By Alex MlynekUpdated May 31, 2021
Dorothy Robson and Sean Smith first noticed their three-year-old son, Sebastian, was hitting other kids when he was a year and a half. “At first, we would redirect him and say, ‘You can’t hit. This is a gentle touch,’” says Robson. “But as he gets older, we talk to him about it. We ask him why he’s hitting and whether or not he thinks it’s OK behaviour,” she says. “He’ll apologize and say, ‘I won’t hit again,’ and then he does!”
Sound familiar? Then read on to find out why kids hit, how to help them stop, and when you might need some help.
Hitting, kicking and biting are all normal behaviour for kids in this age group, say Richard Tremblay, the director of the Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development in Montreal, and Joan Durrant, a psychologist and professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
“We’re born being able to attack and defend,” says Tremblay. “But it’s during childhood that we learn not to use physical aggression.” To get there, says Durrant, parents and caregivers need to teach kids to inhibit this natural impulse to hit when they’re upset.
With young toddlers, one way to teach them not to hit is to demonstrate gentle touch. “If Sebastian wasn’t angry or upset, but just hitting to hit, we’d say, ‘Ouch, that hurt me. Can you show me a gentle touch?’” says Robson. “We’d gently stroke his head or arm or wherever he had hit us. Usually this would result in him repeating the action and giving us a big squishy hug.”
If your kid whacks you or another child, remain calm and recognize that this is typical behaviour. If it was another kid who got hurt, first make sure they’re OK, then turn your attention to your little slugger. “You want to move the child away from whoever is being hurt, but not in a way that’s punitive or isolating,” says Durrant. “And you can’t act out by yelling or hitting them, because then you’re not helping them learn how to deal with their emotions.”
“It’s important not to reject them,” says Esther Cherland, a child psychiatrist at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital. “So be very careful about saying something like ‘bad boy!’ You can say ‘Ow, that hurt Mommy,’ but you should say it softly. And unless they’re about to hurt others or themselves, don’t grab them firmly, as it mimics the intensity of their own behaviour.”
But the reality is, it can be tough to hold back if you’re on the receiving end of their blows. “Sometimes Sebastian will have a truck in his hand and he’ll swat me with it,” says Robson. “I’ve yelled – I try not to – but sometimes when you’re in pain, you react.” If you do react too strongly, Durrant says it’s vital to model the behaviour you want to see from your children and apologize. “It helps the child feel like you care about their feelings and show them that it’s OK to apologize.”
And it’s also OK to simply walk away from a kid who’s hitting you. In fact, it teaches them how to stand up for themselves without being aggressive. You should explain why you’re walking away, though, says Durrant. Try: “I’m not going to let you hurt me. We’ll talk about this when we’ve both calmed down.”
For older toddlers, you also want to teach them to label their emotions. “Try saying something like: ‘You were feeling very angry,’” says Durrant. “You want to help them move toward expressing themselves verbally. Once we can put a name to something, we can understand it a lot better,” she says. “If we think of our jobs as helping them build connections between the parts of their brains that involve emotion and the parts that involve language and self-regulation, we approach it very differently than if we think they’re just being bad.”
With this set, you should continue to teach them to understand their feelings and express them verbally, but you now want to help them think through situations, empathize with their playmate, and control their emotions before they act. Once your kid has calmed down, you can take them through scenarios of how they could have reacted.
The more your kid has to choose from when they're, say, in the middle of a heated battle over whether to play Star Wars or Mega Bloks, the better their ability to problem solve will be.
Robson and her husband use this technique with Sebastian. “When he hits, we talk about other ways to get what he needs, like saying ‘I need space.’” And when you see them making non-aggressive choices, Cherland also recommends giving them a compliment like “I saw you let Noah choose which game to play,” to reinforce positive behaviour.
But ongoing hitting could be a sign of more serious neurological issues. That seems to be the story with seven-year-old Zoe,* who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) just before she turned five. Her parents, Jessica and Matt Brandson,* have tried everything they could think of to stop Zoe from using physical aggression, but she continues to hit her four-year-old sister, Charlotte*. “If Charlotte crosses her, she hits first and asks questions later,” says Jessica. “She sees it as retaliation and thinks it’s justified if Charlotte has wronged her.”
Jessica has taken parenting courses, read countless books, and the family even had a counsellor come to their home once a week for six months, and that’s when they learned a few magic words.
When Zoe hits, her parents say: “You hit, you sit!” and she has to go sit on the stairs for seven minutes (one minute for every year of her age). Jessica says it works because it sends a clear message to Zoe that there’s a predictable, non-negotiable consequence.
And all our experts agree that if parents hit their kids, it’s very difficult for kids to learn not to hit in a moment of conflict. “A lot of what we call ‘physical punishment’ is retaliation,” Durrant says. “And we don’t want to teach our children to retaliate. We want to teach them to stand up for themselves.”
*Name has been changed
This article was originally published in March 2013.