4 Year old - Helping with Feelings So He Stops Hitting

Hi Dr Laura,
I am really struggling with feeling and speaking with love to my son when he hits. At best I speak to him in a firm voice about whatever it was he did, is not acceptable then I change to a softer tone about the feelings but am having a hard time in really feeling that love and expressing it in my voice. I am really trying and know it's more my issues I need to deal with and work through...Any advice would be appreciated.

I am finding now when he hits out he runs away when I say I want to talk to him. An example that happened today we were at the park and he hit my friends little boy in the face, I walked over very calmly and said I just want to talk to you for a moment and he ran away and started screaming. If I had let him go he would have just kept on playing and I wanted him to know that it was not okay to hit this boy so I took him out of the playground to try and talk to him but he just cried hysterically, would not let me touch him or hold him. I could not get a word in as he was just so loud and wasn't interested in anything I had to say to him. This went on for 10 minutes so I gave up and took him home and he kept crying like this until we got home and then once home he wanted me to cuddle him. After a cuddle I than tried to explain that you do not hit people in the face, talked about what he was feeling and I just get the blank look from him.

At home he is doing this a lot, he hits out, I go to him to talk to him and he runs away and then starts screaming and crying if I try to look at him, to talk to him. If I give up and walk away he comes to me crying saying he wants me to hug him (which I do and wait for him to calm down) but as soon as I try and start talking he runs away again. I don't like physically restraining him as I think this upsets him more but I don't know how to keep him near me to try and talk to him.

Lastly when I am doing this process of getting to the feelings underneath and he does manage to sit with me, how long would you persist in doing this if I am not getting anywhere with him, as a lot of the time I can be sitting there for 10 minutes or more and he just sits in my lap and stares at me and listens and it almost feels like a mexican stand off like he is saying "I can sit here all day mum your'e not going to break me".
Thank you!

It is natural that you are having some challenges implementing this new way of helping your son with his feelings. You're on the right track, but it seems to me from what you are describing that you are getting a bit confused between teaching your son the right thing to so, versus helping him with his feelings.

There are five things you need to do with your son to help him past this stage:

1. PREVENT hitting if possible. You do this by staying very close when he is with other kids. Here is a previously answered question about this: 21 Month Old Hitting Other Kids


2. Set clear, firm, kind limits when he does hit. Firm is good. Mean is not. Naturally you will be angry when he hits. Two things you can do to manage your own feelings so you can stay more kindly towards your son:

First, talk to others about your feelings. In other words, you need to vent, too. Or put it in a journal. Behind your anger there is fear. Fear that something is wrong with your son, or you are a bad mom, or he will be an axe murderer. None of these things are true. But you need to let that fear come up and feel it, so it is exposed to the light of day. Then it will shrivel up and blow away and you will be better able to help your son. But you need to talk about that fear to feel it and let it go. (One caveat -- don't talk to moms who will tell you what to do. All you want is a chance to vent your upsets and fears about this. You do not need someone reinforcing them by getting scared herself and telling you to take action before he becomes a psychopath. Reinforcing your fear is not helpful.)

Secondly, see it from his perspective. He is a very little person who is easily overwhelmed. He is afraid. He gets over-stimulated and disconnected from you and feels all alone and terrified. He can't bear those feelings. So he lashes out. If you can accept all this and understand him, you will feel more sympathy for him. Let him into your heart.

3. Help him with his feelings after he hits -- or before, if you can prevent it before he hits. He lashes out because he can't bear his upset feelings. Help him to tolerate and feel those feelings. He will feel overwhelmed, but then they will pass and stop controlling him. This is NOT a verbal process, as I will describe below. It is NOT about teaching or talking. It is about safety. You talk only enough to stay connected and help him feel safe. Telling him what he did wrong does not help him feel safe. Teaching does not help him feel safe.

