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4 year old hits and doesn't seem to care

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Dear Dr. Laura,
For about a month now, my four year old has been hitting when she's mad. However she doesn't look mad. And she'll do it a couple of times watching your face. I just figured that that was testing my limits. I grabbed her hands and said, "no hitting."

Now up until today, I had been doing firm voice and being more "strict", but then I tried to take her out of the room with me where we could talk and try to discuss what was going on in terms of feelings. I said that it's okay to feel mad but we need to do something else to express it like stomping or hitting something safe. Well it seems like I am hitting my head against a brick wall because she does this a lot and doesn't seem to care.
Tonight, I raised my voice because I thought that maybe I needed to "lay down the law" more as being gentle didn't seem to work. When I first corrected her today, she just kind of smiled and shrugged and said "It's just a silly joke" or something to that affect. I said, "Do you see Mommy smiling?" and she says "yes." So anyway, after letting go of her hands, she pauses and does it again.

Mind you, she is not yelling, crying or anything. All of this after I said that I wouldn't cut a piece of a towel to make a bandit mask out of it.

Part of me thinks that she is either playing like she doesn't understand me, and part of me thinks she is just trying to get away with hitting me. Meanwhile, when I went to ask her if she understood what mommy was mad about, I think she said that she did, that it was because she hit. I said, "Is it good or bad to hit?" She said, "good." I said, "would it be good if mommy hit you?" She said, "no, but it's fun." I said, "it's fun to hit mommy?" She said "yes." So I just left the room. I don't know what to do with this.

My husband has put her into time-out a couple of times, and he'll threaten to do it if she starts to act up. Last night, she was running away from me when I went to give her her vitamins, and she tried to pull a stalling tactic. My hubby told her firmly to stop and to take them. She complied with no crying or anything and just told him that it was yucky. No problems whatsoever. So here I am trying to be gentle, compassionate, setting firm limits (am trying to be more consistent) and she complies with him. Meanwhile she's hitting the person she adores more than anything in the world. I don't get it.

There are more things. She's bossy even though she knows her manners, she tells my hubby to go to work in a not so nice tone, and it really bothers me. I don't know how to stop some of these things. My husband and I talk to each other respectfully, and we use our manners, so we are trying to practice what we preach. I feel like I am just going to have a bratty, selfish, bossy tyrant. I was hopeful that having a very special needs sibling would create a more considerate person out of a second child. What seems to happen is that the youngest "rules the roost" and my eldest gets lost, believe it or not. She is so demanding and attention seeking that the oldes gets lost since she is more relaxed and non verbal. But I WANT this form of parenting to work so desperately. My youngest is a good person, but I am worried.


How frustrating! But you should know that this is well within "normal" for her age. Four year olds are experimenting with power. They are notoriously bossy. They often feel pushed around, so they push others around whenever they can. One of the most common google searches that brings parents to my Aha! Parenting website is "Help My four year old is a bully!" Of course, a four year old is not a bully. But MANY four year olds are experimenting with bully-like behavior, as your daughter is. In addition, aggression is a red flag that a child is feeling some fear or anxiety. That's common with four year olds, because they are old enough to know what a big scary world it is and how small they are.

SO what do we do about it?

First, set clear, firm limits.

Second, empathize with the child's feelings as you insist on those limits and at other times. That helps the child feel understood and therefore more cooperative. It also helps you see things from the child's perspective, so that your limits are appropriate for your child.

Third, help your child process emotion. If we don't do this, our kids are driven by their big feelings that they can't express verbally to act those feelings out in their behavior. That is what causes "acting out."

Should we "crack down" and punish with a time out, like your husband does? Well, the child will comply initially, as your daughter did with the threat of punishment when she did not want to take her vitamins. But sooner or later the threat doesn't work so you have to keep escalating, and what happens when she is seven and too big to drag to timeout? I get calls from parents of seven year olds all the time, who are now defiant and won't go to timeout. By contrast, the kids who are not punished, but are guided as I described above, with empathic limits, have internalized the parents' agenda and WANT to cooperate. Love becomes a more effective motivator over time.

So what about her hitting? You say that she is not mad. Clearly, she is mad. You wouldn't do what she wanted, in this case cut a piece of towel to make a bandit mask. So she tried to force you to do it. It is possible that this is simply an experiment that she is trying to see if she can force you. That would be akin to a four year old yelling at her mom "Then I won't invite you to my birthday party!" Not an effective strategy, but completely predictable coming from a four year old.

Of course, she could also be hitting because she is very frightened inside about something. Maybe something happened at school. Maybe she worries about her sister. Maybe she worries you will die. Maybe she worries you like her sister more. Who knows? Those fears are usually expressed in aggression. If you can provide enough safety, your child will process them.

But for now, let's start from the premise that what she needs is a clear limit, and see if that solves the problem. If it doesn't, you'll need to help her process her emotions, using play and tears. So when she hits you, you stand up, move away and say "Ouch!" loudly. Then you say, "I am too upset to talk to you while I am hurting....I will be back when I calm down." And you go into the bathroom.

In the bathroom, you use the time to calm down. You don't torture yourself with the idea that your kid is a a bratty, selfish, bossy tyrant. Instead, you remind yourself that she is a four year old, and she is learning empathy from you.

Once you're calm, you return to your child and help her process whatever emotions drove the hitting. You start by creating safety, which you do by staying as calm and compassionate as you can. You say "Ouch, that hurt me...You must have been upset to hurt me like that....What's the matter?"

If she says "It was a silly joke" you might say "It was no joke. Hitting hurts. You really hurt me. You must be so upset inside." But you don't say it angrily. You say it with compassion. Your goal, remember, is to create safety. It is entirely possible that she will burst into tears and tell you that she is upset because of something that has happened in her life, for instance, feeling excluded at school. Once she cries, those feelings will be gone and she won't need to hit.

Of course, it is equally possible that she will just act like she doesn't care. That may be guilt, which makes kids go numb. Regardless, you are not going to get her to verbalize at that point. And she probably can't express those feelings in words -- which is why she is acting them out. So instead, grab some stuffed animals and act out a scene where they hit each other and get her giggling. Why? Because she has a lot of anxiety about the hitting at this point, which is making her act like she doesn't care, and yet the feelings driving the hitting are still there. If you start by getting giggling going, you will help her access the tears and fears that are driving the aggression. (Giggling will also help you process your own anxiety about her aggression.) If you do enough giggling and roughhousing with her, the aggression might melt away. If not, it's because some tears need to come out, too. In that case, back to the empathic limits, above. Many kids will push the limits in an effort to pick a fight with you. When you set the limit but stay compassionate they feel safe enough to let out the tears and fears. And bingo, the feelings driving the aggression melt away, and so does the aggression. I know I've gone somewhat quickly through this process. There's lots more on the Aha! website about this, for instance here: When Your Child Won't Let You In: Building Safety Through Play

I hear that you are pretty fed up with your daughter. It may be that you are too irritated with her to provide a sense of safety for her to process her feelings, and that to do this you'll need to do a little processing yourself. (Most of us do!) And if your daughter senses that you're fed up, that might also be an explanation for her hitting. Naturally, kids get threatened when they worry about whether we love them. Kids usually know how we are feeling, even when we don't say it. We all get to stuck places with our children sometimes where we need a little help. Sometimes we just need to vent. Sometimes, we actually need a coaching session to get back on track. I'm glad you wrote to me. If you feel you need more support to get you and your daughter out of this stuck place, I encourage you to reach out to get it. You're the person she is closest to, and she doesn't want to hit you. She needs your support to stop.

Dr. Laura

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