Recently, a number of parents have contacted me about their children's violent behavior. These children, usually 2-6 years old, have started to strike out at anyone who denies them what they wish, including their parents. Most of these parents are concerned that their children are going off in the wrong direction and are in somewhat of a panic about their child's violent acts. This article will discuss what it means when your young child hits you and what you should do about it.
Aggressive Behavior in Young Children
The first thing a parent should realize is that aggressive behavior is both normal and common in young children. Until a child reaches the age of six, he is not developmentally mature enough to curb his
impulse to hit, kick, or bite. A child may actually know that hitting is wrong, but a child at this age often can't control himself.
Why a Child Hits
There are several reasons why a small child chooses to hit. I will go through the common ones.
Frustration and Anger
Anger is a major problem with children. Anger is an expression of the child's pain and frustration concerning the lack of control he has over his world.
Something happens that deeply troubles your son. He wants to do something and you stop him. Since your child is young, even though his feelings are very strong, he lacks the tools to express his frustration appropriately. This further frustrates him and he explodes in anger. He may strike at you with the only tools at his disposal, by hitting.
Inability to Communicate
One of the reason the "terrible two's" are terrible is that two year olds have very strong wants and desires, but they lack the skills to communicate them to others. Since they lack the verbal skills they express themselves by other means. They have tantrums and they hit.
Let's take a common example. Your child wants to do something and you stop him. This displeases him greatly.
He really wants to say to you:
- "Mommy, dear, I find it confining and inhibiting when you don't let me explore my environment. If you will consult the latest child developmental research you will realize that I have a need to learn about my world and delve into its intricacies. This is how I grow and develop intellectually. Don't you think it is unwise to be an overprotective parent? Surely you don't want to stunt my growth. I plan to be in University in sixteen years. How do you expect me to be prepared for it if you don't let me learn? So please, just back off a little. I want to see what happens when I stick my fork in the electrical outlet."
Most toddlers do not express themselves like this, but if they could this is the type of thing they would say. Instead they express themselves with the tools that they have available which include, crying tantrums, and hitting you.
Times of Stress
Growing up is hard work. Many times children, who face developmental challenges and are under a lot of stress, go through an aggressive phase. This can be because they have less energy for self control or because the stressful event just pushes them over and makes every little inconvenience seem so much bigger. The result is that such a child is more likely to resort to hitting.
Need to Feel Control
We all need to feel like we have control of the world around us and children are no exception. However, your child has very little control over what happens to him. Often hitting is your child's way of trying to control some aspect of his world. It can be his form of self assertion.
Your child needs your attention. Normally he would prefer to get it in a positive way. However, negative attention is better than nothing. A child who is frequently ignored may quickly discover that he becomes center stage when he fights and hits others.
If you react strongly to your child's hitting you may be fueling a lot of future problems. Reacting strongly to negative behavior encourages the child to continue behaving badly.
This is one of the reasons How to Improve Your Child's Behavior spends so much time focusing on developing positive attention.
Testing Your Rules
This is a less common reason for hitting. Children are constantly testing their limits. A child may hit just to see if he can get away with it.
What to do About Hitting
You can get your child to stop hitting by giving him another outlet to express his frustration. You might be able to channel his desire to hit by giving him something appropriate to strike. We have used a punching
bag in the past. My wife even drew a picture of each member of the family so the child could pound the particular person that was causing him anger.
If you don't like a punching bag you can also use a doll or stuffed animal. One parent chose to teach her child who had a biting problem to bite a doll.
Review the Incident
This works as your child gets older. After the crisis has passed go back over the incident and talk it over with your child when he is calm and rational. Make lists of what might work when he gets angry or when there is something you need to tell him that he won't like. Then, when the next crisis happens, you can refer back to the conversion you had with him:
- "You are getting angry again... remember what you and I have decided? You said, and we wrote this down, that when you got angry you would... instead of hitting people."
Teach Communication through Language
It is very healthy for a child to learn to use words to express negative emotions. Teach them to say, "I am really mad right now!" or "I am fuming right now!"
Once a child can express his feelings in a more direct and mature way, the hitting will slowly stop.
Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings
Children hit because they can't communicate their feelings. When you acknowledge your child's feelings you eliminate this reason for hitting.
Say things like:
This does not mean you are giving in, but it will remove one of the causes of his anger by showing him you understand his feelings. It is alright for a child to feel angry. It is normal. What you want to teach him is to express anger in ways other than hitting.
Teach that Hitting is Wrong
Even though your child may not be old enough to help himself, it is important that your child know that aggressive behavior is wrong. Children don't know automatically that hitting is wrong. This is something they have to be taught.
When your child tries to hit you, grab his hands firmly, look him in the eyes and say:
Children's books that deal with anger are also a great teaching tool for children.
Pay Attention to Triggers
Pay attention to your child's daily cycles. Is there a particular time of day that aggressive behavior increases? If your child loses control before dinner or after school, it may just be a sign that he is
hungry. Healthy snacks like nuts, vegetables and fruits may take care of the problem.
Does your child hit when overtired? Then quiet time might be the answer. If you pay attention to what is happening in your child's world, then you may find an easy solution to much of his aggressive behavior.
Be a Good Role Model
I do not want to get into the issue of whether spanking a child is good or bad parenting. However, children are more likely to hit if they see the parents hitting. If you are concerned about aggressive behavior in your child, then your child should not see you use spanking as a form of punishment. That means if you choose to spank another child, you should do it privately and in a way your aggressive child does not see or know about it.
Limit Exposure to Aggression
You should keep your children from seeing aggressive images on television, in movies, and in books. You should also avoid aggressive video games and toys.
For most children, violent behavior is just a stage. Sooner or later they grow out of it. Your job as a parent is to understand the cause of your child's hitting. Then you can teach your child better ways of expressing himself other than by hitting.
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