4. Stay very connected with him every day so he trusts you with his feelings. Do this through warmth, touch, snuggling, physical games. Make sure you have Special Time for ten minutes every single day. Announce that you are all his for ten minutes, with no interruptions. Alternate days so one day is his choice, the next is yours. So one day you let him choose what you do -- in other words, play whatever game he wants and do it his way. On the next day, YOU decide what to do. Use the time to connect with him by playing physical games that involve connection and power and help him to work on his fear. Anything that gets him giggling is what you want. Here's a url of games you can play with him:
http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/connection/play-child-emotional-intelligence

This daily special time will build trust with you so he will be more able to let his feelings up and out rather than running away from you. It will also make him more willing to rely on you to help him feel safe, for instance to call you for help instead of hitting. And giggling lets up the same feelings as crying, so the more giggling, the fewer tears.

5. Teach him that hitting is not ok. You don't do this when he hits. Wait at least two hours, until everyone is calm again.

Of course, he already knows not to hit. He just can't stop himself. So the other four steps are much more important, so that he can actually act the way he knows he should.

Telling him that what he did hurt the other child is fine. But making him feel like a bad person for doing it will just backfire because it scares him: "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?" That fear is what causes his blank stare. In other words, you are scaring him by "talking at him" about what he has done wrong. So he gets his defenses up and stares you down.

But if you can ask him why he hits, and be kind enough that he trusts you to answer truthfully, and really listen, you may get some valuable info, and he might actually learn something. But then you would have to be genuinely empathizing with him, not lecturing him.

Best yet, if you can help him learn some better ways to handle those feelings, he might even remember them next time he gets mad at the playground. NOT while he's still upset, but hours later, you can talk with him about it. 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?...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."

The specifics in your question, step by step:


a. You did absolutely the right thing to go over to him immediately when he hit the boy. Naturally he would just go on playing if you did not set a limit about the hitting. In fact, I would urge you to be MORE definite in your limit setting. Not " I just want to talk to you for a moment" but instead "I know you're upset but NO HITTING!" As you say it, you get down on his level, put your hand on his arm or back (gently but firmly to make contact) and make eye contact with him. This is Step One.

b. Step Two -- Taking him out of the playground to connect with him is perfect, since it gives you and him more privacy. But don't think of it as taking him out "to talk with him." You are NOT talking at all at this point. He can't hear you.

Instead, think of Step One as interrupting the hitting by setting a clear limit and removing your son from the situation, so you are intervening to stop the hitting from escalating.

Think of Step Two as taking him out of the playground to help him with the feelings that caused him to hit. Aggression in mammals always come from fear. So in Step One you are protecting the other child and in Step Two you are helping your son with his fear. Step 3 is Teaching him not to hit. That comes hours later. Forget about it for now. You can't teach when either of you is upset.

c. "I could not get a word in as he was just so loud and wasn't interested in anything I had to say to him."

Your son was feeling all his upset feelings. That is a GOOD thing. Help him feel safe enough to keep feeling them. Don't talk when he is upset. The way we help our children with their fear and other big feelings is not verbally. It is to give them a safe "holding environment" for them to feel their feelings. If they feel safe with us, when these feelings come up, they will feel them and "show" them to us. Kids often need a witness for their feelings (as all humans do.) And once emotions are felt, they evaporate.

So in the park, or at home, when his feelings come up, your goal is to stay with him and help him with his feelings. Resist the impulse to teach. When humans are upset, learning shuts down. You are still on Step 2, helping him with his feelings.

d. It makes perfect sense that he runs away when you go to him to set a limit. He has all these upset feelings (which is why he lashes out) and when you connect with him, he has to acknowledge not only what he has done that he knows full well is wrong, but also all those upset feelings. The whole reason he lashed out is that his fear was unbearable. He doesn't want to feel all that. So he runs away. Just follow him and stay as close as possible. If he tells you to go away, say "I won't leave you alone with these big scary feelings. I am right here." If he moves further away, he is trying to regulate the space between you. Say, "I won't come any closer than this until you're ready, but I am right here."

e. When you say he got hysterical, I assume that means out of control crying. That is a good thing. That is him feeling safe enough to let all his fear out. He might also thrash around, which is also fear coming up. This is GOOD. It will happen a few times, and then he will be done with it. These feelings are what has been pushing him to hit. He has been carrying them around for a long time. Once he feels them, they will vanish. He will be more able to manage his feelings, and therefore his behavior.

