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Her 3-year-old hits and she doesn’t know what to do about it

Closeup happy girl playing drums (istock)

Q My toddler has started hitting when he gets frustrated or is feeling ignored or just thinks it might be fun. What are some techniques I can try to make him understand that this isn’t okay? I take away anything he’s hitting with and tell him that we don’t hit. I’ve tried (gently) grabbing his hands as soon as he starts to hit me and telling him the same. I’ve tried asking for hugs to redirect him and give him attention when he clearly wants it. When he stops the motion and does something better, I give him smiles and praise. He understands some of what we say, but he usually giggles or laughs at me when I speak sternly to him. I just don’t know how to get through to him that This Is Not Okay. Help!

A I remember the first time my oldest child smacked me. I was utterly shocked. She and I were enjoying such a close and loving relationship and then . . . SMACK. And then she SMILED! Whoa. My mother said, “Oh, Meghan. This is what kids DO, just keep going.” But no, my child was different. The hitting appeared (and felt!) to be manipulative and on purpose. Something was definitely wrong with her! Why did she enjoy hitting me so much?

I worried and wrung my hands and put her in timeouts. Like you, I spoke to her sternly when there was an infraction and praised her when she was good. I talked and talked and talked about her behavior.

It wasn’t until I started understanding the interior world of a 3-year-old that I saw how useless and detrimental my talking actually was.

Obviously, not all talking is bad. Three-year-olds love to tell you about what they like and what they don’t like. They love to tell you about who they saw at the park and what they did there. Three-year-old children are often exuberant and seemingly unaware of whether you are even listening or following along. Life is so big for them, everything is new and amazing. Yes, some little ones are quieter and more sensitive than others. And yes, some children seem to possess more energy and verve than others. But in general, 3-year-olds love a back-and-forth about what interests them. And only them.

So, when you begin to argue and teach about hitting, two things are happening.

1. You are coming from a place of frustration and anger, and you are trying to teach the child a lesson through power. This is not going to work, mostly because the typical 3-year-old is allergic to being told what to do. In fact, it makes them do the opposite.

2. The child literally has no idea what you are talking about. Meaning, if he had known better, he would not have hit. He would have said, “Listen, Mom, the day has been stressful. I am potty-training, I scraped my knee, and my tummy has been hurting since breakfast. . . . I am really not up for you to micromanage me right now.”

Instead, a 3-year-old is moved by deep instincts. Everything feels like frustration. Everything feels too much. He cannot separate his emotions from his feelings from his actions. It is all one thing. Whoosh. Adults experience this all the time. But the difference is no one lectures us and makes it worse.

Now that we understand that teaching and talking in the moment are not useful and make the situation more fraught, let’s try something totally new: What if we reframed this to “Hey, hitting is completely and totally normal in toddlers. And even more, it is okay”?

I know. A little left field, but you can really help these moments move along if you allow all of these feelings of frustration to be okay.

Try some of these ideas and see if they don’t work:

•“Oh, wow! I see how angry you are. Let’s get those hits out on this pillow!”

•“Okay, I love punching and kicking. I will set the timer and we punch and kick the air as fast as we can! GO!”

•“You are not going to hit your brother, but you can totally hit this cushion; watch me hit it, too!”

•“Let’s jump on this trampoline and see if all your hitting energy comes out!”

•“Sometimes Mommy/Daddy get frustrated, too! I am going to hit this old pillow. Watch me!”

You can see, in those examples, there is no fear of the violence. The violence (in a 3-year-old) represents normal frustrations. As he gets older, he will get better and better at telling you about his interior life. Right now, he cannot.

To conclude, I am going to give you more ideas of what to drop:

DON’T use a lot of talking. The child’s brain cannot process it.

DON’T expect him to change his own behavior.

DON’T ask him why he is hitting. He doesn’t know.

DON’T put him in his room or timeout. Punishment works at first and then stops working.

DON’T be overly serious about this.

Good luck, and be patient. He will grow and mature!

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