Toddlers hit sometimes. They are expressing frustration. They may have seen other people hit each other and so they think that is what people do when they are upset. They may simply have no other tools to express themselves. When toddlers hit, it is a teachable moment. It is our opportunity to teach about kindness, respect for others and personal space boundaries. Adults need to be intentional in their reactions to children hitting.
- Remain calm and concentrate on what you must teach your child. It is embarrassing when your child is the one hitting the other children at a playdate or a birthday party. Adults worry that no one will want to invite their child again. We worry about the wrong thing. Popularity shouldn’t be our primary concern. Addressing the behavior and teaching our child should be the goal. No child is perfect. No parent is perfect. Yours might be in the spotlight right now but in five minutes, another child will be crying or grabbing or running under the clothing racks. Know that reacting physically to frustration is a typical toddler behavior. Getting loud and upset will not help. Take a deep breath and be aware that you are your child’s role model of self-control.
- Make eye contact and calmly state the facts – “Hitting is not allowed.” Keep your statements short, simple and consistent. Anytime a behavior is not allowed, say that. It’s simple and to the point. Adults tend to talk too much and our children tune us out. Today, you may be saying, “Hitting is not allowed” or “Running from me is not allowed.” Someday, that will become, “Staying out past 10 pm is not allowed” or “Driving to the beach after prom is not allowed.” You will spend many years setting boundaries. The words that you use matter. They should be factual, non-debatable and to the point.
- Replace the behavior with another, more acceptable option. You cannot stop a behavior without replacing it. You can tell your toddler not to hit, but that doesn’t tell them what to do when they are frustrated. They hit because they had nothing else at their disposal. Even the most verbal toddler may not be able to find the words they need when they are emotional. Have you ever been so shocked or so upset that you are speechless? You need to tell your toddler what to do next time. Tell your children what to say in different situations and make them say it. Teach your child to ask for items, tell others to stop or call for help.
- Offer your help. In our quest to raise independent children, we often forget to tell them that we are here to help. That is an adult’s job – parent or teacher – to help. We are their role models and guides. No matter the situation, always tell your children that they can ask for your help. They will ask if they know that you will be calm.
- Do not teach them that touching gently is acceptable. Have you ever seen an adult trying to teach a toddler to be gentle? Often, they take the toddler’s hand and have them stroke the arm of another child. The adult says, “This is nice. Make nice.” No. It is not nice. Young children do not understand personal boundaries and the adult is teaching them that crossing into another person’s space and touching is nice. It is not nice to touch another person by hitting or by stroking or “petting” them gently. Touching other people without invitation is not nice, period.
- Do teach children that their hands are for their own bodies, not other people’s bodies. Gently take your child’s hands and bring them to their body. Say, “Your hands are for your own body.” Bring their hands to their chest so they can physically feel their hands at the core of their own body. The multi-sensory lesson – hearing you say it and feeling it – will help them to remember.
Remember that your approach to your toddler’s behavior will set the stage for future interactions. You want your children to know that you are approachable in good times and on difficult days. When we yell, become emotional and intimidate our children when they are young, they are far less likely to come to us when they are teens and are upset or in trouble. The pivotal moments in our relationships are when times are tough. That time that your child hits another child at a birthday is a pivotal relationship moment. Remain calm, instructive and helpful. You will be glad that you did.
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