Written by Doctor G

Consequences for hitting?

My son Aaron is 3 years, 7 months old. For the last 2-3 weeks he has taken to getting physical when given a consequence, told no to something he wants, or asked to “wait a minute” before doing/saying something. It used to be that he would toss or kick an object near him – shoes, pillow, book etc… nothing breakable (yet!). Now he “slaps” me, lightly, anywhere on my body. He clearly is hesitant to do this as he does it very lightly and almost looks surprised after he has done it. At first I would speak to him about not hitting. Then I decided to send him to his room for a 4 minute time out each time he hits. He continues to hit. Time out seems ineffective.
We do not use physical gestures for punishment. Actually, he is rarely punished. He is a very good boy but lately this hitting thing has gotten out of control.

Any idea where he could have developed this? He does go to preschool 4 days a week. He does see us “move” the cats off things and away from us which looks like shoving, but not hitting. Best solution to curb this? He also says things like “you’re bad, I don’t like you” when he hits.

Jennifer, in Pittsburgh, PA

A: It sounds like Aaron is almost as surprised by his hitting as you are. I think you have both been caught off guard by this new developmental stage. Don’t worry, what you are going through is normal. And controllable.

You have decided on a rule, “No hitting.” Now decide what the consequence will be.

I think time out is a reasonable reaction. It seems he is not a good candidate a time out in his room. His room probably has a bunch of distractions and time out is supposed to be boring. So pick a spot on the first floor of your house (my parents used the bottom step). Also, don’t worry about the four minutes. Time outs just need to be long enough to get your point across. This depends on the child and the moment.

Let’s say you told him to pick up a toy he threw. He refuses and you repeat the request once. As soon as he raises his hand to hit, look him in the eye and say “No hitting.” If he hits, pick him up, put him in the time out spot and turn away from him. He wanted your attention, now he goes a minute without it. Of course you’re still keeping track of him. He needs to stay in that spot for a minute or two.

When you say he may get down, he needs to apologize to you and then do whatever you asked him to do. Look him in the eye, repeat your request to pick up the toy, pause and say “Yes Mommy.” He needs to say “Yes Mommy,” and pick up the toy. If not, he sits again for a minute or two until he gets it. If he doesn’t hit, be sure to praise him after the whole encounter for remembering the rule.

If you think it might be helpful, some time when you are frustrated with him you can point out that you are angry but that you are not hitting him. That way he sees this is a rule that applies to everyone.

This will take a bunch of repetition. And the issue will probably pop back up again when he is hungry or tired or not feeling well. Give him the consequence anyway. And it will for sure happen with a kid his age just when you think you’ve licked it, and in front of the most judgmental parents you know. Don’t be discouraged. He will learn this rule if you are consistent with the consequence. Kids are very practical.

I hear your question about his mean words when he is angry. First focus on the “no hitting” rule. When you feel that is under control you can introduce the “No mean words” idea. Or you can choose to let him express those feelings, depending on the culture in your family. The important thing is not to take it personally. This isn’t about you, it’s about him experimenting. If he sees it doesn’t affect you, he is more likely to stop.

Now, about your first question – why is he doing this? He is trying out new ways of addressing his anger. He has figured out that hitting is an option and wants to know if it works. Does it get him out of what he didn’t want to do? Does it get him long chunks of your attention? Does it get a fascinating reaction (yelling, deep discussions, sitting on your lap)?

Don’t spend too much time trying to discover where he learned it, he just figured it out. This is part of the mystery of kids – no matter how much you protect them, they will experience the negativity in the world. Better he test this out now than wait until first grade and work it out in the principal’s office.

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4 thoughts on “Consequences for hitting?”

  1. Dr. G – Thanks so much for your reassurance and insight. I will take these suggestions.

    Interesting to view this new behavior as something he is trying out on us. I can see it when he does it. He waits for my response, sometimes grins, debates, postures even so “get his point across” no matter how crazy it is!

    The other day when he said “mommy you’re bad”! I replied “I love you Aaron”. That stopped him in his tracks!

    Is it appropriate to physically put him back he will not stay on the step for time outs? Or sit with him if he really won’t sit?

    Thanks again! Jennifer

    1. Hi Jennifer,
      I love that you stopped him with love. At our house we call that “defibrillating” and there are a lot of ways to “shock” a situation into going in a new direction. This is one of the nicest.

      It is fine to physically put him back in the time out when he gets up, and you may have to sit with him. Make sure he knows that the time out gets longer if you have to sit there, and make sure it isn’t fun to have your time and attention in that way!

      -Dr. G

  2. Would I have to change anything for an 18 month old? He is starting this behaviour at the playground with other kids.

    1. It depends only on his level of understanding. Some 18 months old kids would do well with this, but not all would understand what you were trying to accomplish.

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