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What About Consequences for Aggressive Behaviors Like Hitting?

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Dr. Laura,

We are trying so hard to implement your methods. But I am struggling with something, our 3 year old son has been hitting us and his nanny too. This morning he was in a total meltdown and hit all 3 of us at separate times.

After he had calmed down, I held him close and talked to him. He was finally able to express to me that he was sad because he didn't want daddy to leave for work (my husband travels A LOT so it's hard on our son). I know we did the right thing by calmly talking to him and of course telling him that hitting is never ok, but doesn't there need to be some consequence for this type of behavior?

Our nanny wanted to put him in time out but I'm in agreement with you that timeouts just don't work. But I need help! I feel like there needs to be some sort of consequence or punishment or whatever you want to call it for a behavior like hitting…do you totally disagree? Input??? Thanks SO MUCH!!!


When a three year old feels very upset that his dad is leaving for work, he doesn't even know what he's feeling. He just feels anguish. That feels unbearable to him. So he lashes out.

If you put him in timeout, he will calm down. But those feelings will still be inside, stuffed down, seething. Because they aren't under conscious control, they will burst out at some other time. The lesson? "I'm a bad person...I have to be punished...I have feelings I don't understand, and I don't know how to manage them...My mom doesn't understand and she doesn't help me with those feelings...I hurt people and I don't know how to stop...It just gets worse."

If, instead, you say "I won't let you hit....I will keep everyone safe...You must feel so upset to hit like this..." and then, once he has cried about how awful he feels, you talk to him just as you did, two things happen. First, he feels safe enough to experience those awful feelings --so they begin to evaporate. Second, he begins to understand the feelings, so he makes a step toward emotional regulation.

But I hear that you, and his nanny, are worried that you need to teach him a lesson. I think what you need here is a chance for your son to make things better. "You were so upset about Daddy leaving that you hit me, and also your Dad, and also your nanny. Ouch! Hitting hurts. Hitting is never okay, no matter how upset you are. Next time you feel upset, can you tell me? Can you say "I'm mad!" or "I'm sad!"? I will always understand......Let's practice that right now, okay?.......When you hit Nanny, it hurt her body, and also her feelings...I wonder what you could you do to make things better? Could you draw her a picture? Give it to her with a big hug?"

Of course, you don't do this until he has calmed down. And it is not punishment. It is empowering him to see the effect of his actions, and to repair what he has broken. What's the lesson for him? "I can always use words to say how I feel....Hitting hurts and I don't want to do that....My mom always understands and I don't want to disappoint her....When I hurt a relationship, I can make things better."

I hear your confusion. Do you have my book? I think it will make a huge difference to you. Here's the link:

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting

Good luck!

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Dr. Laura Markham is the author of three best-selling books

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