Stay close so he feels safe. Don't try to talk with him while he is hysterical. The point is to release all those yucky feelings. Talking moves him out of his heart and into his mind. Instead, just stay with him while he is hysterical. If possible, hold him. If not, touch him. If that is not possible, stay with him and keep connected using your voice. But don't try to say too much. Just say "You are so upset...I am right here....You are safe....." in as soothing a tone as you can muster, every so often.

Whatever you do, don't teach. Don't correct him. Don't tell him what he did wrong. He can't listen right now. It will make things worse because he will stop feeling safe. Remember, you are still on Step 2, helping him with his feelings.

f. "This went on for 10 minutes so I gave up and took him home and he kept crying like this until we got home and then once home he wanted me to cuddle him."

Excellent. Ten minutes of crying is great. 20 minutes is even better. He's been lugging around a full backpack of fear for awhile. Once he begins to cry and let it out, that is great. Keep going for as long as you can stay kind and patient. Remember, in the car, he is not feeling connected to you, so you are interrupting his healing. Try to sit with the feelings for as long as you can before you take him home. Keep breathing. Say a little mantra to yourself: "He's getting out all that fear....he's healing...we're on the right track."

After they express big feelings, kids get worried about whether we still love them. One of the reasons for them holding those feelings in is that they thought those feelings weren't acceptable. So that snuggling you did with him was very important. Hold him and tell him you love him no matter what, forever and ever. Say "You were so upset. Thank you for showing me all those big feelings. I am right here, no matter what. I will always keep you safe." You are still on Step 2, helping him with his feelings.

g. "After a cuddle I then tried to explain that you do not hit people in the face, talked about what he was feeling and I just get the blank look from him." Ok, here is where you transition out of Step 2 (helping him with his feelings) and back into life. BUT you are still not teaching. You can't tackle Step 3 (Teaching) yet. He's too vulnerable and raw inside. He is not ready to learn yet. His brain has not switched back on.

GREAT you waited until after the cuddle. Your first words should be a reflection of his feelings, as I mentioned above: "You were so upset...you were crying so hard."

Then you affirm his safety and your love: "I love you and I will always keep you safe." Keep repeating versions of this.

Finally, I don't want you to ignore the hitting. I just want you not to belabor it now because it won't help. You can say "You hit that boy in the face. That hurt!"

But then drop it. His brain is not fully in gear yet. If you lecture him you will get a blank stare. That is a defense. As you put it, "a stand off like he is saying "I can sit here all day mum you're not going to break me". There is NO reason to lecture. It puts up a wall. Instead, when it seems clear he is done processing and ready to move on, ask him if he wants a drink of water. Wash your own and his face and hands. This helps you put the incident behind you.

LATER, you can teach him, using what I described above in #5.

h. "At home he is doing this a lot, he hits out, I go to him to talk to him and he runs away and then starts screaming and crying if I try to look at him, to talk to him."

Try to stay close. But after you set the limit, don't talk. Just put your hand on him and say "I won't let you hit, Sweetie." When he runs away, follow him and say "You are so upset....I won't leave you alone with these big scary feelings....I am right here."

i. "If I give up and walk away he comes to me crying..." Don't give up and walk away. If he keeps running away, it is fine to sit down so he doesn't move further away. He is showing you how much distance he wants. But when you walk away, that is frustration and he naturally feels your anger and that scares him. He is worried about feeling those big scary feelings inside him, and he does need you close to feel safe. Although if you are too close, his feelings come up more intensely. So he is naturally trying to regulate the distance between you. Let him be in charge of that.

j. "he comes to me crying, saying he wants me to hug him (which I do and wait for him to calm down) but as soon as I try and start talking he runs away again.

