I chatted about this with friends on twitter earlier this week…
How do you help a child who hits?
Usually these discussions relate to younger preschoolers, but we are also dealing with similar issues with an older child lashing out at siblings at the moment. Interestingly, when I sit down to think about how we will deal with it, my ideas for the older child are very similar to the ideas I shared with my friend who has a younger child who is hitting.
The first thing I look at is the reason.
Figuring out why a child is lashing out is key to deciding out how to deal with it.
Ask the child why they feel like hitting others.
Ask them how they are feeling when they want to hit.
Don’t try interrogating the child when they are ‘in the moment’, even adults struggle to have a sane conversation when angry or frustrated. Wait until things have calmed down and then broach the subject, and just ask, don’t accuse. Try to keep your language as neutral and loving as possible. This isn’t about punishment it’s about finding a solution.
Even an older child might not be able to answer these questions, but the resulting conversation might offer some insights and help you have a good guess at the reason behind the behavior.
If not have a good think about when the behavior occurs. Is there any pattern? Do you see any physical changes in your child before they lash out? Are they struggling with any milestones at the moment?
I often find the reason a child lashes out and hits is to do with big, overwhelming feelings of anger and frustration, and the child not knowing what to do about them or how to express them.
Haven’t we all been there as an adult?
Haven’t we all lost our cool and lashed out, perhaps with words, when our anger has gotten the better of us?
Imagine that feeling and then imagine that you don’t know the words to use, imagine you don’t have as much life experience, or self control and your whole body is tense with anger and you just need to hit or grab or mash something… That is how your child is feeling when they lash out.
So, what can we do about that?
I try to get my child to come up with suggestions of other things they can do when they feel angry.
What other physical things can they do to help them get the anger out of their bodies without hurting someone else?
Can they go punch a pillow? Throw a ball at the rebound net? Scrunch up a piece of paper? Run around outside and yell?
What words can they use to explain what they need or how they are feeling without being hurtful?
The idea is to give them a list of strategies to try before they hit.
These strategies are not going to be second nature, and a child is not immediately going to remember them and implement them when they are angry, so the aim of the game is for you to help them. That means when you see or hear them getting to the point of lashing out, you need to step in and help…
Maybe you need to remind them of one of the strategies you’ve come up with;
‘I can see you are feeling angry, do you want to go punch the bed till you feel better?’
Or maybe, especially for younger children, you need to give them the words to use;
‘I can see you want a turn, you can ask Izzy if you can have a turn when she is finished.’
In our house I just need to say ‘do you need to take a break?’ to remind my child of the ideas we’d come up with. Often that simple gives them a chance to stop and think before they hit or say something nasty, and often that is all they need.
Notice that all of these strategies and suggestion involve being pro-active rather than re-active? It is much more effective to deal with the hitting before it happens rather than after, but sometimes that doesn’t happen.
So how do you deal with it after a child has hurt another?
I think that depends on the age of the child.
For our older children the rules are clear – if you hurt someone else you either make it right then and there, or you move away until you can calm down.
Of course these ideas are not the only things you can do to help a child who lashes out. These are just some of the ideas I have used with some success. Every child is different, and every family is different so you might need to take a totally different tack to help your child… but the one thing I feel strongly about is that this is about helping a child learn to deal with these big emotions, not shaming them, or hurting them.
What strategies have you used to help a child who hits?