Hitting, biting, pushing, throwing or other forms of perceived aggressive behaviour in toddlers can mean several things. Almost all children hit at some point in time and developmentally it is normal for them to do so.
Hitting is a learned behaviour and children might learn to hit because they have observed it or as an accidental sensory experience that got them attention. It could be a means to communicate when they are angry, hungry, scared, frustrated, or for something as simple as getting attention, or testing their limits, or for a sensory experience of touch or sometimes even as a sign of showing affection.
Hitting becomes an issue if it is repetitive and we are not able to help children learn to replace the behaviour. This article explores what a child could be communicating through her behaviour and how best to work with children to stop hitting or other behaviours that may cause annoyance or harm to others or themselves.
Sometimes we need to look closer when hitting is affecting the socio-emotional well being of a child. Is the child being neglected, have they not yet understood the concept of sharing, is corporal punishment being used to discipline or other causes leading to aggressive behaviours in children.
Hitting back, shouting, reprimanding or physically handling children as a response to hitting will only make hitting worse. Manage it ‘proactively and lovingly’ advises Claire McCarthy, MD in the article The better way to discipline children
Some things we can do
Set clear rules for kind and safe behaviour, they will be different for each household, things like ‘we are always aware not to deliberately injure a man or animal’.
Set limits and stick to them, be consistent, children are growing and testing waters at all times; being consistent will pay off.
Preempt hitting, observe children carefully and try and understand what could be causing the hitting. This is invaluable when we are trying to find solutions.
Converse with children, explain how another person or animal feels when hit. Talk to children about problems and logical solutions that they can implement.
Reading one less book or expressing being upset, consequences to hitting need to be clearly communicated proactively - not when a child is hitting. And they need to be predictable. The article from Harvard Medical School says a time out, if necessary, of one minute per year can be used in a boring place as a consequence. You know your child best, think of consequences that target the behaviour and not the child, an example from a child at our school that stopped the hitting was simply ‘your hitting is causing your friend to be hurt’.
All children like to be noticed, appreciated and praised, and reinforce good behaviour. Think of saying things like ‘you played well and that made me happy’ or ‘I loved that you told me you were upset instead of hitting me’.
Children can be a handful, be kind to yourself, all of us in the best of circumstances can lose our cool. Recognize your pressure points, patterns and establish a protocol for yourself to deal with difficult behaviour. Mental math, rehearsing statements, mental checklists can be used to respond and not react to difficult behaviour.
Seek professional help when you are not winning.