms of what will be tolerated and what won’t be.
- Exert Dominance & Control – humans are social creatures. We instinctively seek the company of others. Within these naturally forming groups, it is not uncommon for a hierarchy or leadership structure to be established and tested. Individuals will often jockey for position with one another . This can happen at home with family. Think about how children react when the dinner option provided is not their favourite. It is also common when children play with their peers. Often the child who is the most aggressive will reap short term rewards, like getting the toy they want by providing real consequences to those who challenge them.
- Get Your Attention – children possess an incredible natural intelligence when it comes to figuring out what works to get attention. Physical hitting is right at the top of this list. It is quick and effective. Be aware when your child’s tendency to hit is a cry for attention.
- Express Fear – fear is one of the most natural and powerful emotions. Hitting in such situations is often reactionary. It is also easily justifiable for a child. Our basic evolutionary wiring can take over when we feel frightened. Think of it as a form of autopilot.
- Express their Over-stimulation and Exhaustion – as any parent can attest to, children are far more likely to be physically aggressive or reactionary when they are in certain states of being. Exhaustion leads to cranky behavior including crying, whining and of course hitting. Over-stimulation can have a similar effect. When a child is excited and doesn’t know what to do with themselves the tendency to hit increases dramatically.
- Mirror their Peers – monkey see monkey do. Children will do a lot in the name of acceptance from their peers or siblings. Mirroring behavior in order to be seen or treated as part of the ‘team’ is a human phenomenon. This type of acceptance is a powerful confidence boost. They are following an example (hitting) to get a desired result (inclusion). Understand also that your child will model and mirror your behavior innately. More on this below.
UNDERSTAND THE SITUATION – WHY DOES MY CHILD HIT?
When dealt with ineffectively, hitting can quickly become a habit for your child. Habits form with repetition and time. We must understand when our child has formed such a habit and take responsibility for it. As parents we are the example. We are also the ones responsible for recognizing undesirable behavior in our child. Such behavior can have long-term social consequences.
If your child has a tendency to default to hitting you must understand why. The ideal place to start your analysis is with you. WARNING – if done correctly this will not be easy. Just remember that it is critical to helping your child. Ask yourself honestly – how do I model aggression? What are my tendencies when it comes to anger and how I express it? What example am I setting?
Take time to think and take notes about how you handle the following in your life:
- Conflict resolution
- Communicating disappointment (of yourself and others)
- Getting your point across
If your child has siblings or other family they often interact with, observe their interaction and tendencies as well. These are all people who have an influence on your child. They are all people your child observes and may model on some level.
Ask them to answer the above questions about themselves. Preface it by saying that they do not have to share their answers with you or anyone else. It is not meant to offend or belittle. Ultimately, it is an exercise in self-awareness that would serve everyone. If you really want to dive deep ask someone close to you whose opinion you trust about your skills and tendencies with the above. Be prepared for anything and everything. The truth can hurt, but if you are open you will learn more about yourself than you can imagine.
DEVELOP THE SOLUTION
Know this – there is no magic flip of a switch that will happen. It took time to get you here. It will take time to get you where you want to be. Develop is the key word here. It will take trial and error. It will be an exercise in patience. You will need to observe what works, what doesn’t and iterate accordingly.
There is one critical point that deserves to be isolated and understood. The most important thing to remember is that if your child hits you or someone else, you must not retaliate with physical hitting of your own. It is completely counterproductive. All it serves to do is reinforce that physical hitting is an appropriate way to resolve situations. It signals that it is OK to hit in order to exert influence and display dominance. Does it make sense to hit someone in order to teach them that hitting is wrong?
There are far more effective ways to disrupt and change your child’s hitting habit. It all starts with identifying the triggers and acting accordingly.
STEP 1 – Find the Trigger
Habits are behavioral patterns. A child who hits often is an example of someone who has developed a habit. Luckily, understanding habits and their components allows for an effective way to deal with them. Habits are composed of core ‘building blocks’. They are as follows:
- Routine – a sequence of actions that occur automatically – the habit itself. In the case of hitting it is the physical act of inflicting harm.
- Reward – the positive outcome received from the ‘routine’, the reason it gets repeated. In the case of hitting the reward for your child could be getting what they want (power, attention or a reaction).
