Toddlers are highly emotional, energetic, enthusiastic and impulsive. As a result, they are always busy doing something or the other and exploring the world around them. They are also learning the fundamentals of good behaviour by learning how to control their emotion and impulses. However, while toddlers are learning all these, they may show inappropriate behaviour at times. One of the inappropriate behaviours that a toddler may indulge in is hitting his parents or others around him.
Here is the case of 3-year-old Vijesh. The little one was playing with his toys when his caretaker walked to call him over to have lunch. Not willing to stop playing and go to the dining table, Vijesh hit his caretaker. His father, who was in the same room, witnessed this incident. Raising his voice a little, he asked, “Vijesh, what are you doing?” Pausing a little to watch his son's reaction, he spoke again, “You should not hit anyone. Say sorry to aunty.”
However, like most toddlers, Vijesh wasn’t willing to give in and say sorry. Annoyed by his son’s stubborn behaviour, Vijesh’s father enforced a time-out.
Once Vijesh understood that his father was displeased and wasn't going to let things go, he ran up to his father to try and pacify him. But his father remained firm and did not give in. After some time, Vijesh relented and apologised to his caretaker. He also gave her a hug.
If you are also the parent of a toddler who has picked up the habit of hitting, here’s what you should do.
1. Analyse the reasons: Toddlerhood is a stage when a child is learning how to behave in an appropriate manner. Analyse your toddler’s behaviour to understand what makes her behave in an aggressive manner. Ask yourself questions like, “Does she behave in an aggressive manner with only one individual?”, “Is there any specific place where she behaves aggressively, like the day-care or a crowded place?”, “Is your child usually aggressive during certain times of the day, like before nap time or mealtime?” Once you understand the triggers that make your toddler aggressive, address them.
2. Stop it before it happens: Once you have analysed your child’s behaviour, you will be able to anticipate when your toddler will start hitting. So, diffuse the situation before it escalates by being warm and caring. In case your toddler tries to hit you, hold his hand gently but firmly and tell him, “I won’t allow you to do that.” Don’t scold or show an angry expression. Sometimes, not being able to hit you can lead your little one to resort to crying or throwing up a tantrum. Allow him to vent out his feeling and then soothe him back to normal again.
3. Communicate with your child: A toddler has only a few words in her vocabulary. As a result, she is often unable to express her thoughts and feelings, which can make her feel frustrated and angry. If your child gets upset, but is unable to make you understand what is causing her to be upset, be loving and calm. Try to understand the cause by asking her pointed questions like, “Do you want your favourite snack?”, “Can we lie down to rest for some time?”
4. Teach appropriate behaviour: Teach your child about feelings like happiness, sadness, anger and frustration. Make him understand that hitting or other such aggressive behaviours hurt and cause pain to others. Encourage him to overcome the urge to hit by diverting his attention towards activities he likes to do. For example, tell him that when he gets angry and feels like hitting, he can go to his room and read a book or take a ride on his tricycle.
5. Lay down rules of good behaviour and consequences of hitting: Sit with your child when she is in a good mood and tell her about good behaviours that she should learn. Also, tell her about the consequences of bad behaviour like hitting. For example, you can tell her that if she hits someone, she may not get to play with her favourite toy that day.
It is best to avoid any kind of extreme reaction, because toddlers thrive on parental attention. If a parent tries to laugh it off, the toddler takes it as approval. On the other hand, if the parent scolds or yells, the child is still getting attention. So, a better way to handle hitting behavior is to remain firm but kind in saying, “That hurts. Please stop, else I will leave the room.” What is more important is to follow through on the consequence by actually leaving the room if the child continues to engage in such behavior.
— Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)
6. Analyse your behaviour: Most children consider parents their role model and imitate them. So, take stock of your own behaviour. How do you react to situations that create stress? How do you react to your child’s aggressive behaviour? Do you often scold or hit your child? Remember, children of aggressive parents also show aggressive behaviour. If you think that you behave in an aggressive manner, try to change the way you react to situations by learning to be calm and patient.
7. Enforce time outs: Giving a child a time-out and withdrawing some of the privileges helps him understand that there will be bad consequences for undesirable actions. However, parents should remember that time-outs shouldn’t be longer than 15 minutes. Also, the place where they send their child for a time-out should be such that the child can be easily monitored.
Causes of hitting behaviour in children
- Aggression, passed on from parent to child
- Inability to verbally express feelings
- No other outlet for negative emotions
- Presence of causal factors in the environment
- Feeling of insecurity
It is always a good idea to use gentle persuasion and appreciation to help your child shun bad behaviour. Do not forget to praise your child when he attempts to change himself like stopping himself just before he is about to hit someone. However, if you feel that your toddler’s behaviour is too aggressive or you are unable to change his behaviour, seek professional help.
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