Written by Dr Alison McClymont, leading child psychotherapist.
When my eldest daughter was 2 years old, she used to go to a little baby ballet class. It began at 9 and ended at 10 and, every week at 9:45 on the dot, she would take the star she had been holding whilst pretending to be the sugar plum fairy or whatever, and would hit another kid over the head with it.
Sometimes she would simply smack them in the face, but one week she grabbed a whole fistful of another child’s cheek.
The worst part was she often chose the same child, who was a very sweet and gentle little girl. It got to the point where I would start getting up to leave at 9:40 and would be internally dancing with joy if we got to 9:46 and she hadn’t hit anyone. She fooled me once by lasting until 9:59 - but she ended that ballet class by smacking two children at once whilst running to get her sticker.
One time a mother of a child she had hit came up to me and suggested that “maybe it wasn’t normal and maybe I should consult a professional”. I mumbled embarrassedly that I was a “professional”. Looking back now, I wish I had said something more assertive, but the reality is that it’s embarrassing to be the mum of the child “that hits others kids”.
So what did I do? At 9:43am I would take her outside and give her a snack. We would sit and have a minute together and I’d ask her if she wanted to go back in or was she done with dancing for today? This might sound like a basic and even non-sensical strategy to deal with hitting by offering a cut up apple and a biscuit - but it worked.
Children who hit, particularly those who are under 5, are often hitting because they don’t have the ability to articulate how they feel. They might be hungry, tired, frustrated or something else.
What matters is the way we react to the hitting.
If we’re too punitive, then we run the risk of over-stimulating the child’s central nervous system though fear, which can cause them to no longer absorb information. But too lenient and the child has no understanding of the boundaries of hitting, so the behaviour continues or, even worse, escalates to get a larger reaction. Children watch reactions like a hawk and if you give them one that they find intriguing, chances are they will repeat the behaviour.
In real terms, if you begin screaming or berating your child for hitting, they might find this reaction amusing: mummy’s face looks funny and so does her voice. If the child hits out of frustration and you give in to this demand, they will more than likely do it again as they believe they have found a way to bend you to their will. If you are distracted and offer only a nonchalant, “Oh don’t do that,” they may well escalate the behaviour in order to actually get a reaction from you.
How to Stop Your Child Hitting
- Remove the child from the situation. This is a clear signal that what they have done is not ok and we need to talk about it.
- Come down to their level and say firmly, “We do not hit. Hitting hurts people.”
- Encourage the child to self-regulate. Younger children might need a cuddle to do this, or even a snack – likely, hitting was a display that they felt dysregulated and scared by something. If the child is older than 4, ask the child to breathe with you and hold their hand whilst they do it.
- Return to the activity. Do this when the child is calmer, and only then.
- Acknowledge the friend they have hit, and either say sorry or think of something kind they can do for that friend. Whilst some psychologists do not advocate for “forced apologies”, I believe it is a good reinforcement of the message - regardless of the provocation, violence is not ok.
About the Author:
Alison McClymont is a leading child psychotherapist with over a decade’s worth of experience at the forefront of the industry. She is the author of children’s book ‘Wilbur’s Memory Box.’ Keep up-to-date with Alison on Instagram @alisonmcclymont.