- Craving – the desire to experience the positive outcome (reward) again. This is what causes a person to do it again. Eventually the habit persists thanks to this repetition.
- Cue/Trigger – the event that sets the habit pattern into motion. Think of it as the green light that signals to a car that it is time to go.
If you can identify the trigger, you have a far greater chance of changing the undesired behaviour. In this case hitting. Almost all triggers falls into one of the five following categories:
- Location – where the child is when the hitting happens. Examples include the school playground, classroom or sandbox at the park.
- Time – what time of the day it is when the child hits. Examples include early afternoon or late evening.
- Emotional State – what emotional state the child finds themselves in when they tend to hit others. Examples include cranky, irritable or excited.
- Other People – who is around the child when they hit. Examples include other young children or siblings.
- Immediately Preceding Action – what action happens just before they hit. Examples include your child losing a game or having to share a toy.
Understand that the five categories above and you will make tremendous progress in determining when and where your child is likely to hit. Try to write the five categories down and take note of them whenever your child does hit. Eventually (and it won’t take long) you will come to realize that your child has their own triggers.
From experience, there can be overlap between the categories. For example, emotional state and time are interrelated to a degree. If your child has a set sleeping or nap schedule, they are more likely to be in a certain emotional state at certain times of the day. Location and other people can also be related if your child for example hits at school.
Once you learn what gets your child going, you can opt to avoid the trigger situations, be they crowded places, competitive games with stakes or play time. What you will quickly realize however is that as effective as this may be, it is not the best solution. Your child will not be able to avoid such situations forever. At some point they will have to have better ways to deal and react. Once you know the specific triggers, You must modify your child’s behavior pattern.
STEP 2 – Modify your Child’s Hitting Habit Effectively
There are several strategies that can be used to modify your child’s behavior. The key is to act quickly and consistently. This combination will enforce the change in the moment while also making clear what is expected and accepted. The techniques below are most effective when used in concert with one another.
Remember that you must be consistent and clear with your words and actions. Know what you want and expect and do not send mixed signals. Hitting is not to be tolerated in certain situations or with certain people. The only two possible exceptions are during martial arts training or when there is no other choice but to use self-defense when in danger. Other than this there must be no confusion or gray area.
Interrupt the Pattern
Distraction can be an incredibly effective tool. Experiment with the following. When you notice a common trigger and that your child is about to hit opt for a more pleasant interaction or give them something to do with their hands. This has to be done in the moment and requires quick action. Examples include asking them to hold their favourite toy or give an enthusiastic high five rather than allowing them to use their hands to inflict the intended damage.
The more advanced form of interruption is to simply stop them (physical interruption). The most effective way to do this once the hitting is about to take place is to physically stop their hands and sternly use the words ‘no hitting’ while looking them in the eye. Eventually they will come to expect it or listen to the message on their own.
Use Positive Reinforcement
There is no greater way to change human behavior than the use of positive reinforcement. All that means is making people feel good (reward) about doing the right things (desired behavior). It can be used with incredible effectiveness to shape new actions and routines where undesirable ones existed before. The key once again is that you must genuinely reward the behavior you want as soon as it happens. This timing creates a link between the desired behavior and the reward. Effective methods of reward include using words of encouragement and praise as well as expressing and showing kindness. Other more elaborate rewards can include candy or treats however these can be a challenge to deliver in the moment and may set a bad precedent moving forward.
You may need to experiment with rewards to see what works for your child. Keep at it. Eventually the behaviors you make an effort to reward will begin to take hold and become the new patterns.
IF NEED BE
You must be prepared to discipline your child when hitting becomes an issue or seems highly likely. One of the most effective ways to do this is to separate your child from the group or person they are likely to hit. This must be done without ostracizing them or embarrassing them. Although some would simply call this a timeout, there is a far better option. By choosing to call it ‘time to calm down’ rather than a disciplinary timeout (especially in front of other kids) there is far less room for shame and resentment. Neither of these are productive. Instead they take away from the desired outcome. Let your child know that they can get back to it once they have calmed down sufficiently and are ready. If they fail to do so, they must continue to wait. Throwing a fit is obviously the opposite of being calm. Your child will quickly understand what is expected and appropriate.