Don't talk. Hug him. If he starts to calm down, see if he is really done with the feelings by saying "You were so upset...you were so mad you wanted to hit..." or whatever, mentioning whatever set him off. He may cry more, which is great. Better to get it out now than to have him hit a kid on the playground. If he is really done, he will not cry more.

k. "I don't like physically restraining him as I think this upsets him more but I don't know how to keep him near me to try and talk to him."

Don't restrain him. Stay as near as he will let you. He will not run too far away, as he has shown you, given that when you walk away he comes back. So let him regulate the distance. He is building trust.

l. "Lastly when I am doing this process of getting to the feelings underneath and he does manage to sit with me, how long would you persist in doing this if I am not getting anywhere with him, as a lot of the time I can be sitting there for 10 minutes or more and he just sits in my lap and stares at me."

You are not getting to the feelings if you are talking. You are lecturing. No point in that. It's like building a wall between you. Instead, make sure he is done crying by empathizing "You were so upset." Then follow the instructions above to move on from there.

To do this is tough. We as parents need to breathe our way through these big feelings. If we were comfortable with them, our child would probably be more comfortable with them. So you are way ahead, in that you know part of this is your own issue. I encourage you to keep exploring your own feelings and letting yourself feel even what is scary or uncomfortable.

But then, don't dwell on it. See yourself in a positive state, holding your little guy, being understanding, generous of spirit, loving. The more you see that and practice it, the more you will feel it. That unconditional love is just as essential to your son's learning as the limits you set on his hitting. The teaching is what is less essential.
Make sense? I hope this is clear and helpful. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

Dr. Laura

Dr Laura, Thank you so much for replying quickly and redirecting me as I was getting confused between the teaching and helping with the feelings. There is a lot to take in so will be sitting down tonight and having a good read but I already feel much clearer in my head about what I need to do.

The journal writing I think is a must as I really need to get out what I am feeling, as I do have many fears about my relationship with him and I think that hinders much of the progress I am trying to make.

One thing I did forget to ask you is with the scheduled meltdowns is that something that you should do on a weekly basis for some time or just short term until he has really felt the fear. As you say in point e. This is GOOD. It will happen a few times, and then he will be done with it. These feelings are what has been pushing him to hit. He has been carrying them around for a long time. Once he feels them, they will vanish. He will be more able to manage his feelings, and therefore his behavior. So are you saying once he has had a few of these big meltdowns and gone deep to feel the fear he will no longer have them? Thank you for all your support!

If a child is getting regular opportunities to giggle, to play and to connect with his parents, and empathy for his feelings, he might well be doing fine. In that case, he will be sunny and cooperative most of the time.

But all young children have big feelings. So every child sometimes engages in "off-track" behavior, caused by feelings he can't manage. That's how he shows us that he needs some help with his feelings. So we set a kind, clear limit and offer him a safe place to cry. He may think he is crying about our limit, but he gets a chance to off-load those upset feelings that were driving his off-track behavior.

In that case, he will only need the one meltdown. But of course he may need another one next week. Kids have lots of big feelings to process.

A child who is having a hard time consistently, though, is showing us that he has a backpack full of stored up feelings. So a child who gets anxious and over-stimulated around his peers and lashes out certainly has some pent-up feelings to release. The most important thing we can do to help him is consistent connection, empathy, and Special Time. That helps him feel safe enough to feel those big feelings. But of course he stills needs to access them. The best way to help him do that is the scheduled meltdown, which we do when we can handle it, but in response to his off-track behavior. Given that he has a lot of feelings built up, he may well need more than one meltdown. In fact, I would assume he will be having a lot of meltdowns for the next month.

Kids sometimes have daily meltdowns for many months, particularly if they've had a past trauma or medical issue.

So we don't really know what to expect. But I think you will see things change right along. In other words, as your son feels more connected to you, and shows you his big feelings more and more, he will be more able to stop himself from hitting. Not every time, but more and more often.

