A reader asks:
“My five year old still hits or is aggressive to his 3 yo sister often in the day out of frustration what am I doing wrong?! I’m afraid I am getting snappy as I’m finding it hard to understand.”
And another reader adds:
“I really don’t understand what we’re supposed to do or say once the hitting has already happened. Our kids are the same ages as yours. They play together SO well so much of the time and then sometimes they make each other absolutely crazy.”
Ah. What we’re “supposed to do.”
Yeah. I know you wanted one answer. You’re getting 31.
First, I want to acknowledge, right up front, that this is one of the hardest questions for people who want a set of instructions, a thing to say, an action to take whenever it happens. That’s why time out is so popular. It’s so easy. It’s so clear. It’s a list of what to do. Your child hits someone, you tell them in a stern voice that it’s not okay, you put them in time out (or a la Supernanny, on the “naughty spot”–ugh) for the same number of minutes as their age or until they apologize, you make them apologize, give them a hug and then let them get up. If they don’t stay in the time out spot, you walk them back umpteen times until they stay. In short, you wield power over them. I get it why it’s appealing. It’s a clear instruction.
Respectful parenting is harder work. Better results–much better results–but definitely harder work.
The first and hardest thing is that you have to learn to set aside the desire to wield power. You have to frame (and re-frame and re-frame, because you’ll forget) all behavior as expressing or communicating a need or a problem they are having. And you have to frame discipline as a process of helping children solve a problem, not suffer for having a problem. That’s the first order of business. How’s that for a simple instruction? Once you’ve done that, you’re well on your way. But yes, that’s a process, and not how most of us were raised, and that frameshift doesn’t come overnight. So what do you do in the meantime? You want to know “what to do.” These moms asked because they want to know “what to do.”
There is not one thing to do (unlike the simplicity of time out or sending kids to their room.) There are 31.
No. You don’t do all 31. You do one. Or two. Or four. You do whichever one or ones apply in the situation. You have to pull out all of your critical thinking skills and decide for yourself.
I told you it was harder work. It’s worth it, I promise.
I know that this is hard, and often unsatisfying for those of you who don’t tolerate ambiguity well, or who have lived a life in which you learned–as most of us do–that there is one answer to every question. Maybe your childhood and your schooling did not prepare you to be faced with a huge basket full of options. Maybe you were raised in a tradition or in a home in which there was the right thing and the wrong thing or the right answer and the wrong answer, and little to no “grey area” in between. Maybe your education–in whatever form–did not equip you to not only easily and quickly sift through many possibilities and figure out which puzzle piece fits in this particular instance, but to fully embrace and enjoy that process. If this is describing you, you’re not alone–mainstream education and traditional parenting don’t teach us to do those things or think in that way. And if this is you, know that I get it that this process is scary and overwhelming and can seem elusive and hopeless.
Know that I know that if critical thinking and analysis and weighing many options and tolerating ambiguity don’t come naturally to you, mindful parenting is harder. It’s still possible. It’s possible to build those skills. Do your best. A day at a time. Resist the urge to “chuck it all” and choose the easy solution that has one simple answer about “what to do.” Know that you’re already resisting. That’s why you’re here. You can do this. I’m sure of it. Take a deep breath, say “I can do this”, and keep practicing. The more you practice, the easier (and faster!) it gets.
So…a five year old and a three year old are hitting one another. You want to know what you’re doing wrong, and what you’re “supposed to do.” Here’s what you’re supposed to do. Not all of them. Some of them. Whichever ones fit the situation. Yes, you have to decide.
Most of them are not answers, they’re questions. Because that’s how mindful parenting works.
- Remember that this is normal. First and foremost, ground yourself in developmental context. When young children hit, they are not “being bad,” they are not “doing it to get attention”, they are not “being a brat”, they’re not bullying, they are not proving that they need to be punished more or that you are failing as a parent. Hitting is what frustration looks like in young children. Period.
- Remember your role. Your job here is not to punish them or to make them feel bad or even to “teach them right from wrong.” Your job is to model emotional regulation. He was frustrated with something someone else did, and he made unwise decisions or acted on impulse. He’s a child. Now you are frustrated with something someone else did. You’re an adult. Show him what emotional regulation and impulse control looks like.