The only way to fix a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. Provide your child with alternative forms of expression. These options will eventually replace their hitting.
STEP 3 – Offer Alternatives
Use Positive Limits – Understand when you are required to intervene in a given situation. Once again this starts with an awareness of your child’s triggers. The key is to get involved at the right time and in the right manner. For the latter, do not do something that will illicit shame and embarrassment. These are negative associations and will not work in the moment or over the long term. When you decide to act, do so with calmness and kindness. A great way to do this is by gently putting your arm around your child’s midsection during group play and telling them you are doing it to keep them safe. This is key. Let them know that they can still play and when the situation is back to where it needs to be you will leave. By framing it around their safety, there is no sense of loss. Instead, it links the intervention to a positive outcome. They had the time to calm down with you around and once they got there they were able to continue playing as if it did not happen. Eventually this along with the positive reinforcement of good behavior your child will no longer need you standing by.
Be prepared for the outcome. In certain situations they will resist, push and even cry. Keep calm in the face of all this. Stay consistent with your message. Let them know that you will leave once you are no longer worried about their safety. Remember that what you do today must be for the long haul. It may be difficult and require a lot of effort but it will help you raise a thoughtful and aware child. Those traits follow them later in life.
Be Giving of Your Time – Spend more time with your child in situations where you are able to interact with them by touching positively and appropriately. Doing so reinforces appropriate touching and the behavior around it. Stay close to them physically. Touch them on the shoulder when you talk to them and offer them hugs and high fives. Physical contact is powerful and natural. Help them form the right habits around it in the comfort and confines of your home.
Perhaps the best way to spend effective time with your child is to spend time fully absorbed with them in whatever it is that they want to do. Better yet, make a daily practice whenever possible. Even 5 to 10 minutes can have a profound impact. Morning time is ideal however it can obviously a challenge for most of us who rush through the beginning of the day in a mad scramble. Try to wake up 10 minutes earlier in order to spend this time playing or story telling. It is amazing how many of the reasons for hitting can be eliminated with this daily practice. They will not crave your attention or try to exert dominance. The time is theirs to share with you doing exactly what they want. They will mirror your compassion and find themselves in a content and calm emotional state. Remember and be inspired by the fact that winning the morning often means riding that wave and winning the entire day.
The most important and respectful thing you can do for your child is to listen with everything you’ve got whenever possible. Acknowledge their feelings and situation at hand if something is not going well for them. Show them that you care deeply about their feelings and well-being. Encourage safety and empathy, particularly when they need it most. That includes whenever they are tense, ready to cry, or in need of help with something. They may not choose to express themselves appropriately at all times, but then again do you? We all have bad moments. Listen to them like there is no one else in the world except the two of you. The impact will be profound. Trust me.
Use Positive Constraints – This concept is easily one of the most powerful and simple ones to implement. Positive constraints will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. A great example is if your child has hitting issues around sharing and playing well with others. I encourage you to try using a share timer. This could be as crude as a timer on your mobile phone or a song played on loop. A child will quickly establish a start and end to their time. More importantly, they will know and understand that it is fair and that they will be getting their chance again. The latter point eliminates fear and confusion. Another positive constraint if a child tends to be rough is that touching is only allowed when it is gentle or only if it is in a way that the child themselves would like to be touched. This lays out a framework of understanding including what is right and wrong without lecturing and restricting. It still allows touching just within parameters that are feasible and enjoyable.
Make Verbalizing and Communication Fun – As mentioned earlier, hitting often starts out as the crudest and easiest way to express emotional states and feelings. As children grow older, they must expand their communication. It is critical that their verbalization and communication be rewarded. It must become something they enjoy doing and build positive associations around. Work on ways to use positive reinforcement (praise, rewards, treats) to encourage their expression in words. Ask open ended questions that get them to speak about their thoughts and feelings. Once again, the easiest way to reward their verbalization is by paying full attention to it. Children figure out very quickly when they are talking to someone who is dedication most of their attention elsewhere.
Allow Play and Activity – This one may seem like a no-brainer for some, but play and exercise are vital parts of overall health. A lot of pent up energy can manifest as aggression and frustration. Allow your child the opportunity to run around and play whether by themselves or with others. Physical activity is as important for mental health as it is for physical health and well being.