Preschooler Hits!

Hi Dr. G,
My three and half year old son has been hitting, kicking, pushing, etc. other children at play areas we go to as well as his younger infant brother and my husband and I. He isn’t doing these behaviors at preschool and I generally receive positive reports from his preschool teachers.
My husband and I have tried, “time outs,” on the step but have had to move time out to his bedroom with the door shut. I have also left play areas with him if he hits another child. I also make a conscious effort to praise him when he is playing well. Do you have any other recommendations on how to correct his behavior? I am so surprised that he is doing this type of behavior, it was not that long ago he would just stand there if another child took a toy from him.

Anonymous, in PA

Some kids sit out their “terrible twos” and lull their parents into a sense of complacency and comfort. Then they get to their threes and decide, “Enough of this! I’m in charge now!” Personally, I think this happens more with first kids, though I have no evidence to back that up.

What I’m getting at is this: Physical violence is normal two- or three-year-old behavior. This is even more common if you’ve added a baby in the last 6-12 months, or moved or had any other major social upheaval (from your son’s point of view) then this will be a regression time for him, using his body more and his words less. Otherwise, it’s likely part of his normal developmental path.

Of course, you can’t ignore it because it still is not acceptable behavior.

The first thing to do when a child physically hurts another child is to give a short, clear message “No hitting.” Set that child physically aside for a moment and focus loving attention on the child he hit. “Are you alright? How can I help you?” This will show him that hitting does not get him a great deal of that highest of kid currency: adult attention.

The second priority is to teach your child to apologize and offer to help. For a very verbal 3 ½ year old, he can say “I’m sorry for hitting” and offer to get a cold pack, give a hug, share a toy. If he can’t do all that, have him just say “Sorry.” If he won’t do these things, or if this is not his first physical outburst of the day, then a time out is a great behavior changing tool. If that doesn’t work you may have to do exactly what you are already doing – go home or change his environment entirely by sending him to a different room for a little while.

The third ingredient in correcting this behavior is one that we often forget with boys. According to a study quoted in “Raising Cain – Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys” by Dan Kindlon, PhD and Michael Thompson, PhD, when girls hit we ask them “Why did you do that?” and when boys hit we simply correct the behavior. They go on to point out that we then penalize men for a failure to name their emotions, but that we haven’t given boys the words they need to do just that. If we taught children then names of only a few colors they would describe the world using just those few colors. Similarly, if boys are not taught to recognize and identify the whole range of negative (as well as positive) feelings they experience, it will be much harder for them to “use their words.”

So, for this third point, wait until the child has calmed a little. Then ask him, as nonjudgementally as possible “Why did you hit?” See if he can name the feelings that led him to it (anger, frustration, embarrassment, jealousy, etc); if he can’t then offer suggestions until he agrees. Then spend just one or two minutes asking him to think of what he could do next time he feels that way.

These changes will take weeks or months to be effective. Don’t give up!

Do keep praising him when he plays well, especially when he feels a negative emotion but doesn’t act out physically. Again, help him to name the emotion, and tell what he did. Praise the heck out of that!

This is a normal developmental stage. If you are consistent, he will do this less and less often. At least until middle elementary school, when most boys communicate by punching each other, even in friendship.

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4 thoughts on “Preschooler Hits!”

  1. Jennifer Huffman

    Thank you for this article. While my son has never hurt another child (surprising and I hope this means he will always be a gentle with others but who knows), he has recently been biting, kicking, hitting ME – and at times his dad. The idea that he is exerting his independence, testing the limits, and observing MY reaction is likely the case (looking back I can see this).

    Time outs rarely have any effect on him. I think at 4 1/2 I could ask him the “why” question and see if we can come up with attaching feelings to his behavior. He seems to be trying to “dominate” me in some ways so maybe this behavior is his way of doing that? What is suggested in this case?

    Thanks again!

    Jennifer

    1. He will try to dominate you in several phases of his childhood. He doesn’t get to. Instead of thinking of this as “time out” you may want to frame it a little differently. If he hits you, he loses your attention. You don’t want to be around someone who treats you that way, right? That is a very important lesson for him to learn! This will inform how he decides to control himself with those he loves and ALSO how he reacts when someone he loves hurts him. If there is another adult around, you should say, “I don’t play with people who hit me” and leave the room. Hopefully the remaining adult will pick up the ball and talk to him about remorse and apology. If you are alone with him you need to step away from him and behave somewhat coldly to him, in order to send the same message until he apologizes. There need to be serious consequences for hitting, especially hitting a parent. One of the most effective ways to handle this is for his father to discipline him each time it happens, even if it is hours later and he received a consequence from you first. The message there is that you protect one another in your family, you don’t hurt each other.

      I hope this is helpful.

  2. WOW! I had not thought of several points you bring up that are very important. My husband is a very passive parent and often has not “stood up for me” when our son hits me. I will ask that he be more assertive in this area. I have said things to my son like “OUCH that hurt, we do not hit/bite/kick”. I have asked him how it would feel if someone did that to him and he appropriately responds but it does not stop the behavior, especially in the heat of the moment where he is angry or frustrated. I also often say “it is okay to be upset, it is not okay to hit/bite/kick”. This is not working in isolation, so your idea of removing myself from him or behaving coldly toward him may be more consistently needed. Having his father speak to him about the behavior, even hours later, would work because he is old enough at this point to discuss things after the fact? What form of discipline would you recommend in an after-the-fact senario? Thank you very much!

    1. After the fact consequences, at his age, can be effective if the misbehavior was within a day or so. If your husband is away for a few days, your son is likely to forget what happened exactly or connect the two. As far as what to do, I would keep the consequences connected to the message – hitting someone does not make them want to play with you. So if you usually do playtime before bed, your husband can let your son know that you chose not to do that because he hit you. You should be clear with him – “I love you very much but I don’t play with someone who hits me.” This is also a great lesson for him when a friend hits him.

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