Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

When Your Four Year Old Hits Your Two Year Old: A script for parents

"Today I stepped outside to clean up some toys while my kids were eating. My 2 year old ran to the back door and cried out for me. My 4 year old didn't like his screaming and ran over and punched him several times. My 2 year old got so upset he threw up his whole lunch all over me. My 4 year old confessed "Mom, I did a bad thing...I punched S because he was crying and it made me mad." I have been getting very upset, sternly asking my 4 year old "Why do you want to hurt your brother?...I'm very disappointed in you and sad about this."  I typically do 4 minutes timeout and an apology for the bad behavior, then be nice to your brother for 3 days and then you get a superhero movie. Is this wrong?"

Is it a bad thing to use rewards and punishment?  Well, it doesn't actually work as well as emotion coaching and empathic limits to stop your son's hitting, and it doesn't teach the lessons you want to teach. The research says that if your son does stop hitting, it won't be because he has learned that hitting hurts his brother, but because he doesn't want to be punished. Of course, most parents would be willing to accept this, just to stop the hitting. But most kids just keep hitting, because the rewards and punishment don't help them with the underlying feelings or teach them a better way to solve the problem that caused the hitting. They just get sneakier, stop confessing, and start blaming. And it doesn't sound like your rewards and punishment are working, if he's still punching his brother to the point where his brother throws up.

Your goal is to help your younger son tell his side of the story even though he can't talk, both because it teaches him to use words instead of fists, and because it helps your older child learn empathy. And your goal for your older son includes helping him express his emotions, try out a new way to handle such a situation in the future, and find a way to repair the damage he's done to his relationship with his brother. This is more effective than a timeout and forced apology to put a stop to the hitting AND it teaches your kids conflict resolution skills. 

So first comfort your son who is crying, and change his clothes. This gives you a chance to calm down so you can connect with your older child without seeing him as the enemy. Then, sit on the floor with one boy on either side of you. It helps to have an arm around each, so nobody gets defensive as you listen to the other child. Let's say Sam is just two, and Jake is four. Sam and Jake are calm now, too. If they aren't, you'll need to help them calm down separately, at least enough to participate in this process. It might go like this:

Mom: You were both pretty upset before. Can you tell me what was going on, Jake?

Jake: I punched Sam because he was crying and it made me mad.

Mom: Wow! Sam, is that right? Jake punched you? Ouch! No wonder you were crying and threw up. How did you feel?

Sam: Ouch!

Mom: Yes, ouch! You were hurting! Your body hurt. And it sounds like maybe you were scared, too. Sometimes when we're scared, we throw up.

Sam: Ouch!

Mom: Yes, that hurt. Can you tell your brother how you felt when he hit you?

Sam: (to Jake) Ouch! No!

Mom: You're telling your brother "No! Don't hurt me!"  (Turning to Jake.) Jake, did you hear your brother?

Jake: Yeah.

Mom: What is he telling you?

Jake: That it hurt?

Mom: That's right. He says NO, don't hurt me like that. Look at his face. He was pretty upset, wasn't he?

Jake: Yeah.

Mom: Can you tell him you hear his words?

Jake: (looking down) Can we stop talking about this?

Mom: (realizing that Jake needs to feel understood before he's interested in understanding his brother's feelings) I know it's upsetting to talk about this. I know you feel bad about it. You must have been pretty upset to punch your brother. Can you tell me about it?

Jake: He was yelling for you. That made me mad.

Mom: So when he started yelling for me, it really bothered you?

Jake: Yeah. He wouldn't stop.

Mom: Sounds like it really upset you. Did you ask him to stop?

Jake: I told him to stop but he didn't. He's such a crybaby.

Note that by now the two year old is playing with his dinosaurs. That's okay. He doesn't need to participate in the whole discussion. He's gotten the idea that mom is there to help him find his voice.  By now, the four year old would also like to run from this discussion, so it takes all Mom's empathic connection to keep him talking. No one wants to be lectured. So she empathizes, tries to understand his viewpoint.

Mom: It sounds like when he needs me, it really bothers you.....Did that make you miss me, too?

Jake: I'm not a baby!

Mom: No, but all kids can miss their mom. So sometimes when a two year old cries because he misses his mom, bigger kids can get upset because they miss her too.

Jake: I just wanted him to stop.

Mom: How did that feel?

Jake: Like I just couldn't stand it any more.

Mom: I hear you. It can be really hard to listen to someone cry. So let me see if I've got this right. When Sam cried for me, it bothered you so much that you just wanted him to stop. You couldn't stand it. You didn't know what to do.

Jake: Yeah.

Mom: And you asked him to stop, and he wouldn't?

Jake: So I punched him.

Mom: I see. What do you think about punching him?

Jake: It was bad.

Mom: Why?

Jake: Because now I get a timeout?

Mom: No, it was bad because it hurt your brother. Did you see how upset he was?

Jake: Yeah.

Mom: I hear you were very upset. But hitting is NEVER okay. I won't let you hurt your brother like that.

Jake: But he has to stop crying when I tell him.

Mom: Did hitting him make him stop crying?

Jake: No.

Mom: So hitting doesn't stop him from crying. It makes him cry more!  I bet you can figure out a better way to handle it when he cries.

Jake: I could go in the other room?

Mom: YES! Great idea! 

