"Odd as it may seem, children who hit
are children who are afraid. The fears that cause trouble for a child
who hits usually have their roots in some frightening experience earlier
in her life, even though she may not seem frightened at all. To manage
her fear, the frightened child develops aggressive behavior that flares
any time she feels tense. Instead of crying or saying she feels scared
when her fears are triggered, she tightens up, can’t ask for help, and
lashes out." -- Patty Wipfler
It's not so easy to feel love in the face of aggression. We may know intellectually that our child is lashing out because she's overwhelmed or scared, but we still move into "fight or flight" because we feel like it's an emergency.
But punishing a child who hits doesn't stop the hitting
because it just increases her fear. Instead, address the feelings that
are driving the hitting, to stop it once and for all. Here's how.
1. PREVENT hitting if possible. This is a lot better for everyone, of course, when it 's possible. The best prevention is staying very close when he's with other kids so he feels more connected to you. That way, whatever happens, he feels like he can handle it, because he has backup. If you notice him getting tense, move in close physically, between him and any other children. Your presence may calm him, or it may escalate his upset, in which case, you can breathe deeply, move him slightly away from the other kids, and skip to step 5. The good news? You're helping your child with the feelings that were driving his hitting, and no one else even had to get hurt!
2. If your child does hit, breathe. Remind yourself: She's hitting because she's scared. I can handle this. She needs my compassion now. Blow out your tension, shake out your hands. Get between her and the other child to prevent more violence.
3. Model Care and Repair. Hopefully, there is another adult present to care for the child who was hit. If not, you'll need to hold and comfort that child. When she is calm, put your arm around your child, and face the other child together. Tell the other child "We are so sorry that Sara (or whatever your child's name is) hit you. She was upset and forgot to use her words. We hope you feel better now."
4. Avoid blame. You might say to your child, "Samantha is hurt, ouch...hitting hurts!" But making your child feel like a bad person for hurting will just backfire because it scares her: "Mom says what I did was bad...but I couldn't help myself...I must be bad....what if she stops loving me because I am so bad?" This fear is what so often causes that blank stare after a child is aggressive. In other words, "talking at her" about what she's done wrong scares her. So she gets her defenses up and stares us down, hardening her heart.
5. See it from your child's perspective. Your child is a little person who is easily overwhelmed in this big world. He gets over-stimulated and disconnected from you and feels all alone and terrified. Or, he has some fear locked up from a past experience, and in this new situation, he just can't manage all his anxiety so his past fears start bubbling up. He can't bear those feelings. So he lashes out. If you can remember all this, you'll feel more sympathy for him. You need that sympathy, because your child won't soften his heart unless yours is soft.
6. Take 10 more deep breaths. Now, help your child with his feelings. He lashes out because he can't bear his upset feelings. Help him to tolerate and feel those feelings. He'll feel overwhelmed, but then they will pass and stop controlling him, both now and in the future.
Shouldn't you tell your child that hitting is not ok? Sure, but doesn't he already know that? He just couldn't stop himself. Helping him process his feelings is what's important right now, so that he can actually act the way he knows he should. And surfacing those feelings so he can let them go requires a sense of safety. Telling him what he did wrong doesn't help him feel safe. Later, you'll teach. First, address feelings: "You were really upset... I am right here...You are safe...I'm sorry I wasn't here to help."
Offer your warmth more than your words. Talk only enough to
stay connected and help him feel safe. If he has a meltdown, remind
yourself that he's showing you all the overwhelm that led him to hit,
and getting it out of his system. That's a good thing. Just breathe your
way through it. The more tears, the more feelings he's unloading, and
the better he'll feel afterwards.
7. A few hours later, once everyone's calm, teach. Which doesn't mean lecture. Actually, think of this as inviting your child to reflect on better ways to handle those feelings, that he might even remember the next time he gets mad at the playground. Do it with a light touch and a sense of humor. Say "Remember at the park when you hit that little boy? Remember how upset he was? That hurt him. Right? Do you know why you hit?"
Listen to him and reflect: "You were mad at him?...The sandbox was too crowded....tell me more..."
Then help him explore alternatives: "Next time, when you get mad, what could you do? Could you call me? Could you walk away? Could you hit the sand?"
Then have him practice these responses, so he has 'muscle memory' of them. "Ok, let's practice. This stuffed animal tried to use your truck. You are so mad and want to hit him. But you remember there are other things you can do! So you call me, ok? I am right over here talking to another mom. Call me, ok, and I will come. Call me right now."
8. Express and reflect on your own feelings. In other words, you need to vent, too, especially if your child is hitting with any regularity. Behind your anger there's probably fear. Fear that something is wrong with your child, or you're a bad parent, or he'll be an axe murderer. None of these things are true. But you need to let that fear come up and feel it, so it's exposed to the light of day. Then it will shrivel up and blow away and you'll be better able to help your child.
When we're afraid, our children pick it up, and get more tense. That anxiety actually makes it more likely that they'll lash out. When we can manage our fear and stay compassionate, our children borrow our strength to overcome their own fear. And when there's no more fear, there's no more hitting.
Want more support to stop your child's hitting? Please join me for a free call, No More Hitting, on Thursday November 17 at 6pm PST. I will be cohosting the call along with Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting. For more information and to register and get the access info, click here.