If Your Little Kid Is Hitting Everyone, You're Not Alone

by Colleen Dilthey Thomas
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“If you hit one more time, you’re really going to be in big trouble.” Empty promise. Worthless threat. Completely ineffective way to stop the hitting. At least for me and my child. When my youngest son was a toddler, he was a hitter. And I absolutely hated it! It was embarrassing, it was frustrating, it was hurtful to other kids and I felt like a failure as a parent. Everyone would say, “Oh, it’s normal.” Or, “He’ll grow out of it.” Or my favorite, “Just give it time.” When your child is popping the kid next to him every time they disagree, you don’t have the luxury of time. You have to figure things out, and quickly.

A disclaimer: I am not a hitter. So the suggestion to slap him back was never going to work for me. In that vein, he wasn’t mirroring behavior that was happening to him, so where was it coming from? I started to research hitters and causes and what I should do, and most everything said that it was a communication issue. The child was unable to express their feelings with words, so they did it with their hands. That 100 percent made sense to me and was definitely part of what was going on.

Interestingly, this really only happened at home. He wasn’t hitting at school, or his cousins, or anyone else for that matter. But he had no problem hauling off on his brothers or his parents. It was almost as if he knew he couldn’t get away with it at school, but at home, it was a different ballgame. Great. My child was walking all over me.

I tried all kinds of ways to stop it. As soon as I saw him hit, I was in the middle of the fight, trying to get there before his brother returned the favor. If not, it would turn into a slap fest. Now, I had to discipline them both, but I was certainly most concerned with the guy inciting a riot. First things first, I took him out of the situation. Getting him to a neutral place helped to bring his temper down. I would sit him on a chair and essentially put him in time out for a minute or two and let him think it out. This was never a quiet process. There was undoubtedly screaming and yelling and most of the time tears, but that was his moment to get it all out.

Once he had calmed down a bit, I would go back and talk with him. While I may not be a hitter, I am a yeller. And part of the reason that I dumped him in a chair for a time out was for a breather for myself. Yelling at a three-year-old and telling them how not to behave when you are being aggressive is counterintuitive. Those two to three minutes were good for both of us. I would get down at eye level to chat. At this point, I was still not holding him or giving him affection. I needed him to understand that he was in trouble. This is key. The second I put my arms out, I am no longer a disciplinarian, I am a friend. At this point in the process, we weren’t there yet.

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I would explain to him what he had done wrong. I would say no. I would always emphasize that we use our words and not our hands. And I would bring in the brother or father or show on my arm where he had hurt me. This was always poignant. He would softly touch the part of the body that he had hurt and I would encourage him to apologize. I wanted him to know how we use our hands — with love and with kindness, not hitting. For the most part, this worked. At least in the short term. He would likely cry again, this time out of remorse, give a hug and we would move on.

Of course, this wasn’t a one-time fix, and he would inevitably hit again. I would repeat the process, maybe making the time out a little longer — and this time, I would start to take away a privilege. Even at two, three, four years old, they can understand losing snack time or missing out on their favorite show, maybe no story at bedtime. You have to make it sting a bit. It works, you just have to be consistent.

I would be lying if I said that this was an easy and quick process. It wasn’t, but nothing worthwhile is. Time out and taking away privileges and all of that is great, but honestly, sometimes, you just have to remove the trigger. If you can sense that a toy is going to cause a problem, suggest that they take turns before a confrontation takes place. If they can’t come to an agreement, just take it away and invite them to try something else. Stop the problem before it starts. I know, easier said than done. Trust your intuition. You know your child better than anyone.

And above everything, reward the positive. This works the best for kids. Give them a high five when they use their words in a situation you know could have gone a different way. Give them an extra reward at the end of a day with no hitting. Keep the hugs coming. Praise and love and build up that child who you love so much. That is the absolute best way to get them to behave the way that you want them to. They want to see your smile. It makes them feel good. No child wants to feel badly. They will work for that warm fuzzy feeling.

Yes, it really does get better. Yes, it really is normal. And yes, you just have to give it time. No, you don’t have to let your child walk all over you. No, you don’t have to watch your child hurt other children. And no, you don’t have to hit them back. Just as you would tell your child, take a deep breath, walk away and use your words. Children are people too, and if we treat them with respect and encouragement, we will receive the reward.