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Hitting A-Z and More
by Jane Nelsen

Question:

I have a son who will be 4 in two weeks and a 13-month-old son.  The oldest has been through a series of hitting phases since the spring.  I have read 3 of your books, and was relieved to learn that I already use much of the positive discipline style.  He will often hit or push his brother, myself, dad, or other children.  He has excellent communication skills so I try to remind him to use his words; however sometimes it is not from something specific.  He is often tired (as he no longer naps).  I stopped using timeout about a month ago.  I did this because I felt it was fostering too much frustration for him.  When he hits I ask him to stop, or I go directly to the hurt child and he then follows me and apologizes.  I think the hitting is beyond normal, but I can't figure out the reason behind it.  While I feel I follow "positive parenting" I know maybe twice a month I make mistakes and yell and do not deal with certain situations in a loving manner. He is a thoughtful and bright boy, but I fear he will alienate playmates and not too mention I am concerned for his younger brothers safety.  Please help. 

Answer:

You will find several answers on hitting that I think you will find helpful. I hope you'll take time to read all of them. Below, I'm included an excerpt from Positive Discipline A to Z on hitting, but the questions that have already been answered, give even more insights.

One other point I want to make is that your four-year-old may be getting a little too much attention for hitting. You might try "keeping your mouth shut" while you kindly and firmly remove him from the situation. If you say anything at all, it might be, "Let me know when you can tell me a better way to handle this problem." Then be quiet, or even go to the next room and give him time to think about it. Be careful about comforting the younger too much, so you don't create the "bully/victim" syndrome. You might want to search the web site for "sibling" issues so you will understand why your four-year-old is still feeling "dethroned" by his baby brother. I would like to assure you that it is probably very "normal" when you understand sibling rivalry and mistaken goal behavior such as "undue attention" as explained in all of our books.

I'm glad you stopped time out. Did you know we have a book called Positive Time Out and 50 Other Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in Homes and Classrooms?  Also, on the website you'll find an article on why time out (even positive time out) is not effective for children under the age of three.

So, now for the excerpt on hitting:

Hitting (Spanking)

"I have tried everything I can think of to get my child to stop hitting her little brother. Sometimes she hits me. This really makes me angry. Punishment doesn't seem to work. I have spanked her and made her say she is sorry, but the next day she is hitting again."

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

How are we ever going to teach our children it is not okay to hurt others when we keep hurting them? We are reminded of a cartoon depicting a mother spanking her child while saying, "I'll teach you not to hit someone smaller than you. "When a child is hitting, usually his or her feelings are hurt. Your child needs help from you but may feel frustrated because he or she isn't getting the help needed. You probably feel frustrated, too, because you want your child to treat others respectfully and may even worry that your child's behavior is a reflection on you as a parent. Perhaps you are over-reacting and treating your child disrespectfully out of shame and embarrassment, trying to prove to the other adults around that you won't let your child get away with this behavior.

Suggestions

  1. 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."
  2. Help the child deal with the anger. (See Angry Child.) 
  3. 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. (See No. 3 in Planning Ahead.) 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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. (See The Primary Goal of All People, p. 32.)
  6. 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."
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Get your child involved in creating a Positive Time Out area. (See p. 23.) 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.
  4. Find ways to encourage your children with unconditional love and by teaching skills that help them feel capable and confident.
  5. 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. (See Part 1, page 26.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Parenting Pointers

  1. 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.
  2. Many people use the biblical admonition "spare the rod and spoil the child" as an excuse for spanking. Biblical scholars tell us the rod was never used to hit the sheep. The rod was a symbol of authority or leadership, and the staff or crook was used to gently prod and guide. Our children definitely need gentle guidance and prodding, but they do not need to be beaten, struck, or humiliated.
  3. 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.

Booster Thought No. 1

He: "There are times when it is necessary to spank my children to teach them important lessons. For example, I spank my two-year-old to teach her not to run into the street."     

She: "After you have spanked your two-year-old to teach her not to run in the street, will you let her play unsupervised by a busy street?"

He: "Well, no."

She: "Why not? If the spanking teaches her not to run into the street, why can't she play unsupervised by the street? How many times would you need to spank her before you would feel she has learned the lesson well enough?"

He: "Well, I wouldn't let her play unsupervised near a busy street until she was six or seven years old."

She: "I rest my case."

Parents have the responsibility to supervise young children in dangerous situations handle that situation. All the spanking in the world won't teach a child until he or she is developmentally ready.  Meanwhile we can gently teach. When we take our children to the park, we invite them to look up the street and down the street to see if cars are coming and tell us when it is safe to cross the street. Still, we don't let them go to the park alone until they are six or seven." Studies show that approximately 85 percent of all parents of children under twelve years old resort to spanking when frustrated, yet only 8 to 10 percent believe that it is dignified or effective.  Sixty-five percent say that they would prefer to teach through consequences and encouraging improved behavior, but they don't know how. How often we resort to the familiar instead of learning a better way.

Booster Thoughts No. 2

Above all, I believe that there should never be any violence. In 1978, I received a peace prize in West Germany for my books, and I gave an acceptance speech that I called just that: "Never Violence." And in that speech I told a story from my own experience.     

When I was about 20 years old, I met an old pastor's wife who told me that when she was young and had her first child, she didn't believe in striking children, although spanking kids with a switch pulled from a tree was standard punishment at the time. But one day, when her son was four or five, he did something that she felt warranted a spanking--the first in his life. She told him that he would have to go outside himself and find a switch for her to hit him with.

The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, "Mama, I couldn't find a switch, but here's a rock that you can throw at me."

All of a sudden the mother understood how the situation felt from the child's point of view: that if my mother wants to hurt me, then it makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with a stone. And the mother took the boy into her lap and they both cried. Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself forever: never violence. And that is something I think everyone should keep in mind. Because violence begins in the nursery one can raise children into violence.
By Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking

Booster Thought No. 3

When you set one toddler down to play with another, neither is particularly sure of what the other is all about. Watch them eyeing one another and you can guess what they might be thinking. What is this creature? Does it break? Can I taste it? What happens when I pull its hair or examine its eyelashes?" Walking up and hitting another child may be just a primitive form of saying, "hello."

Still, children under the age of two need to learn that pulling hair, poking eyes, and hitting hurt people and cannot be allowed.

At this age, the best discipline is to simply remove your child from the situation, kindly and firmly, and redirect her attention to something else. When children are very young and don't have language skills, we can't teach them through language. Sometimes we need to accept that a child who has a habit of hitting simply needs close supervision so you can catch her and remove her when she looks ready to hit. Toddlers often comprehend action better than words.

Positive Discipline A-Z - A 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems
Positive Discipline A-Z - A 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems
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