Dealing with a child who hits can be a challenging and sensitive issue for parents. Working out what to do when a child hits requires a thoughtful approach that focuses on understanding and guiding our child’s behavior rather than resorting to punishment or shame.
Often discussions about what to do when a child hits relate to younger children – toddlers and preschoolers – but you can also struggle with these issues with an older child. Today I’m sharing some strategies for helping an older child (ages 5-9) who hits
These ideas for dealing with a child who hits are rooted in empathy, respect, and building a strong connection with your kids. We look at the underlying causes of hitting, try to understand our children’s emotions and share some practical ideas for working towards a healthier way of expressing themselves and dealing with their emotions.
While these strategies for helping a child who hits are aimed at older kids, if you have toddlers or preschoolers who hit, they may also be useful, you may just need to modify the language and lower your expectations a little.
Understanding Why a Child Hits
If you are struggling with a child who is lashing out and hitting, the first thing to do is look for the underlying reason.
Figuring out why a child is hitting is key to finding the best way to deal with it.
Older kids can often help you figure out what is going on for them if you have an open, honest, and caring conversation.
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 figuring out what is going on for your child and helping them.
Some questions you might ask to work out why your child is hitting:
How were you feeling right before you hit X?
What happened right before you wanted to hit?
How did you feel after you hit?
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.
Some other questions to think about when working out why a child hits:
Is there a pattern to when the behaviour occurs?
Is your child hungry? tired? overstimulated?
Is there a communication struggle when the behaviour occurs?
Do you notice any physical changes right before your child hits?
Is your child going through any major changes or growth spurts right now?
I often find the reason an older 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.
If your child is often frustrated and angry these activities on anger management for kids may help.
For younger children a reason for hitting is often difficulty with communication – a toddler or preschooler may not have the words to express their frustration – while older children have better language skills this can still be a big factor in hitting. Even though they have the language skills, sometimes kids can’t get the words out or they feel like they won’t be listened too which increased their frustration and they lash out.
Sometimes the anger and frustration can come from feeling powerless. When big changes are happening our kids may feel out of control and overwhelmed. Our kids may feel like they are not listened to, or understood, they may feel powerless to get their needs met.
Even adults experience these feelings and even adults lash out sometimes. 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 feel like no ever listens to you, 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 smash something… That is how your child is feeling when they lash out.
So, what can we do about that?
What to do when a Child Hits.
So it’s all well and good to spend time working out why your child hits, but what do we do, in the moment, when our child is lashing out?
A good way to deal with a child hitting in the moment is to have a positive first response already figured out. Follow these simple steps to deal with a child hitting in a positive way:
- Be there.
If you see your child lash out, step in and be there, physically. Usually that just involves you moving towards the children and being physically close, but sometimes you might have to put your arm out, or even physically block an action, but do so as gently and non-confrontationally as possible.
- Explain the situation.
This is a simple, but really powerful action – simply say what you see without judgment.
“You hit your brother, you seem really mad, and your brother is crying.”
“You both want that toy, you both seem mad, and you hit him.”
This helps your child understand the situation, and understand that you are there to help, not judge.
- Offer an Alternative
Give your child ideas for another way to manage the situation. Give them the words to tell the other person they are frustrated or angry. Give them ideas for how to take turns or how to resolve the conflict so everyone wins. Give them an alternative way to express their frustration and get their anger out of their bodies without hurting someone else – punch a pillow, throw a ball at a rebound net, run around outside.
These steps don’t work perfectly every time, but the more you use them with your kids the more effective they will be. Your kids will know that while you are not going to punish them or shame them for hitting, you are also not going to accept that behaviour. They will learn that your will be there it help them do better, rather than make them feel worse.
How to Help a Child Stop Hitting
While the steps above are great to use in the moment, the long term goal is to prevent your child from hitting in the first place. What we want is to teach our children more positive ways to express and manage their big emotions so hitting never (or at least rarely) happens. To do that we need to work on teaching our kids skills and strategies to use before they get to hitting.
Most kids don’t want to hit, most feel bad about their actions, so once you’ve worked out the reasons your child might be hitting you can work with them to come up with some strategies to avoid it.
If your child is lashing out because of anger and frustration come up with some ideas for ways they can get their anger out of their bodies in a positive way:
Set up a punching bag or pillow they can hit instead.
Throw or kick a ball against a wall or rebound net.
Get a stress ball they can squeeze, or even scrunch up some paper.
Encourage them to go for a run or jump on the trampoline or do something else physical to release the sensations.
If your child is lashing out because they are struggling to communicate their needs give them some words and phrases they can use in common situations:
If they want a turn of a toy they can say “Can please I have a turn when you are finished?”
If their feelings have been hurt they can say “You made me feel really sad/angry/scared”
If they are feeling really angry they can say “I am feeling SO ANGRY right now!”
If your child is lashing out because they feel powerless or overwhelmed teach them how to move away or ask for help:
If they are feeling frustrated by a situation they can ask and adult for help “Can you please help me deal with this before I get too angry?”
If they are feeling overwhelmed set up a safe space they can retreat to such as their bedroom, or a sensory area where they can be alone.
Help your kids learn how to negotiate so everyone wins.
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 prompt them before things get out of hand.
And don’t forget to notice when your child managed their anger well and doesn’t lash out.
Notice and say out loud when you see your child handling frustration well. Tell them how great it is that they were able to negotiate a win win situation for everyone. Tell them how great it is to see them using the pushing bag when they are feeling frustrated. Tell them you are pleased they came to you to ask for help before things go out of control. Make it your goal to point out when they are using the strategies you came up with together, and they will be better able to remember and use those strategies in the future.
What to do After a Child has Hit Another?
So all your strategies have failed and someone has lashed out, how do you deal with it after a child has hurt another?
I think that depends on the age of the children, but at any age the first thing to do is make sure the child who has been hit is ok and is safe.
Once you have made sure the hitting has stopped and the other child is ok, offer comfort to anyone who needs it – that includes the child who has hit.
Your aim is to help both children feel safe, and shaming or punishing the child who has lashed out makes them feel worse, doesn’t teach them how to do better, and sets them up for another incident down the track.
Forcing the hitter to say sorry is also a shaming technique and doesn’t achieve anything (a forced sorry means nothing to either party) but older children can learn about restitution. They may be able to apologise or make things right after the incident by offering an alternative activity, or a hug, or whatever works for both children, but they might need time to calm down and work through the situation. Moving away can itself be a form or restitution as the child recognises they can’t be in that space at that time.
What strategies have you used to help a child who hits?
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, punishing them, or using violence towards them.
More Parenting Tips and Hacks.
If you are struggling with how to manage your kids big emotions in a more gentle and responsive way that focusses on connection and learning rather than shame and punishment, these articles may help.
Ok, you lost your cool and yelled at your kids, what can you do after you’ve yelled to make things better?
Try these practical strategies to use the next time your child has a tantrum or meltdown.