Does your child ever hit you or other people? How should you react?
As a parent, you may feel unsettled if your child hits you or other people. There are several possible reasons for this behaviour. How should you intervene when your child is being aggressive?
Why do children hit?
Children can react aggressively for a number of reasons:
Young children sometimes hit and scream when they’re frustrated about some sort of limitation. This is because they still lack self-control and because don’t yet have the words to express their emotions. As they get older, they will gradually learn to better control themselves.
- When kids have a toy taken away from them by another child, they may reflexively resort to pushing to defend their territory. This is because before the age of 3, the part of the brain that allows them to think before they act is still undeveloped.
- A child who is jealous of the attention being given to a younger sibling or to someone else may hit to externalize their anger. In this case, it’s recommended to help them name their emotions and learn to express them in an acceptable way (e.g., by using their words to ask for attention or gently tapping their parent on the arm).
- If a child feels afraid or threatened or thinks another child is invading their personal space, hitting can be a reflex they use to protect themself. Gradually, they will learn to speak up and walk away instead of hitting.
- Extroverted children with a more “fiery” temperament may have more difficulty restraining themselves. With time and the help and care of their parents, they will learn not to react by hitting.
Kids sometimes hit because they need to move and expend their “aggressive” energy but don’t yet know how. Free play and other kinds of symbolic games (such as playing ball or sword fighting) help them learn when to stop to avoid hurting others and how to control their energy.
- Children sometimes use violent actions to test limits. They think their parents will give in to their wishes if they act out. It’s important to respond right away and explain to the child that their behaviour is unacceptable. They should then be encouraged to express their frustration in words.
A child who hits their parents may be trying to push them away to assert their individuality. They might feel that their parents’ loving gestures prevent them from being able to play and explore their environment independently.
The importance of reacting quickly
Even if your child’s disappointment or anger is legitimate, they need to learn to express negative emotions in an acceptable way. Never downplay violent actions, whether they’re directed at you or someone else.
Learning to respect others has to start within the family unit, even if your child is still very young. Once your little one has grasped the meaning of the word no, they’re capable of understanding the boundaries you set for them. By first learning to respect you, their parent, your child will learn to respect the rights of others, even if it means sometimes having to put their own desires on the back burner.
Keep in mind that your child needs boundaries. By explaining what is and isn’t acceptable to them in simple terms, you’ll make them feel safe and help them develop their ability to relate to others.
Even if you feel like you’re eliciting negative reactions from your child, responding to their behaviour consistently will pay off in the long run. Little by little, they’ll come to understand what is expected of them and develop skills to better express their negative emotions.
React quickly while staying calm
You are your child’s primary source of physical and psychological security. It’s therefore essential not to let their actions get to you: react quickly and without losing your cool to ensure you continue to provide a safe environment for them. By seeing you manage your anger, your child will learn to do the same.
What should you do if your child hits?
- Never ignore these incidents, even if the person your child hit is no worse for wear.
- If your child looks at you while hitting someone, they may be doing so simply to provoke a reaction and get your attention. To prevent your child from associating hitting with receiving attention from you, attend first to the person they hit. To meet your child’s need for attention, give them positive attention at other times by spending time alone with them.
- Crouch down so you can look your little one in the eye. Express your displeasure firmly and calmly. For instance, you can say, “I won’t tolerate you hitting your brother. In our family, we don’t hit others,” or, “You have the right to be angry, but that doesn’t mean you can hurt me.”
When your child hits someone, never hit them in turn to show them that it hurts. Doing so will send a mixed message and only confuse them. Remember: you are your child’s number one role model.
- Impose a time-out. If your child is old enough, tell them to take a time-out. This will give you a brief moment to calm down and plan how to go over what happened with your child later. Time-outs can also help prevent your child from hitting in the first place. For example, if you sense that a situation is growing strained or that a game with another child is getting too intense, you can suggest a time-out before things escalate. Your child may also need to spend some time alone or do a calm activity after a certain amount of interaction.
- If your child hits you and continues to do so even after you’ve asked them to stop, calmly tell them that you’re going to walk away because you won’t tolerate being hit. Tell them you’ll be happy to spend time with them again when they stop hitting you. If you’re upset, this step will give you a moment to breathe and calm down.
- If your child follows you and continues to hit you, they’re likely looking for contact with you. Try holding them tenderly and securely in your arms and giving them a big hug. Even if they resist at first, don’t let them out of your embrace. This will help soothe them. If that doesn’t work, you can separate yourself from them and say you’ll be back when they’ve calmed down. Before walking away, make sure your child is safe. In addition, try to identify the need that might be behind their behaviour (e.g., do they need sleep, calm, affection, to feel heard . . .).
- Once things are calm, acknowledge what your child was feeling and tell them what you were feeling too. Suggest a different way for them to express themself: “I think you were upset because . . ., but I won’t tolerate hitting. You can communicate what you want in words.”
- Praise your child when they manage to control their emotions and verbally express their anger or their needs.
- Examine your child’s environment to see whether they’re exposed to tension or aggression (e.g., arguments or pent-up friction between parents, a parent or older sibling playing intense and violent video games). If they are, your child may be hitting to express the tension in their environment.
When should you consult a professional?
If your child continues to hit despite the fact that you’ve tried multiple strategies to get them to stop, or if you feel helpless and powerless, it’s recommended to consult a psychologist, psychoeducator, or social worker. They can help you understand the situation and find appropriate ways to put a stop to your child’s behaviour. Don’t hesitate to seek help, as the problem will be easier to solve if addressed early on rather than years later.
If your family is going through a stressful situation (e.g., grieving, separation, blended family, illness, moving, a parent serving in the military), your child may feel that you and their other parent are less available to them and react by hitting.
In this case, you or your child’s other parent may benefit from psychotherapy. You’ll receive guidance on how to be more emotionally available to your child, which will help curb their problematic behaviours.
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: April 2020
Sources and references
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