- Decide whether the situation needs your involvement. Are the children dramatically out of balance in size or age or physical power? Is the “victim” upset? Is anyone getting seriously hurt? Are they asking for your help? Is this happening six times a day or once or twice a week? Do you trust your children to be problem solvers and see them as resilient? It may very well be that they can work this out.
- Check in with yourself and make sure your need to intervene is about your children and not about you. As parents, it is a natural thing to project. We see our children fighting and we are thrust back into our own childhoods and our distress at being hit by a sibling and feeling abandoned by a parent who we didn’t feel responded adequately. That may or may not be your children’s experience. Ground yourself in the here and the now. This is about them, their lives, their experience. Not yours. Breathe. Make sure who this is about before you intervene.
- Check in with yourself about what is driving your involvement. Are you embarrassed that others are going to think that your children are not well behaved? Are you feeling like you must be a bad parent if your children are hitting one another? Are you “brokenhearted” by one of your child being distressed or hurt? Are you passionate about avoiding (or embracing) gender norms, so you either don’t want boys who fight, of you don’t want girls who fight (for opposite reasons). Do you feel like you have some sort of obligation to be the “perfect family”? None of these are right or wrong-they’re critical things to notice and own so that you can begin to set them aside.
- Check in with yourself about the assessments you are making and how much you are leaping into the future. Have you labeled one child as the aggressor and another as the victim? Are you worrying about them being bullies when they get to school if you don’t stop this? Are you projecting 10 years into the future, when you are determined that they will be best friends as teenagers? Are you feeling overly frustrated or judgmental about the child who has hit: they should “know better”, they are “always doing this”, they’re a jerk or rude or a troublemaker, they “should be nicer to their brother”? These are ALL things that you MUST put aside in order to respond mindfully and respectfully.
- Consider: how old are the children involved? What do you know about child development at those ages, including relevant brain development and its relationship to impulse control and ability to regulate emotions? Are your expectations of their behavior in line with their developmental age and stage?
- Ask yourself: What just happened? Were you there? Did you see? What actually happened? We often say that one child just “hauled off and hit the other one for no reason.” That is almost never the case. Children do not hit “for no reason.” They always have a reason. When we take time to understand those reasons, we are better equipped to prevent the behavior.
- Remember: All behavior is about getting a need met. All behavior is communication. What is the child’s need? And what are they trying to say? Not just in this moment and in this incident, but in the larger scheme of things. Behavior is metaphor–what is the real meaning?
- Remember that if you want to end this behavior, it must be prevented. Responding after behavior has taken place rarely has much of an effect on future behavior. Parents say to me (as these moms have) “I know to block it and say ‘I won’t let you hit him’ whenever possible, but what do I do after it’s already happened? I can’t say ‘I won’t let you hit him’, because he already did.” That’s right. You are recognizing and feeling for yourself the futility of trying to respond after the fact. Your intuition is correct. You can’t correct behavior in a lasting way by responding after it has taken place. You’re right. You’re in a tough spot. In that case, your most valuable takeaway is to analyze all the factors that need to be addressed to prevent the behavior.
- Consider the factors. Are your children tired? Hungry? What time of day is it? Stressed? Are there big changes going on in their or your lives? Are you pregnant? Is there a new baby? Have they recently given up nap? Have you had recent visitors? Has it been a very busy week? Might something hard have happened at preschool that you don’t know about and that you might never know about? As I always say: A child who hits because they are hungry doesn’t need discipline, they need something to eat.
- Observe. How much time are you spending each day or week simply observing your kids in play? In your daily lives, are you either playing with them or entertaining them or doing something on your own? How much time do you spend, either close or at a bit of a distance, just watching how they play together? It is only through observation that we understand our children better, and that we understand where these behaviors come from. Watch them, without being involved. You might be amazed at what you learn.
- Wait. Hold back. Even if you do wind up needing to get involved, take a breath and step back before you do. In that time, they might work it out. In that time, you can take stock of how reactive or triggered you are feeling and make a mindful, conscious decision about how you want to respond, rather than responding off of pure emotion and impulse. It’s not only a good idea for you, it’s also great modeling of emotional regulation for your kids..because remember, children only learn in three ways: by example, by example, and by example.
