Ask the Doctor - Answers to your Parenting Questions

3 year old hits himself

Dr. Laura-
I wrote to you months ago about sleep issues with a 3 year old, a one year old, and a new baby on the way. I have a new question. I have observed my three year old exhibit some concerning behavior. I have seen him hit himself (he only hits himself once) when he trips or is frustrated by his inability to do something he wants to do. And then today, I heard him say "I hate myself" when he was unable to get his socks on by himself. What should I do?
Diana

Dear Diana,
It is so hard to be three. They see what they want to do, and often don't have the skills yet to do it. Using the scissors, dribbling the ball, pouring the juice. They expect so much of themselves. Every person is different, of course, and some of us seem to be born more perfectionistic than others. When three year olds get frustrated, often they act out those feelings physically. Since he knows he can't hit others, he hits himself.

Your goal is to help your son to find other ways to manage and release his frustration, as well as to help him learn to be more forgiving and compassionate to himself in general.

How can you help him with this?

1. Model compassionate behavior to everyone, including yourself.  I know, that's a tall order, particularly when you're pregnant and have two children, which by definition means you're exhausted. But it's the work we all need to be doing in life anyway, and it's what your son needs to see from you. You are his primary teacher. That means extending understanding toward others, AND noticing any time you're hard on yourself. The next time you make a mean comment to yourself, stop in your tracks and give yourself compassionate understanding instead. Aloud.

2. Give your son language for his frustration. "Those socks are so tough. I know, that's frustrating."

3. But give him hope too: "Don't worry. Most three year olds can't do that by themselves, but you're getting really close. Soon you will be able to do this."

4. Evaluate your parenting style.  When kids hit themselves, it is often a response to a discipline style that includes punishment.  That may not be what's going on in your house, but if you're punishing at all (including timeouts or consequences), your son's behavior is a signal to find a parenting style that supports healthy emotional development as well as good behavior.  He is going to be harsh enough with himself already, don't reinforce his tendency.  Check out the section on Positive Discipline on this site for more info on coaxing cooperation out of kids without punishment.

5. The next time your son hits himself, tell him "We don't hit in this family, even ourselves. " I know you're frustrated. Let's find another way to handle it."  Then teach him to breathe deeply to handle stress: "Good air in. (Deep breath). Count to ten. Breath out through your mouth."

After that, don't make a big deal when you see him hit himself so that you don't reinforce the behavior. But do immediately address the feeling that is causing the behavior and offer him an alternative: "You seem pretty frustrated. Let's breathe deeply together."

6. Help your son learn to manage his emotions.  Check out the section on this website on Emotional Intelligence for more ideas on helping your son develop the ability to handle his feelings.

I think your son will outgrow this behavior pretty quickly, but it's a great opportunity for you to teach him to start managing difficult emotions. Good luck!
Dr. Laura

View Older Comments

Search Q&A's