4 Year Old Hitting Mom
My four year old daughter hit, scratches, and pinches me. It is not part of a full-blown tantrum (which she rarely, if ever, has), it happens when I don't want her to do/have something she wants (watch a movie, have candy) or I don't respond immediately to her requests or I am not completely present with her (not fully engaged with her due to my own fatigue, etc). I can fully understand that her violent reaction is expressing a need, but I am so sick of feeling "abused" by her and at times it's all I can do to restrain myself from hitting her back. She is a strong-willed, delightful girl. We have a beautiful connection. She is very confident and expressive. Over the years, we have worked hard for her to use her words when dealing with other children, and she has succeeded. I seem to be the only person she does this to. She doesn't hurt my husband in the same way. Somehow, she feels like she has permission to hurt me and I need help on how to communicate to her that she absolutely does not have that permission. How can I do this? How can I gain that respect?
I can understand why you're feeling abused. No one deserves to be hit. But I do need to add that this is not about either respect or abuse. Abuse happens when there is an imbalance of power. Your daughter is four and you are an adult, so she is not abusing you. She is getting physical when she is angry at you. And yes, that needs to stop.
This is also not a sign of disrespect. It is a communication about something that is going on inside her, that she can't articulate.
And yes, her violent reactions are expressions of a legitimate need or emotion, as you say. But that need is not actually to hurt you, even if SHE thinks it is. That need is to express her feelings and be heard, which is what will allow her to move past those emotions. Respecting your child's needs NEVER means letting yourself be repeatedly hurt.
In fact, children need to know that we will keep ourselves safe from their anger. Otherwise, their anger is too scary. And children need to know that parents are capable of helping them with their big emotions, including their anger. They know they can't control it, and they are terrified at the idea that they can hurt us. It is our job not to let them hurt us.
When children are in the grip of fear, they often act out aggressively. In those cases, we need to protect ourselves but stay present to help them get below their anger to the fear that fuels it. Those "meltdowns" help kids to surface and release their fears, so they aren't driven to lash out.
However, your daughter is not having emotional meltdowns. She is aggressive with you when she wants something from you – your presence, or a treat she feels you are withholding.
Why does she do this? Some, or all, of these factors may be playing a role:
1. She has somehow gotten the idea that this will cause you to give her what she is asking for.
2. She has big feelings that scare her, and that are hard for her to control. When they bubble up, she begs for candy or a movie to numb herself. When you say no, she gets desperate. So she lashes out.
3. She does not have confidence that any other way of asking for what she wants will get her needs met.
4. Like most four year olds, she is experimenting with power, and learning what works to get what she wants in the world. She has been allowed to hurt you, so she continues.
5. She has not developed empathy. Since this only happens when kids are not treated with empathy (or have some other developmental deficit, which would cause issues beyond this), I assume from your letter that this is not a factor here. (In other words, you do see that there is a reason for her actions, so you are expressing empathy for her.)
6. She is being hurt physically. Clearly, you are not hurting her, although at times you (understandably) want to, and there is no sign that anyone else is hurting her.
What can you do to change this situation? Let's take these reasons in turn.
She has somehow gotten the idea that this will cause you to give her what she is asking for.
The cure for this is simply to be sure that no matter what, hurting you does not result in her getting the treat she is asking for. When she demands a treat or movie, set your limit clearly and kindly "Not now, Sweetie."
If she moves to attack you, sidestep her and do not let her hurt you. "I see how disappointed you are. You really want that and I said No. You can tell me in words. I won't let you hurt me."
She may well feel that her well-being depends on her getting this treat, and that she MUST have it. That kind of rigidity indicates some big feelings locked away inside, that she is trying to keep repressed. Often children use movies and treats to regulate their feelings, just as adults do. Which brings us to #2.
She has big feelings that scare her, and that are hard for her to control. When they bubble up, she fends them off by lashing out. Since you are the person she is closest to, you're the object of her aggression.
When she demands that you give her a movie or treat, she is letting you know that she is having a hard time regulating her emotions. When you say no, say it firmly and kindly -- and be aware that an explosion is on the way. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. Like other humans, when children "feel" their emotions, the feelings evaporate and the child is free to move on, unfettered. But often children are frightened of their big emotions, and will do anything to fend them off. They "stuff" their feelings and keep them down with food, screens, etc. But big feelings will push to get out, which is often what's behind children's rigid and aggressive behavior. When kids act this way, they are showing us that they need us to help them feel safe enough to experience their feelings.
So when you say No to her request for a treat or movie, her big feelings bubble up. In an attempt to fend them off, she attacks. This is a universal strategy, known as "The best defense is a good offense." You know now that she will lash out, so you can be prepared to move away from her attempt to hit or pinch.
Rage doesn't dissipate until it feels heard. So the best way to "disarm" her anger is to really hear it. Acknowledge how much she wants this and how angry she is, and encourage her to use her words to tell you about her upset.