- Get on their level. Go to your children, and get down on their eye level before you speak to them. Shouting “don’t hit your brother” from the kitchen, or even simply from “on high” won’t work. Young children don’t respond to verbal instruction, especially from a distance. Connect before you correct. Get down on their level, touch them gently on the arm or shoulder–connect before you speak.
- Do nothing. If the children are relatively well matched in size and physical power, and they are not directly indicating that they want or need your help, let them work it out. Siblings have to develop their own relationship, and in nearly all cases, that means some fighting along the way. Let them figure out their relationship.
- Stay close. If these behaviors are ramping up or happening frequently, your children may need your close presence more than they did in the past (even if it was only last week) or than they may need in the future. Take a look at your next week, and figure out how you can shift things around so that you can be more of a close physical presence in your children’s lives and activities–even if you are just sitting on the floor with them, but not playing with them. This enables you to more easily interrupt or block aggression, identify your children’s triggers, and insert yourself if needed and help them solve problems.
- Slow down. In all things. If you are living a jam-packed life, with endless trips to the zoo, the aquarium, the children’s museum, soccer, petting zoos, cultural activities, playdates, karate classes, baby gym, etc., remember that that sort of life is often highly overstimulating for young children, even if they seem to enjoy it. And overstimulation leads to aggression. Slow down. Cut some things out. Just let the kids play at home or in the yard.
- Increase outdoor time and time in nature. Young children–boys and girls alike– are not meant to be inside, and not meant to be sedentary–they are meant to run and jump and scream and climb and explore. Their bodies need to move and they need fresh air. Are they getting that every day? (yes, every day) Are they getting enough of it? Do you know how much enough is (hint: it’s probably more than you think). Trying to constrain that sort of energy and not having enough outlets for it leads to aggression. Make sure some of that time is in nature whenever possible–fields, forests, creeks, streams, lakes, hills, mountains, big expanses of open space. Even in the city, there are big parks with large spaces. Young children don’t just need playgrounds with climbing structures and swings–they need NATURE.
- Make sure they have separate playspaces–not as a requirement, but as an option.
This means having gated areas, or doors that can be closed, or an intensive period of forming positive associations and limit setting so that they will use (or can be asked to use) their individual spaces when need be. Children are like anyone else-sometimes they need their space. Make sure they have a place they can go if they’ve “had enough” — gradually they will learn to make use of that resource instead of turning their “had enough” into lashing out.
- Make sure an older child has a safe space in which they can play with toys that are not appropriate for younger children. Four, five, or six year olds deserve to play with more complex materials or materials with small pieces that might be dangerous for their younger siblings. Make sure there is an area–behind a gate or in a different room, or on a high table–where they can use those materials without interference from a pesky younger sibling and where the younger child is not able to access materials that are not safe for them.
- Allow each child to have some toys that are “just theirs.” Give each child a box or a shelf in their room or in a safe space, into which they can put anything that they want to reserve for just themselves. It shouldn’t be big enough for them to hoard all the toys, and it shouldn’t be so small that it will only fit a few things. Remind them that if this is a toy that they don’t want their sibling to play with, they can put it in that box for safekeeping, or they can take it and play with it in their separate playspace. They can trade things out–if there is something they really want to put in the box and there’s no room, they’ll need to take something out. If it is not in the box, or it remains in shared space, and they are not actively using it, it is fair game.
- Don’t expect or enforce sharing for toddlers and preschoolers. Wipe that word from your vocabulary. Sharing is not developmentally appropriate for toddlers or preschoolers. Toddlers and preschoolers take things from each other–it’s perfectly normal, and usually does not require our intervention. If you are physically present and able to facilitate, you can start to teach them about taking turns, if need be, with a “turn” being over when they are finished playing with it or put it down and move on to something else.
- Make sure each child is getting one-on-one time...and not only one-on-one time, but child-led one-on-one time. Time when they decide what you do together and you just do what they want (within reason, but make it a big range of “within reason.” No phones, no computers, no multitasking, no distractions. Just you and the child, doing whatever it is they want to do.
