How Do You React?  It May Make All The Difference To Your Child

During the toddler years, our little ones are taking in an incredible amount of information.

It can be difficult to process everything they see and hear as their emotional development skyrockets during these formative years.

They may have the all-too-common tantrums or act out in ways we don’t like, and there is one behavior that causes great concern for parents.

There’s usually nothing more frustrating for parents than when their child begins to hit others.

After all, we’re taught never to hit or become physically reactive, and we certainly don’t want to see our children physically lashing out at others.

But what many parents don’t know is that hitting in the toddler and early preschool years is quite common – and there are very important reasons behind this reaction.

When young children hit – their parents, their siblings, or a playmate – our reactions can take many forms.  Shock, embarrassment… even our own anger.  Why would this perfect little person even think to hit anyone?  What can we be doing wrong?

The answer is… nothing.  We are not “bad” parents because our children hit when they are young.  They are not “bad” children for doing so.

It is a natural reaction for a young child who is frustrated, overwhelmed, or overstimulated – but there are ways that we can learn to read their emotions and work with them to stop this behavior before it becomes a problem.

None of us want our children to think that hitting is an acceptable way to react to negative emotions, so there are some crucial things that parents must keep in mind.

Perhaps the biggest mistake we all make when we see our child hitting someone – or when they hit us – is to react in anger ourselves or punish them for it.

Discipline and punishment are very different things.  We, of course, want to discipline – meaning teach – our kids that hitting is not acceptable.

But if we react in anger by raising our voices, sending them to their rooms — or worse — spanking or swatting them back, we are sending the wrong message.  In fact, it is likely going to have the opposite outcome we’re aiming for.

Little ones hit because they are scared, overwhelmed, or frustrated.  We know it’s wrong, but they do not yet have the capacity to express deep emotions in other ways.

If we don’t address the root of the fear or frustration that caused them to hit, then they are likely to continue using physical aggression as a form of communication.

We obviously need to communicate to our children that hitting is not acceptable, so the last thing we want to do is to react physically ourselves.   

And when we react in anger when our children hit, it only compounds the emotional overload that led them to hit in the first place.

In a calm tone, with firm resolve, it is important to address the behavior immediately.  Simply saying, “no” or “that’s not nice” doesn’t do much to help kids understand why it’s wrong.  But saying, “We never hit people because it hurts them,” helps them to process why their action is never allowed.

Young children do not want to hurt someone they love; they simply want comfort and attention.

When they are emotionally overwhelmed, hitting can be the first thing they do to get that attention – and it is often done to those who they most trust because they want their attention most of all.  

It’s a form of experimentation, just like other behaviors, to see how their actions garner a certain response.

When we react calmly and firmly, and redirect their negative action with positive attention like talking them through and listening to what is upsetting them, they will eventually learn that hitting is not the proper way to express their fear or frustration.

Paying attention to our kids’ emotional cues in order to prevent hitting goes a long way toward stopping it early.  If you notice certain patterns in your child’s behavior when they hit for attention, you can start to divert the attention with something positive.

Some kids scream or cry, laugh or get hyper, or get overly frustrated when they’re at their emotional breaking point.  Their first instinct may be to hit (or other aggressive physical behavior) to release the emotional pressure.  

If you notice that certain situations often lead your child to hit, redirect them in a positive way to another activity.

And remember, if your child’s emotions have built up and you’ve prevented them from engaging in hitting to release the tension, they’ll still have those pent-up emotions.

Talk to them, soothe them, and let them know it’s ok to show their emotions in a non-aggressive way.

If a parent reacts by yelling at their child to stop screaming or crying, or belittles or berates them for getting upset, they won’t feel safe exposing their emotions and will keep hitting to release them.

One of the most important things we do as parents is to make our children feel safe and secure.  

When they are emotionally overwhelmed, kids must know that they have someone who will always be there to listen without anger or disappointment.

With very young children, this means holding them tight and reassuring them verbally that you will always keep them safe and listen when they are upset.  

It may feel counter-intuitive to give our kids a big bear hug when they are hitting, kicking and screaming, or seeking attention in negative ways, but that’s exactly what’s needed for them to learn that aggression is not needed in order to get the emotional support they’re craving.

If your young child hits when they are frustrated or overwhelmed, you are not alone.

It is natural and common, but by being gentle, firm, and supportive, we can redirect their emotional reactions and teach them the right way to handle them.

When a child is a “hitter,” it is stressful for the whole family.  But you’ll be amazed how quickly negative behaviors stop when kids learn they can depend on a positive response of support and understanding.

Have you ever had trouble with your child hitting you or others?  What are some of your tips for helping them with emotional overload?  Leave us your comments.

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