I recently got this email from a reader whose child is hitting:
“How do I handle a 3.5-year-old who lashes out and hits me in frustration and anger?
I need to stop him from hurting me, but both restraining him and removing myself from his space escalates the situation. What do I do at the time the hitting is happening?
When he has calmed down we talk about letting out these emotions in other ways, such as stomping feet, deep breaths, etc., and reflect on the event quite well.
I need more guidance for the time when the hitting is actually occurring.”
It sounds like this mom is doing everything right when her child is hitting. She is removing herself and when that doesn’t work, she is restraining him so he cannot continue to hit.
Although it can be frustrating, know that aggressive behavior in young children is very common. It sounds like this child is hitting as part of a tantrum, when he is struggling with some big emotions.
Let’s talk about all of these things: what to do in the moment when your child is hitting, how to process with your child after the event has passed, and teaching your child how to manage big emotions to lessen these events in the future.
What to do in the moment when your child is hitting
There are a couple different reasons little ones might hit. Oftentimes it is part of a legitimate tantrum. At that moment, they have no control over their emotions or actions. Other times, they may just be looking for some attention or be showing some frustration.
Knowing the reason your child is hitting will determine how you respond.
When Your Child is Hitting During a Tantrum
First, your ability to stay calm in the moment is crucial. I know what you’re thinking—easier said than done, right? I’m with you! This is something I’ve been working on quite a bit lately. It really takes a lot of practice!
I promise, you will mess up sometimes. You will be triggered when your child is hitting and will react in ways you wish you hadn’t. It happens to everyone, but there is hope. You can repair the relationship.
So, what is the best response when your child is hitting? I mean, you need to keep yourself and others safe. You may need to remove yourself from the situation to keep yourself safe or to calm down your own anger so you don’t do something you regret.
If your child is young, remove yourself from his space but not from his sight. Behavior will be escalated if they cannot see you. Use calm words to tell them that you are moving away to keep yourself safe.
If they follow you and continue hitting, calmly say that you will need to hold their hands to keep yourself safe. Then wrap them in a gentle hug. It’s okay to restrain them to keep them from hitting if you need to. Say, “I love you AND I can’t let you hit me.”
If your child is three or older, they will understand, especially if you’re approaching the incident with empathy and calm. Yes, it may make them even more angry in the moment but that is something you can address when you process the event later.
When I have to do this with my daughter, I often will begin to make up a sweet song about how much I love her and how special she is to me. After about a minute, she will settle down.
Another thing you might want to try when your child is hitting is to simply remove them from the situation. Many parents have said that bringing their child outside will help stop a tantrum. I’m not sure if it’s the change in scenery or awakening different senses that helps, but it’s worth a try! I heard a story of a parent who even did that during a middle of the night tantrum (if you haven’t experienced one of those yet, consider yourself lucky!).
When Your Child is Hitting for Attention or Another Reason
What if your child is hitting to get your attention or because they’re frustrated? This is a whole different thing that requires a completely different response.
Many parents don’t realize that when a child is hitting them for attention, they are looking for a positive physical connection. Try simply connecting in that moment with a few minutes of roughhousing, a game of chase, or a quick pillow fight. You might be surprised to see them happily go back to what they were doing after that!
If your child is hitting because they are frustrated or can’t get what they want, here are some positive ways to respond:
- Say, “It’s not okay to hit”, and then lead them away from the situation.
- Show them what they CAN do instead of what they can’t. “Touch nicely.” “Be gentle.” Then show them gentle touch and have them practice.
- Name the emotion. “You’re feeling so MAD right now!”
- “It’s so hard when you want a toy but your sister isn’t finished playing with it yet.”
- Ask them for a hug.
Processing the event after it happens
LONG after the tantrum has passed, when both you and your child are calm again, sit down and reflect on what happened. If you try to do this too soon, it will backfire. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way! Make sure it is long after you are both regulated again.
Children age three or older should be able to understand the concept that all feelings are okay, but all actions are not. Brainstorm with them ways to handle their anger through words, safe actions, deep breathing, etc.
Also, talk about what you as the parent should do when your child is hitting in a tantrum. If they are triggered by you restraining them or leaving the room, ask if they have any other ideas about what you could do to keep safe.
Young children are pretty insightful, and they might think of something you haven’t! But if not, they should be able to understand that you need to make sure everyone is safe by removing yourself from the situation or physically holding them to keep them from hitting.
Be sure to try a do-over as you’re processing the event. Go through the situation again and role-play what your child can do differently next time. When children (and parents!) act out do-overs, they actually begin to rewire their brains for better responses!
Now that we’ve talked about what to do the moment your child is hitting and also how to process the event afterwards, let’s talk about prevention! How can you help your child avoid some of those out of control moments in the future?
You may have heard the quote, “All behavior is communication.” Young children lack the skills to communicate their big feelings in a positive way, so those feelings often come out as tantrums and aggression.
Even when we know this, we often focus on the behavior but forget to look at the “why” behind it. A young child who is frustrated, has hurt feelings, or lacks impulse control needs to be approached with empathy and guidance when difficult behaviors come up.
Every time you practice emotional regulation with your child, you are helping them build skills for the future. Here is a brief overview of things you can do to help your child learn to regulate. For more info, see the resources below.
- Teach regulation breathing, such as taking deep breaths or “rainbow breathing”
- Create a self-regulation toolbox
- Set up a calming corner or positive time out space
- Use books or other resources to teach about feelings and how to handle them
- Model what to do the next time you are frustrated or upset, and talk through what you’re feeling/doing. “I’m so mad right now, I just want to hit! I’m going to my calming corner until I feel better.”
Hang in there!
If you’re the parent of a young child, you will have to deal with hitting at some point. Little ones are simply not able to control their big emotions all the time, or a lot of the time, right?
But you can use those moments to teach them about their anger and give them better ways to manage it. They won’t get it right all the time. Who does? Not me, and I’m the grown up! But when you approach those teaching moments with calm and empathy, your child will gradually begin to get it right more and more.
This guide will give you some practical ways to keep your cool when you are being triggered by your children. Break the yelling cycle and experience Calmer Tomorrows with your family!