What if she comes at you and won't stop? She is asking you to "hold" her aggression in check.
Many parents respond to their child's aggression by removing themselves, for instance by going into another room and closing the door. My concern about this is that it triggers the child's panic about abandonment. Essentially, when we remove ourselves, we give our child the message that we cannot deal with her big feelings, and she is not ok if she has them. If she wants our love, she had better just swallow them and shut them down. The problem is that feelings that are repressed that way are always bubbling below the surface, pushing against us, looking for a way out. And they are below conscious control, so they push us to make choices that later make us wonder "What on earth was I thinking?" In order to keep repressed emotions inside, we often resort to what I call "little addictions" -- food, shopping, tv. So I suggest you NOT banish your child to her room to subdue her feelings, but that you instead stay with her while she rages, empathizing as best you can to help her feel safe.
Your goal is to help your daughter move beyond the anger to surface the feelings that are under it. Almost certainly, that feeling is fear, since fear usually drives aggression, and since a child who has been allowed to hurt her parent will almost certainly be quite frightened inside.
So when your daughter lashes out at you, you can try sitting right down on the floor and invite her onto your lap. "Oh, Sweetie, you are so upset....You really want to watch a movie right now....You are very angry that I won't let you....But I won't let you hurt me, I will keep us both safe."
If she continues to try to hurt you, hold her with her back to you, with your arms around her. This mostly protects you from her. Be as gentle as possible. Keep your voice calm and soothing. When she objects, say "I will just hold you to keep us both safe. You can show me all those feelings." You are giving her a safe "holding" environment so she can get those feelings out and move past them.
NEVER hurt her, obviously. This is not a punishment. You are only holding her so that she cannot hurt you. She is on your lap, which reduces the sense of confrontation and increases the feeling of safety. The moment she stops trying to hit you, you can let go completely. However, in my experience, kids who are aggressive are looking for a physical battle, because they are in "fight" mode, physiologically. If you can help her to feel safe enough to move beyond "fight" mode, she will get to the fear underneath.
Almost certainly, she will struggle and get sweaty and red-faced and yell. This is what it looks like when kids release fear. That may feel scary, but remind yourself that you are helping your daughter to let her fear out. Keep breathing and reminding yourself that you're helping your daughter to "show you" her fear. You don't need to talk much, which will pull her out of her feelings and into her head. Just say "You're safe...I'm right here..." every so often. Hold her as gently and loosely as possible, only enough so that she doesn't hurt you. While her upset could last half an hour, you should not have to hold her for most of this. Only hold her as much as is needed so that you don't get hurt. Otherwise, stay near, but keep yourself from harm's way.
She may bargain "Ok, let me go, I won't hurt you" and then turn around and kick you. If she does, take a deep breath to let out your anger so you don't scare her, and gently scoop her back onto your lap. This time, don't let her go while she struggles, just say "I know you say you won't hurt me, but you just did, and I need to keep us both safe. Don't worry, I will never hurt you. I will let you go as soon as you can keep your hands from hitting." Kids often need to struggle against us to express fear, so it's fine that she struggles against you. Again, this would never be holding her hard.
I want to offer three important caveats. First, I would never recommend even this most gentle of restraints for a child who had been abused in any way. In that case, even a gentle restraint could recreate the feeling of abuse. In this case, you and your daughter have what you describe as an excellent relationship. She needs to know that you will provide a safe "holding environment" for her rage and that you can handle her emotions without getting hurt. Sometimes the only way to keep from getting hurt by a four year old is to restrain her.
The second caveat is about your feelings. If your feelings are so triggered by being attacked by your child that you feel angry, then you cannot hold her in a loving way. This is never a punishment, it is only to keep her from hitting you. BUT if you are triggered, and angry, then she will pick that up and it will keep her from feeling safe, and defeat the whole purpose. So when you find yourself triggered, don't hold her. Just keep breathing and working to regulate your own emotions and muster as much empathy as you can verbally. When she lashes out, keep yourself from getting hurt. You can usually establish a verbal bridge with your child so that she feels supported enough to move through her fear. So never hold a child to keep her from hitting you if you are getting angry. It is far better to leave the room than to find yourself in an angry physical interaction with your child.
The final caveat is about your child. You know your daughter better than anyone else. If she tries to hit you and you hold her to keep her from hurting you, all the while talking soothingly to her, that will usually help her feel safer and move her past her anger and into her fear and tears. BUT if it triggers her and makes her feel less safe, you will see that. Your goal is a sense of safety, not punishment, ever. So trust your own instincts. If this does not work for your child, don't do it. The last thing I want to suggest is something that makes your child feel unsafe.
For kids to feel a sense of safety in such a situation, they usually need us to spend daily time with them simply connecting, so they deeply trust us and our commitment to supporting them. (More on Special Time below.) You say you have an excellent, close relationship with your daughter, so I think she will feel safer if you hold her to keep her from hitting you. BUT if not, stop. Spend a few weeks connecting as described below. Then you can try this again to see if it works for her. The bottom line is to trust your own instincts. When kids lash out physically, it is harder to keep ourselves safe without holding our child, but it can be done, and eventually they will still get to the same place of getting past their anger to surface and let go of their tears and fears.
