Updated: Aug 25, 2019
If you are a parent of a toddler between 18 months and 4 years old, chances are you are heading towards or are already in over your head in their world of testing boundaries. Wherever you are on the spectrum, your child is likely already relentless in their pursuit of constantly pushing your buttons. The fact is that they are learning about themselves each day and it is not going to be rainbows and butterflies all the time - hitting is one of the first "skills" they pick up and store in their arsenal.
YOUR RESPONSE IS KEY
As with a lot of other behavioural issues, our response is always key. How you react determines whether you have a full-on toddler meltdown on your hands or not. More often than not, undesirable behaviour manifests because of the way we approach it. On the flip side, this also means that as we learn to handle these situations better, that undesirable behaviour lessens.
The big question is always “why”? There was a period of time when my husband got so upset at our toddler constantly hitting that he wanted to use a cane on him. However, what we need to understand is that these children are trying to learn about how the world works, hence the hitting and tantrums, to test if those are effective tools they can use to navigate in life. They need our help to set boundaries for them instead of being subjected to punishments which negate respectful parenting. Back to our initial question of why - there is usually a variety of reasons: presence of other toddlers, a new sibling at home, loss of autonomy and so on. Hitting represents a call for help. It is the most immediate and effective way to express the fact that they are unhappy with something or someone. "Back off." "That's my toy. I had it first." "Stop following me around." "Don't come so close!" "I want a new toy! I don't want to go home!".
We need to address their feelings and empathize with them. This will turn the situation around and prevent it from going into meltdown central. It is also an opportunity to teach them the correct response that can be used in place of hitting.
PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES
What is a toddler to do if he wants to get his toy back? What do they consider the most efficient and effective way? Hitting, of course. It puts them in a win-win situation - they get their toy back, the antagonist backs off and is likely to move on someplace else. What happens then, if you decide to introduce a punishment here? Your toddler might wonder, "But he took my toy. Why am I being disciplined?" Take another situation where for example, you want to leave the toy store but your toddler does not. Their first response might be to lash out at you. Think about it this way - sometimes we are so upset that we do not have the words to describe our emotions. All you want to do is cry. That is exactly how your toddler is feeling - overwhelmed. And this leads to hitting which is their way of saying "I'm upset at you!".
ADDRESS THE VICTIM FIRST (IF IT'S NOT YOU)
When you attend to the victim first, your hitting toddler will realise that this type of behaviour will not get them your attention . Assess for signs of injury and soothe the other child. In situations like this that involve my younger boy, I like to state that it must have hurt but also that his brother is still learning to control his emotions and actions. Once you have sorted that out, remove your toddler from the area.
GET DOWN TO THEIR LEVEL
This makes a world of a difference. Getting down to their level allows direct eye contact and definitely helps them to listen to what you have to say. I know parents always seem to be strapped for time, multitasking every minute of the day, dealing with the dishes whilst trying to teach toddlers not to hit. However, in this case, it definitely will not work out if you try to speak from a distance or even if you are standing up. The proximity and the idea that you are willing to sit down together to work it out shows them that you care.
BE AWARE OF YOUR TONE
Tone is everything. If your toddler detects a smidgen of aggression or disappointment in your tone, half the battle is lost. They are the most perceptive little beings you can imagine. When my toddler started hitting, I remember making the mistake of letting my anxiety and disappointment come through. "Why did you do that! Hitting your brother is not nice." Here is the thing - he probably knew it was not nice and did not need me to reiterate that. Instead, he needed me to empathise. Now I have learnt to start off our conversation by asking him what happened in a neutral tone.
ACKNOWLEDGE AND EMPATHISE
When they act out, it is because of a defence mechanism and because somewhere deep inside they feel they have been wronged. So when we step in, we first need to acknowledge those feelings. State it simply for them so that in the future they can use those same words to communicate with you better - "You are upset. He took your toy." "You really don't want to leave the toy store." "I hear you, it must be hard."
LESS IS MORE
From past interactions I have had with my hitting toddler, I realised that a lot of the time I started out well and then mucked up with my response and he just went back into defensive mode. I will elaborate on this a bit more with the example below. Having said that, it is okay to make mistakes because that is how we learn. I have learnt that there are some things that need not be said and a lot of the time we can cut back on the lectures. Here is an anecdote from a hitting incident we had recently.
Me: What happened Jules?
Jules: Sassy took my toy so I hit him.
Me: You must be so upset.
Jules. Yes. I was upset so I hit him.
Me: You hit him.
Let me just clarify that previously, instead of just acknowledging the fact that he hit his brother, I would say "Oh dear but hitting is not right. We don't hit our brothers!" This would get him riled up and in turn, aggressive. "Yes it is! We hit our brothers!". I mentioned previously about 'mucking up' with my response and this is one of those instances. I think he felt that I was not empathising (He took my toy, how can you not see that). Which is why I came to say less and just repeat or "sportscast" (narrating as it is) rather than add in my own judgement to the situation.
Jules: I wanted my toy back.
Me: What can you do to get your toy back instead of hitting?
Jules: Give him an alternative.
Me: That's right. Do you think you can do that next time?
Me: Hitting hurts Seth. Look how he's crying. Next time, you can tell him, stop Seth! I am playing with this! Then give him an alternative. What do you do if he continues to snatch
Jules: Call for Mummy.
Me: That's right. Poor Seth has a bruise now because you hit him.
Jules: Sorry Sassy but don't worry it will heal.
Sportscasting means narrating what your child tells you as it is. In my example above, I did exactly this when my toddler told me he had hit his brother. To give you a clearer perspective about sportscasting, here is another example:
Me: You are upset. (Saying it as it is; pointing out his state of mind)
Me: Can you tell me why?
Jules: I don't want to go to school.
Me: You don't want to go to school. (Repeating after him and not adding anything else)
Jules: I want to stay at home.
Me: You want to stay at home.
Me: It's hard, isn't it, when some days you really want to stay at home.
It may sound funny but usually sportscasting and acknowledging their feelings makes everything click. This second example I gave? My son relaxed right after our little conversation and he let me take him to school as usual.
STEP BACK SOMETIMES
Often when it comes to hitting siblings or friends, we are tempted to swoop in to "save" the situation instead of taking a step back to see if they can handle it on their own. I think this applies especially when you have constantly spoken about the behaviour and taught them measures to deal with it. A good friend once shared that her children were playing when her older boy hit his younger sister because she had snatched his toy. Instead of mediating, she watched them from afar and found that her son went over to pat his sister's head moments after and offered her the toy he was playing with. When we refrain from interfering, we give our children an opportunity to practice the skills we have been teaching them.
SET CLEAR, CONSISTENT BOUNDARIES
If you are close when the hitting happens or if your child is hitting you, it is always important to set boundaries. This teaches them that hitting is wrong. Hold their hands firmly and say "I won't let you hit." Screaming and crying will usually occur but go back to acknowledging that they are upset, that it is hard dealing with such feelings and that you are there for them. In my own experience, constantly doing the above has worked wonders with my toddler. He has stopped hitting out at us although he is still working on controlling himself when it comes to his little brother. With time, the frequency of hitting will decrease. Stay gentle and respectful even when the behaviour seems out of hand. Before it does, just remember that you are the anchor your child needs!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rowena (known to most as Ro) is mum to two beautiful boys (sometimes three), who are her greatest teachers in life. In her free time, she never says no to a good book or a zombie flick. Some days, she goes to bed without cleaning up the mess that the boys leave behind in their wake. She blogs about her parenting journey at mumming-it.blogspot.sg.