I remember the first time it happened. We were new to a city, and I had managed to arrange a play date for my toddler and baby. (I only had two children at the time.) I was chatting amiably with my new friend watching our two older children play creatively together, and keeping an eye on what the baby might or might not be eating. Suddenly, there was a loud noise, and then crying . . . lots and lots of crying. My “perfect” 3 year old had just clobbered my friend’s 4 year old. My friend was gracious and forgiving, but our conversation turned to ideas for teaching children to not hit.
Many times children hit because they are frustrated with a situation and don’t have the skills to alleviate their frustration. Some of these skills are cognitive and some of these skills are verbal. And, unfortunately some of these skills just take time to develop. But there are things that can be done to scaffold, or support, the child until the skills have had time to develop.
Scaffolding Cognitive Skills
Some of the most difficult playtime situations involve playing with playmates and toys and trying get the game to go the way everyone wants. The issue is that the children involved don’t have the thinking skills to solve the problems presented. It’s not that the children are lacking in intelligence, it’s just that the children’s brains haven’t had time to develop the logic and reasoning skills needed.
When this kind of situation happens, the best way to help as a parent is actually to step in and model the behavior that should be taking place. This takes playing with the children and actively talking about how to solve the problem. It also means, when the children are distressed, talking a lot about how they are feeling. Recognizing that they are frustrated, sad, upset, or angry will help them develop the vocabulary to name how they are feeling.
Saying things like “I can tell you are really angry right now,” or “I can tell you are really frustrated with this toy,” or “I can tell you are sad,” will begin to enable the children to understand and name how they are feeling. The ability to talk about how they are feeling will help reduce the desire to hit because they will know how to get help for what they are feeling.
Immediate Behavioral Changes
All of the above is work that is done from infancy with children. But when the children are hitting, some immediate behavioral changes need to take place. When a young child hits another child, my immediate response is to take my child out of the situation and gently hold on to the child’s hands. I talk to them about how they are feeling, and I explain that even when we are feeling frustrated or angry, it is still not okay to hit. I make sure I’m clear about the feelings being okay to experience, but that hurting others is never okay. I also issue a warning that hitting is not something we do in our family, and if it continues there will be a formal time out. If it happens a third time, I usually resort to removing my child from the situation.
If the behavior keeps occurring during the same outing, then I will quietly excuse myself and my child. The loss of being with friends and playing, though inconvenient, is often exactly what is needed in order for the child to regain his or her self-control. This also reinforces the severity of the actions the child is engaging in and teaches that these actions will result in a loss of privileges.
These parental responses have to be immediate, gentle, firm, and consistent. If they are not immediate, they lose their effectiveness. If they are not gentle, they teach a double standard – “I as the parent can be mean and rough, but you as a child cannot”. If they are not firm, then the child will get away with the antisocial behavior and continue doing it. And if they are not consistent, then the child will not know what to expect and therefore not know how to behave. It is important to remember that children really want to please their parents and will do their best to meet clear expectations.
Also, these recommendations are for children with age appropriate development. Children with special needs will need to have different interventions to help them overcome the obstacles and frustrations that often lead to hitting. And, children who have been abused will also need to have different interventions to help them overcome their frustrations and antisocial behaviors.
Anyway parents go about it, teaching children to not hit is a journey that takes practice and a lot of patience.
Do you have any special techniques you used to teach your children to not hit? I’d love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments below.