"Odd as it may seem, children who hit are children who are afraid. The fears that cause trouble for a child who hits usually have their roots in some frightening experience earlier in her life, even though she may not seem frightened at all. To manage her fear, the frightened child develops aggressive behavior that flares any time she feels tense. Instead of crying or saying she feels scared when her fears are triggered, she tightens up, can’t ask for help, and lashes out." -- Patty Wipfler
Most of us feel mortified when our child hits another child. We may know intellectually that he's lashing out because he's overwhelmed or scared, but we still feel like it's an emergency. His aggression triggers our "fight or flight" response -- and suddenly our own child looks like the enemy. We feel an urgent need to take action. Punishing action.
But punishing a child who hits doesn't stop the hitting. It just increases the child's fear, making future hitting more likely. To stop the hitting once and for all, you have to address the feelings that are driving the hitting. Here's how.
1. PREVENT hitting if possible. You may think you can't see it coming, but if your child often hits in social situations, you can predict that hitting is likely in every social situation for now, until you do some intervention. The best prevention is the normal preventive maintenance that all kids deserve: Empathy as your go-to response to everything your child expresses, daily roughhousing, daily one-on-one time with each child, routines to help your child feel safe, and scheduled meltdowns. Preventive maintenance keeps your child in good shape emotionally, so he's less likely to hit or end up in the breakdown lane.
But how do you prevent hitting in a situation with other kids? Stay very close, so your child feels more connected to you. That way, whatever happens, he feels like he can handle it, because he has backup -- so he's less likely to lash out. You're also better able to monitor his mood. If you notice him getting tense, move in close physically, between him and the other child. Your presence may calm him, or it may escalate his upset, in which case you can breathe deeply, move him slightly away from the other kids, and skip to Step 7. The good news? You're helping your child with the feelings that were driving his hitting, and no one else even had to get hurt!
2. If your child does hit, breathe. Remind yourself: She's hitting because she's scared. I can handle this. She needs my compassion now. Get between her and the other child to prevent more violence. Model self-regulation by consciously lowering your voice, breathing deeply, and blowing out your tension.
3. Model care and repair. Hopefully, there is another adult present to care for the child who was hit. If not, you'll need to hold and comfort that child. This also gives you a minute to calm yourself before interacting with your own child, so you aren't raging at her.
When the hurt child has calmed, put your arm around your child, and face the other child together. Tell the other child "We are so sorry that Kira (or whatever your child's name is) hit you. She was upset and forgot to use her words. We hope you feel better now."
4. Avoid blame. You can help your child develop empathy by pointing out the effect of her hitting on the other child: "Ouch, Samantha is hurt...hitting hurts!" But making your child feel like a bad person will just backfire: "Mom says what I did was bad...but I couldn't help myself...I must be bad....what if she stops loving me because I am so bad?" This fear is what causes that blank stare we so often see after a child is aggressive. Lecturing about what she's done wrong scares her and puts her on the defensive. So she stares us down, hardening her heart.
See it from your child's perspective. Your child is a little person who is easily overwhelmed in this big world. He gets over-stimulated and disconnected from you and feels all alone and terrified. Or, he has some fear locked up from a past experience, and in this new situation, he just can't manage all his anxiety so his past fears start bubbling up. He can't bear those feelings. So he lashes out. If you can remember all this, you'll feel more sympathy for him. You need that sympathy, because your child won't soften his heart unless you soften yours.
5. Remove your child. Take 10 more deep breaths. Tell your child "Hitting hurts...It was too hard for you with the other kids... we need some time by ourselves to calm down." Don't be mean about it, be kind and understanding. You aren't punishing, you're taking preventive action. Until you help your child with his feelings, he'll almost certainly keep hitting. So remove him from the situation to give him a chance to cry, or to laugh -- both of which help him work though fear. Once you help him feel safe enough to tolerate and feel those tears and fears, they'll evaporate, and the hitting will stop.
6. Resist the urge to lecture. Shouldn't you tell your child that hitting is not ok? Of course! But doesn't he already know that? He just couldn't stop himself. What's important right now is helping him process his feelings, so that he can act the way he knows he should. And he won't surface those feelings unless he feels safe. Telling him what he did wrong doesn't help him feel safe. Later, you'll teach. First, address feelings: "You must have been so upset to hit Samantha....I'm sorry I wasn't here to help....I am right here...You are safe..."
7. Welcome the meltdown. If he has a meltdown because you took him out of the play situation, remind yourself that he's showing you all the overwhelm that led him to hit, and getting it out of his system. That's a good thing. Just breathe your way through it. The more tears, the more feelings he's unloading, and the better he'll feel afterwards. Offer your warmth more than your words. Talk only enough to stay connected and help him feel safe. Don't start analyzing his feelings. Just stay compassionate so he can cry.
8. What if she doesn't cry? Soften your own heart. Empathize with how hard it is for her: "You hit Samantha...you were so upset...I wasn't there...you were worried...That was so hard for you, wasn't it...." If she still doesn't cry, letting her back into the play situation is risky, because she's still likely to hit. Move on to teaching, but be aware that you'll need to get her laughing before you go back with the other kids, or more hitting is likely.
9. Once both you and your child are calm, teach. Which doesn't mean lecture. Think of this as inviting your child to reflect on better ways to handle those feelings, that he might even remember the next time he gets mad at the playground. Do it with a light touch and a sense of humor. You might even need to wait a few hours to have this conversation, until you can do it calmly. Say "Remember at the park today when you hit that little boy? Remember how upset he was? That hurt him. Ouch! What happened?"
Listen to him and reflect: "You were mad at him?...The sandbox was too crowded....tell me more..."
Then help him explore alternatives: "Next time, when you get mad, what else could you do instead of hurting the other person?" Let him answer. If he needs help thinking of alternatives, offer some: "Could you call me? Could you walk away? Could you stomp your foot?"
Then have him practice these responses, so he has 'muscle memory' of them. "Ok, let's practice. This stuffed animal tries to grab your truck. See? You are so mad and want to hit him. But you remember there are other things you can do! So you call me, ok? I am right over here talking to another mom. Call me loud -- MOM!! -- and I will come. Call me right now."
10. Notice your own feelings. You have some big feelings about this, too, especially if your child is hitting with any regularity. Behind your anger there's probably fear. Fear that something is wrong with your child, or you're a bad parent, or he'll be an axe murderer. None of these things are true. But you need to let that fear come up and feel it, so it's exposed to the light of day. Then it will shrivel up and blow away and you'll be better able to help your child.
When we're afraid, our children pick it up, and get more tense. That anxiety actually makes it more likely that they'll lash out. So you're not causing your child's hitting, or her big feelings. But when you can manage your fear and stay compassionate, your child feels safe enough to work through her own fear.
And when there's no more fear, there's no more hitting. Isn't that the future we all want to create?