My 4 year old son doesn’t just hit me, he also will hit himself. He’s been acting out a lot lately and I’m not sure what to do about it. I have tried to hold his hands and tell him it’s not nice to hit mommy and I have tried time outs. I am just wondering if anyone has any advice??
A: A child who hits himself is showing you that he’s angry he can’t find enough people to blame–he blames himself, too. It is good that you are sensitive to your child’s equilibrium, and I would encourage you to look beyond the surface behavior to try to identify what may be causing your son to be so upset lately. Are there changes in his life–in caregivers, in his routine, in the family? Can you identify sources of tension or stress for your son? Is he getting enough rest? Does he feel rushed and pushed? Looking at the big picture might reveal for you some element in your son’s situation which you can address so that he is not under so much pressure.
During the episodes when your son is hitting you and himself, I would do what you can to soothe him and to end the episode as quickly and calmly as possible. A child who has fallen apart in this way may need time and attention to pull himself back together. Sometimes the parents quiet, sympathetic presence is best. You might say you’d like him to sit on your lap, if he will not hit you or himself meanwhile. Trying to wrestle with a child who has lost control, or attempting to add “time-out” or explanations–these approaches probably are not too constructive.
These episodes are not unusual. The parent’s goal is to live through them and get on with the next thing as calmly as possible.
Take the child by the hand and say, “It is not okay to hit people. I’m sorry you are feeling hurt and upset. You can talk about it or you can hit this pillow, but people aren’t for hitting.”
Help the child deal with the anger.
Ask, “Would it help you to go to your time-out spot now?” Time out is not helpful unless the child has helped create a positive time out spot in advance. Also, time out is not helpful if the child does not see the benefit and chooses it. If you “make” your child go to time out, your child is likely to see it as punishment and may rebel.
After the child has calmed down, ask what and how questions. “What is upsetting you? How are you feeling?” See if you can get to the bottom of what is really bothering your child and then help the child discover what other things he or she could do besides hitting to deal with the problem. (Children under four years of age do not understand abstract reasoning. This is one reason why lectures are not effective at this age. There are other reasons why lectures are ineffective at any age.)
With children under four, try giving them a hug before removing them from the situation. This models a loving method while showing them that hitting is not okay. Hugging does not reinforce the misbehavior.
Even though toddlers don’t fully comprehend language, you can still use words (while removing them) such as, “Hitting hurts people. Let’s find something else you can enjoy doing.”
When babies hit you, put them down and leave the room immediately for a minute or two without saying a word. At this age, they will understand actions better than words.
When your preschooler hits you, decide what you will do instead of trying to control your child. Let her know that every time she hits you, you will leave the room until she is ready to treat you respectfully. After you have told her this once, follow through without any words. Leave immediately.
Later you might tell your child, “That really hurts” or “That hurts my feelings. When you are ready, an apology would help me feel better.” Do not demand or force an apology. The main purpose of this suggestion is to give a model of sharing what you feel and asking for what you would like. People don’t always give us what we would like, but we show respect for ourselves by sharing our feelings and wishes in non-demanding ways.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
Teach children that feelings are different from actions. Feelings are never bad. They are just feelings. What we feel is always okay. What we do is not always okay.
Help children brainstorm ways to deal with feelings that are respectful to themselves and others. One possibility is to tell people what you don’t like. Another possibility is to leave the scene if you are being treated disrespectfully.
Get your child involved in creating a Positive Time Out area. Teach her that sometimes we need time to calm down until we feel better before doing anything. Let her know that she can use the time-out area any time she thinks it will help her feel better.
Find ways to encourage your children with unconditional love and by teaching skills that help them feel capable and confident.
Show that hitting is unacceptable by never hitting your child. If you make a mistake and hit your child, use the Three R‘s of Recovery to apologize so your child knows hitting is not acceptable for you either.
Take time for training with your toddler. Help her practice touching family members or animals softly. This does not eliminate the need for supervision until she is old enough to understand.
Look around and see if there are ways you are hurting your child without realizing it. Are you sending your child to his or her room frequently, scolding and criticizing regularly, singling out the child when a problem occurs? If so your child may be feeling really hurt and upset and the hitting is a way to strike back at the world. Be more encouraging and positive and stop the hurtful behaviors and see if you don’t notice a change in the hitting behavior.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that it is not okay to hurt others. Their feelings are not bad and they are not bad, but they need to find actions that are respectful to themselves and to others.
Be aware of the discouraged belief behind the misbehavior. A child who hits usually is operating from the mistaken goal of revenge with the belief, “I don’t feel like I belong and am important and that hurts, so I want to hurt back.” Children will feel encouraged when we respect their feelings and help them act appropriately.
Toddlers are short on both language and social skills, and when they play together they can easily become frustrated. When they lack the ability to express what’s wrong in words, hitting and other types of aggression sometimes result. It is developmentally normal for toddlers to hit. It is the parent’s job to supervise and handle toddlers kindly and firmly until they are ready to learn more effective ways to communicate.
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