- Comfort the child who is hurt. Pay little or no attention to the child who hit. Keep a lid on the sympathy. No “poor baby!” in words or in affect. A relatively neutral but empathic “Are you okay? That was startling. Hitting hurts. Do you want a hug?”
- Help them problem solve. “How do you think you could solve this problem?” “What else could you do when you are frustrated? Let’s think of three things.” Let each child propose solutions. Empower them to find solutions; this teaches them problem solving and increases their intrinsic motivation, rather than relying on adults to fix all of their problems.
- If you find yourself too angry, take a time out. You, not your child.You cannot respond in a mindful way if your emotions are taking over. If you are too angry to respond calmly, say “It’s upsetting to me when you hurt one another. I’m going to go in the other room to calm down for a couple of minutes and then we’ll talk about it.”
- Acknowledge and empathize. With both children. Tell them that it seems like they’re having a hard time, and let them each say what happened. Acknowledge, reflect, validate. No one is right. No one is wrong.
- Set the limit clearly, calmly, and with authority. “I won’t let you hit. That hurts him.” “I won’t let you hurt one another.” “I can’t let you hit your brother when you’re upset.” Don’t speak sweetly, in a conciliatory tone: “No hitting, okay, sweetie?” They don’t hear that as serious.
- Speak for yourself, speak what is true. Steer clear of “we don’t do that” or “we don’t hit in our family”–your child is part of “we” and they are a member of your family and they do hit. It’s not authoritative. Don’t speak for the child: “you don’t want to hurt your sister!” Maybe she does want to hurt her sister.
- Stay close. After setting the limit, stay close, so that you’re ready if if happens again (it often does). If it happens again, set the limit again, and let your child know that “it looks like you’re frustrated and having a hard time controlling your body. If it’s too hard for you, it’s best that you not play by your brother for awhile.” Then, use your judgment. Is your child out of control? Does it feel utterly predictable that they will hit again right away? If so, move them now. Moving them can look many different ways–this doesn’t mean punishment. Maybe you invite them to come into the kitchen with you to help you make lunch while the little one continues to play. Maybe you offer them a choice of two activities. Maybe you offer a hug and to go read a book together. This is about helping them solve their problem, not punishing them for having a problem.
- For the next time: If you are close enough to block or interrupt, prevent the aggression, take their hands or forearms (firmly, but not roughly) and say (firmly but evenly) “I can’t/won’t let you hit your brother. That hurts him.” If you’d like, you can add what they can do: “If you need to hit something, you can hit the pillow or the couch.” (keep in mind that young children most often do not have the impulse control to pause and do that sort of redirection) or “When he takes your toy, you can tell him “No. I’m still playing with that.” (again, they may not be able to gather the resources to do that, but with many repetitions and maturation, it will be a tool they will start to consider.”
Oh. You wanted to know what to do when the hitting has already happened. One thing. The answer. It’s different for every child and every parent, but we’ve already covered that. But since you’ve read this far, you deserve a little reward. Here’s what to do:
- Breathe. Your role in this is to model mature emotional regulation. No anger. Don’t rush into the room. Arrive calmly, remain calm. No one is in mortal danger.
- Come in close, get down on their level. Sit between them or very close by on the floor.
- Don’t take anyone’s side or presuming you know exactly what happened.
- Comfort the child who has been hurt, but not with excessive sympathy. “Are you okay? Do you need a hug?”
- Say: “It looks like the two of you are having a problem. Tell me about it.” And then let each child speak. (remember, you’re not taking sides). Acknowledge and reflect back what each child says, without judgment. “You wanted your turn with the truck. He had had a long turn.” “You are frustrated because you asked him not to touch that toy, and he did it anyway.”
- Affirm the limit, with acknowledgment of emotions: “I know that it’s very frustrating. I can’t let you hurt one another.” Leave out the “but” in between those two sentences–it invalidates the first part, where you acknowledge their feelings.
- Stay close, so you can easily block further attempts, and use one of the many strategies above.
- If it’s clear that one child is too out of control or upset, remove them from the situation. This is not a punishment–it is a tool, an opportunity to step away and gather themselves or get involved in something else.
You can do this.