Enjoy your son!
Dr. Laura

Hi Dr Laura,
We have seen a huge improvement in how our son treats his baby sister, there is very little aggression towards her now and he is showing a lot more love and affection towards her and much more gentler with her. So thank you and all the great advice and tips.

He is nearing his 4th birthday and the last 4 weeks I feel like I have noticed a big testosterone surge (his appetite is 10 times more and has so much energy to burn off) coinciding with that is lots of meltdowns over tiny little things. A few examples;

1. I took him to the shops he wanted a chocolate, I agreed and bought it and said he could have it after lunch. That was fine with him. Then as we were leaving a different shop he saw a lollipop and wanted it I said no as he had the chocolate and he started screaming and crying. We got to the car, I got him in but was not strong enough to get him into his seatbelt so we sat in the car and I tried empathising with him but he was like a wild animal trying to claw me, kick me and screaming he wanted to bite me and was trying to. I barely had enough strength to keep him off me. The empathising was not even being heard so I just had to get him in his seat and drive home, halfway home I put my hand on his leg and he began to calm down. Once home he was calm and ready to play.

2. He might push the chair over and we ask him to pick it up and he says no we ask a few more times and says no, so we end up picking it up and he immediately starts sobbing and yelling that he wanted to pick the chair up and this can then escalate into a full blown meltdown easily for an hour.

3. Another example is my husband the other morning walked out of the living room to go get dressed and my son again immediately started sobbing and yelling at my husband to get his trousers off and kept screaming at him to take them off over and over again. This went on for quite a while, almost like a screaming mantra.

4. He has taken to having showers instead of baths but he wants to stay in the shower far too long and it's always a struggle to get him out. So the other day I got a timer and explained to him when the alarm goes off that means it's time to hop out and get dry. He eagerly nodded and agreed and then when the alarm went off he started crying saying he didn't want to get out. I empathised with him and reminded him of our agreement and turned the shower off and he went into meltdown.

So these types of things are happening easily 5 times a day (big meltdowns) and lots of little ones in between. He seems to be having much difficulty over any minor thing to major things to do with control.And I can tell that the thing he gets upset about that it's not really about the actual thing, it's about not having control. It's upsetting to see him so distressed and when it happens I just sit and empathise until he calms down which can be most times 30-60min, although most of the time he can't even hear my empathising as he is screaming so loud.
Thanks again!

I am so very glad to hear that you are seeing a big improvement in how your son is treating his baby sister. That's a big win!

What you are describing -- 5 big meltdowns a day and lots of little ones in between -- indicates that he is almost looking for things to have meltdowns about. I suspect that your empathizing with him has done such a good job that he is now "off-loading" a full backpack of stored up feelings. I do not think this will go on for long. In fact, you can think of this as an indication that you have done a great job of helping him feel safe expressing his feelings.

I realize it can be very hard for you to feel ok giving him love and empathy when he is melting down. I suggest that in addition to the other advice I gave you about managing your own emotions, you remind yourself that this is temporary, actually a healing of some old hurts. The more you can simply love him while he is having the meltdowns, the faster he will get it all out and move on. (Where is this all from? Maybe having a little sister. Maybe the way you used to discipline? Maybe as far back as a difficult birth. Or maybe he is just super sensitive. It doesn't really matter. The good thing is that he is getting it all out, and you will see a big increase in his ability to manage himself after this.)

You don't have to know why he is upset. Maybe when your husband got dressed, he did not want your husband to leave. So he may have reasons to be upset that we don't know about. And of course, as you say, he is over-reacting, but he is doing that precisely because he needs to cry. So don't worry about why he is crying. When he melts down, can you simply love him through it? You don't even need words. Just once in a while tell him that you see how upset he is, and that you are right there, and he is safe. Be as compassionate as you can to this little person who has such big hurts stored up inside. The more present you are, the harder he will cry. But then, the more you will see a positive change in his behavior afterwards.

I would also add that being almost four can be really hard. They hate that they have so little control. So anything you can let him control, that is a good thing. Giving choices is a good thing.

Hang in there. This is temporary.
warmly,
Dr. Laura

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