Note: This article is primarily geared towards parents of toddlers and elementary school aged children.
We’ve all been there. Cringing at the sight of a child hitting their parent or even worse, we’re the parent being hit by our children. It’s frustrating, embarrassing, infuriating, and confounding. As a parent, it can also make you feel desperate, ashamed, helpless, and confused.
Parents worry that their child’s behavior is their fault or that they must be doing something wrong for their child to behave a certain way. Some parents are too ashamed to ask for help and tolerate or allow the hitting to continue thinking it’s a passing phase. Other parents respond by screaming at their children or hitting them back, the least effective and most problematic response. Most psychologists will say that at some point all children hit and that it’s our response to their hitting behavior that will most likely influence whether or not they hit again.
Staying calm when our children hit us is a tall order. The pain of the hit immediately makes us want to respond on an animal level, which means we either defend ourselves or we escape the situation. Any response we make from that emotional state is bound to be a bad one and could even exacerbate and continue the problem — as in your child will continue hitting you. So that begs the question: what do you do when your child hits you?
- Freeze. The first thing we have to do, and it’s going to be hard, is freeze. Close your eyes, count down from 20 backwards, breathe, and bring your immediate reaction down to a reasonable level. It’s okay to even step away for a moment to collect yourself as long as the child is safe.
- Use Your Mommy Ninja Moves. Stop your child from hitting you. If you see a hit heading your way, catch the arm before they make contact and say something like “We don’t hit. I’m going to make sure you don’t hurt yourself or others.” Say and do this firmly, but not painfully, to make sure the child gets the point.
- Say What You See. Verbalize what’s happening in the moment. “You’re hitting and mommy doesn’t like that” or “I understand you are angry, but it is not okay to hit people.” Verbalizing the action helps the child see more clearly what’s happening, what the reaction is, and how you can use words as a form of expression instead of hitting.
- Respond Verbally And Thoughtfully. Look your child in the eye at their level and speak in a gentle voice. Set boundaries with your child regarding their behavior that includes explaining why hitting is unacceptable, highlighting other ways to effectively express themselves, validating their feelings, and expressing your own emotions.
- Determine Where The Hit Came From. What happened that provoked the behavior? Is your child sad, angry, disappointed? Finding the source or reason for the hitting response will help you understand the underlying feelings your child is experiencing, which you as a parent can them more easily respond to.
- Model The Behavior You Want To See. When you’re calm, patient, empathetic, and understanding, it’s easier to connect with your child and the feelings he or she is experiencing. For older children, talk to them about the situation using “feeling” words and words that can convey what’s going on inside. If your child knows you’re there for them, they’ll feel more comfortable revealing what’s going on with them. With smaller children, especially toddlers, the most common age range for hitting behaviors in a child, modeling calmness and patience while making it clear you do not tolerate hitting will demonstrate to them how they should respond when upset.
Hitting is a big deal and there’s no one size fits all solution to this emotional developmental issue. However, you should never hit your child back. Hitting teaches your child to follow your actions and not your words. When you say, “Don’t hit,” and then you hit your child, it sends mixed messages and your child will continue hitting. If the situation is particularly bad and you’re seeing a negative pattern of hitting behavior, consider seeking the services of a school counselor or child psychologist. At home read books about empathy and appropriate and more effective coping mechanisms. Good luck and live to parent another day.