In my experience, children are excited when parents offer them a safe place to "show" their emotions. It seems as if they hit us to get our attention, but once we are attending they stop hitting. They often do like to struggle against us, but if that feels too unsafe to us, they are often satisfied if we hold up a couch pillow and they struggle against the pillow. In other words, children are grateful for this opportunity to "vent" and are not actually trying to hurt us. It is our job to keep the interaction feeling safe for both of us while these big feelings come up.
After the wave of fear, she will probably collapse into your arms in tears. She may cry and cry. This is a testimony to your brave, hard work. She is letting out a whole backpack of feelings that have been pressuring her. You will be amazed at the change in her demeanor afterwards. She will be cooperative and affectionate, and she will no longer care about whatever she so desperately needed before her meltdown. Instead, she will be free and flexible, not hampered by the pressure of "stuffed" emotion.
She does not have confidence that any other way of asking for what she wants will get her needs met.
I assume that you generally give your daughter responsive parenting so that she knows that she can get her needs met with more constructive interaction. Obviously, if you don't give her the treat or movie, that helps to eliminate this way of asking. But what if she is asking for your attention? It is hard not to "attend" to someone hurting you. Many experts recommend that you "ignore" your child's aggression to "extinguish" it. I think that sends the wrong message. I think the appropriate message is "I see you have some big feelings and you are trying to hurt me to get my attention. You never need to hurt me to get my attention. Just say 'Mommy, I need you!' and I will always help you."
It is best, of course, if you can give her your attention pre-emptively, rather than waiting for her to hurt you. The best way to do this is to schedule in daily "Special Time." Call it by her name, which is the most special name there is. Plan on 15 minutes. Every other day, do whatever she wants for that 15 minutes. This builds her sense of trust and her confidence that her happiness matters to you. Think of it as "filling her cup." The other days, help her to fix any "blocks" that are developing that keep her from taking in all that love. You might think of this as "cup maintenance."
Blocks to kids feeling our love are usually big feelings that are unexpressed. Luckily, crying is not the only way to get those feelings out. Giggling works almost as well. Play games with your daughter that get her giggling. Any game that gets to the issue of fear, but in a light enough way that she can giggle about it, will work here. Pillow fights are especially good with aggressive kids, partly because they let you get your own aggression out! Another game might be having you take turns being a scary witch. Often kids will say "How about we play _____, and I will be the ______, and you be scared of me." If she takes the lead, go with it. Just remember to ham it up to keep the giggles coming.
I would also suggest "playing" with the theme of her hurting you to discharge some of the tension that has built up in both of you around this. Obviously, you do this during special time when you are both feeling good and connected, not angry. Say "Let's play MAD! You be mad first." Let her act mad. Wink, so she knows this is still a game, and say "You are very mad, but I am SuperMom and you can't hurt me!" She will try to grab or hit you, playfully. Jump out of her way. She should giggle. (If she doesn't giggle, you're on the wrong track and you should switch gears.) Keep letting her chase you and jumping out of her way, as long as she is still giggling. If you or she get tired of this game, you can suggest reversing it. But when you chase her and try to grab her, always let her be more powerful and get away.
It's also important to play games just to build connection with her, during your special time. There are more examples of such games on the Aha! Parenting website: http://www.ahaparenting.com/parenting-tools/connection/play-child-emotional-intelligence
These games and the daily special time will change your relationship. I know you already have a good relationship. But if your daughter felt it was safe to show you her big feelings, I don't think she would be hitting you. Kids hit because of inner turmoil. Spending this special time with her will build trust between you so that she can let those feelings out and is no longer driven by them.
Like most four year olds, she is experimenting with power, and learning what works to get what she wants in the world. She has been allowed to hurt you, so she continues.
That doesn't make her a bad person, just a four year old. It is our job to help children learn more satisfying ways of interacting. You've done a great job of helping your daughter not to hit her peers. Now you need to see it as just as unthinkable that she would hurt you. If you are clear that no person, even your daughter, has the right to hit you, then you will not allow yourself to be hit.
I don't know what your background is, but I wonder if someone in your past made you feel like it was ok for you to be hurt? If you can do some processing around this, I think it will help. When we find ourselves in a box like this, it is usually a box from our pasts. Maybe you can journal about this, or talk to a friend or counselor. I don't mean a long process. Maybe just twenty minutes with a candle, writing a letter to the part of yourself that needs protecting. I think you'll find a new clarity of care for yourself, and I think that will help change what is happening with your daughter. So often our issues with our children offer us an opportunity to heal ourselves. It's one of the greatest gifts of raising children, in my experience.
Blessings. Please let me know what happens.