Jake: But I was eating lunch. I didn't want to leave.

Mom: Of course. I understand. And I hear that you really don't like it when Sam cries. That's really hard for you. But Sam is allowed to cry. What else can you do when he cries, if it bothers you -- besides leave the room or hit him?

Jake: I don't know.

Mom: Could you help him feel better?

Jake: You mean hug him?

Mom: Sure, that's a great idea! Do you think that would help?

Jake: Not when he really wants you.

Mom: Could you tell him I'll be right back?

Jake: I did. It didn't help.

Mom: Good for you for trying that! I guess he was just really upset. What about helping him find me?

Jake: You mean come outside?

Mom: Well, you're tall and strong now. You can open the back door. And your voice is loud. Do you think you could be like a superhero, and open the door and call for me and save the day?

Jake: Yes, I can call you super loud!

Mom: And do you think you could hold Sam's hand, so he is less upset?

Jake: I guess so. But not if he's crying too loud. I can't stand that.

Mom: I see what you mean. So maybe you could help Sam feel better by holding his hand, and telling him that I will be right back, and hugging him.... but if that didn't work, you could call for me?

Jake: Yes! Will you come when I call?

Mom: I will always come when you call. I am always there to help you and Sam. (Hugs him.) Do you think you can remember this next time Sam cries?

Jake: Remember what?

Mom: To call me, instead of hitting.

Jake: I guess so.

Mom: Can we practice it? Come on, Sam. We're going to try a "do-over." (Takes boys to back door.) Okay, Sam, pretend you're crying.

Sam looks at her blankly, still holding the dinosaur he was playing with. He's mostly forgotten what they were discussing, but he's interested.

Mom: Okay, Jake, we will just pretend he's crying, okay? What can you do now?

Jake: Sam, stop crying. Mommy is coming soon. (Looks at mom.) What do I do now?

Mom: Well, what did we talk about?

Jake: Oh, I can open the door! (Opens door and yells loudly) MOMMY! Sam needs you!

Mom: Oh my, I will be right there! (Hugs both boys). I am right here, Sam. And Jake, thank you so much for helping your brother. That's the great thing about having a brother -- to take care of each other! I am so impressed that you were able to stay calm and yell for me. And look how happy your brother is that you helped him get me. Thank you!

Jake beams. Sam beams.

Mom: So, Jake, remember how upset Sam was before, when you hit him?

Jake winces.

Mom:  I wonder what you could do to repair things with Sam, so he feels better again?

Jake: I could have a timeout?

Mom: I don't think a timeout makes your brother feel better. And I don't think it teaches you anything. I think you already know what to do next time, and you just showed me. So I am very happy about that. I just want to be sure that things are repaired with your brother.

Jake: You mean, like, apologize to him? I hate that.

Mom: It can be hard to apologize. I don't think you have to apologize until you're ready. But I do think you have to find a way to repair things with your brother, because you broke your relationship a little when you hit him. So you need to help him feel safe with you again. He needs to know you won't hit him again. Are you ready to tell him that?

Jake: (looking down and mumbling) I won't hit you if you don't cry.

Mom: Jake, everyone is allowed to cry. Everyone needs to cry sometimes. So you can't hit him even if he cries. No matter how upset you get.  But you can always come get me and I will help. Is that a deal? (Holds out her hand for Jake to shake.)

Jake: (shaking hands) Okay, okay.

Mom: Jake, this isn't to punish you. It's to help your brother feel safe again. Here's how we do it. (Kneeling and looking into Jake's eyes) Jake, I will never hurt your body....See? Do you think you could tell your brother?

Jake (looking into Sam's eyes) "Okay. Sam, I will try to not hurt your body. I still don't like it when you cry."

Sam: (in Jake's face) No!

Jake: Okay, okay, I won't hurt your body.

Mom: Yay! Sam, do you hear Jake?

Jake: No!

Mom: That's right, no hurting!  Jake, Sam still seems a little sad and mad. I wonder what else you could do to repair things with him?

Jake: Like a hug?

Mom: A hug sounds great!  Or maybe you could play with him a little. You know he loves it when you play cars with him. Or you could play ball with him, he loves that. Whatever you think would make him feel better, and repair your relationship where you broke it when you hit him.

Jake: I could play cars with him. I would even let him have the dump truck. Would that repair him?

Mom: Sounds great to me! Do you want to ask him if he'd like that?

Jake: (to Sam) Do you want to play cars? You can have the dump truck.

Sam: (beaming) Dumpty!

Jake:: Yes, Dumpty! (Runs to get the dump truck.)

Sam: (Running after him) Dumpty!

Time consuming? Yes. But I've given you the long version of the discussion, so you can see in detail how it might work. You can do shorter versions, especially once you and your kids get used to the idea. The best part is, within a couple of months, your kids will learn to do most of this for themselves. Their ability to express their needs and work things out peaceably will increase dramatically. And your stress level will go way down, given that sibling conflict is one of the biggest stressors for most parents. Putting the time in to help your kids learn to work things out might be the best investment you ever make.


"Dr.Laura's daily emails are the perfect way to start the day with love and compassion"

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids




Have a question about parenting your preschooler? Questions from readers, with wise and practical solutions from Dr. Laura Markham to the worst problems your preschooler can dish out!

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