What can you do when your kid hits, kicks, bites, pinches?
It's one of the most dreaded parenting moments: you're chatting with another parent, watching your kids play, and your child bites the other kid. Or you're washing dishes, and watch one of your kids smack their sibling. Typically there's an immediate rush of anger, guilt, and embarrassment that floods your system, making it hard to see straight, let alone handle the situation from an empowered mindset. But this can be a great teaching opportunity for your child.
First let's deal with our own big feelings around our kids displaying "aggressive" behaviors. Why do parents sometimes have their own meltdown when their child hits, scratches, kicks, bites, or pinches? It typically boils down to feeling like a bad parent, OR fear that their child is going turn out to be a serial killer because they obviously like to cause harm to others (maybe you don't go that far, but you know the fears I'm talking about).
So let's deal with those head on - they're lies! Children (especially toddlers) are going to experiment with hitting. They're learning about cause and effect, and they have very little impulse control because their brains aren't fully developed. This does NOT mean they will always use physical harm as their way of coping with anger, stress, or frustration. In fact, we can have a big influence on helping them learn more productive ways to achieve their ultimate goal (we'll talk more about this below!). There's also no way to ensure that your child will never physically harm someone, what you do have control over is your reaction to it.
So what do you do? How do you handle these behaviors in the moment, AND help them find other ways of expressing themselves? Keep reading...
In the moment
Typically my advice for parents who are trying to be intentional is to PAUSE. However, safety issues are the one exception to this rule. You have to make sure everyone is safe. Now that doesn't mean you need to fly in, with your own big emotions and create even more chaos. That's only going to escalate the situation.
Instead, keep words to a minimum, take action confidently. "Everyone needs some space. You go have a seat on this couch, and you go over to that couch, we'll get calm and then we'll figure this out."
Next, take inventory of any injuries. If the person who did the hurting is willing, invite them to help get the ice pack or band aid (this starts the repair process). But don't push them if they're still angry, don't worry you'll get there.
Empathize with how BOTH people are feeling. "I can see how angry you are that she took your toy. You were so mad that you hit. And I imagine you were frustrated because you wanted to play with that toy and didn't want to wait anymore, so you took it." Look for confirmation that you're guessing right. If you're unsure what caused the behavior give EACH person a chance to tell their side of the story. Your job here is to listen to each child so they feel heard and you have a complete understanding, no teaching or judgment here. You can just repeat back what you hear.
Express your feelings and state your family's values. "I feel angry / scared / sad when I see you hit. In our family we don't hurt people or things.
Tell the story, and practice what they can do differently next time. "You were playing with your car, your friend came and tried to play with it. You were mad, and you hit your friend. Your friend starting crying because she was hurt. Let's talk about what we can do next time so that you get your car back, and your friend doesn't get hurt. Do you have any ideas?" Listen to what they say and act out how that might go, help them practice together. If they need help, give some possible ideas. It can help to suggest something silly to lighten the mood and give them the chance to say "no". "You could NEVER play together again OR we could throw away all the cars? Hmmmm... that doesn't work for you guys. Let's keep thinking"
If these behaviors are happening consistently
If your child is hitting frequently, then it's time to look beneath the behavior and try to determine what need the child is trying to get met, or what skills the child is lacking.
Be proactive. Discuss the situations at a time when they're calm. If possible ask, "I've noticed you've been having a hard time _______ (playing with your brother, sharing at play dates, playing at the park with friends). What's up?" Saying "difficult time with" covers whatever the behavior is (hitting/ biting/ etc), and makes it less likely that they'll shut down, particularly if they're older. You are focused on the part that is hard for them, because if you solve that problem, then the hitting will stop.
Practice situations using play. Roll play similar situations, and practice the different ways a character can handle them. If your child seems to "need" to play aggressively then make time for aggressive play in a safe way. One of our favorite games is, "you can't knock me over" where I crouch down with my hands up and tell my son, "You can't knock me over!". He'll run and push my hands until I fall over and grab him in a big bear hug. Then I tell him "you'll never get out of my arms". And he wiggles his way free. This game helps build connection and gives your child an opportunity to play rough. Another fun one is "burrito" where you wrap the child up in a blanket like a burrito. Or "sandwich" where you have a pillow below them and one above them and make them into a sandwich. The pressure of the pillows or blanket can help soothe your child's nervous system.
Stay close in situations where they typically hit, try to intervene when you see things escalating and help them choose other strategies you've talked about and have been practicing. You may need to give them the words, "My turn next please." or "I need space, please move".
Notice when they get angry but stop themselves from hitting. Acknowledge how much self-control that takes, and how they're learning!
If you are feeling overwhelmed with how to put this into practice. Click here to set up a 30 or 60 minute problem solving support call. If you're stuck on the first part where you manage your own big reaction, click here for more information about my 12 week Ultimate Parent Success Course.
In support of you!