My Preschooler Hits

by Deborah Gilboa, Family Physician
Originally Published: 

Got a hitter on your hands? You’re far from alone; physical violence is actually very normal two or three year old behavior. Of course, even as a normal part of development, you can’t ignore it. So what do you do?

The first thing to do when a child physically hurts another child is to give a short, clear message: “No hitting.” Set that child physically aside for a moment and focus loving attention on the child he hit. “Are you alright? How can I help you?” This will show him that hitting does not get him a great deal of that highest of kid currency: adult attention.

The second priority is to teach your child to apologize and offer to help. For a very verbal 3 ½ year old, he can say “I’m sorry for hitting” and offer to get a cold pack, give a hug, share a toy. If he can’t do all that, have him just say “Sorry.” If he won’t do these things, or if this is not his first physical outburst of the day, then a time out is a great behavior changing tool. If that doesn’t work you may have to do exactly what you are already doing – go home or change his environment entirely by sending him to a different room for a little while.

The third ingredient in correcting this behavior is one that we often forget with boys. According to a study quoted in “Raising Cain – Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys” by Dan Kindlon, PhD and Michael Thompson, PhD, when girls hit we ask them “Why did you do that?” and when boys hit we simply correct the behavior. They go on to point out that we then penalize men for a failure to name their emotions, but that we haven’t given boys the words they need to do just that. If we taught children then names of only a few colors they would describe the world using just those few colors. Similarly, if boys are not taught to recognize and identify the whole range of negative (as well as positive) feelings they experience, it will be much harder for them to “use their words.”

So, for this third point, wait until the child has calmed a little. Then ask him, as nonjudgementally as possible “Why did you hit?” See if he can name the feelings that led him to it (anger, frustration, embarrassment, jealousy, etc); if he can’t then offer suggestions until he agrees. Then spend just one or two minutes asking him to think of what he could do next time he feels that way.

These changes will take weeks or months to be effective, so don’t give up, and remember this is a normal developmental stage. If you are consistent, your child will do this less and less often. At least until middle elementary school, when most boys communicate by punching each other, even in friendship.

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