What do you suggest when my toddler keeps hitting me when he is upset or unhappy?
First of all, I am going to address the elephant in the room. Your hitting toddler is not a reflection of your abilities as a parent. Whether this phase is months old or longer, I consider both you and him as stuck. Both of you are stuck in a cycle of miscommunication. Hitting doesn’t feel good to you, the parent, but it also doesn’t feel good to him. Hitting is a basic way of communicating something complex. You have mistakenly focused all of your energy on the hitting and not on the actual problem.
If a toddler hitting a parent is the fever, we have to find the germ causing it.
Step 1 Is your child angry or annoyed when they hit?
There is a huge distinction.
If your child is annoyed, your first course of action is finding moments to increase patience.
Annoyance coupled with hitting is a sign your child has grown accustomed to you being at their beck and call. I imagine you are so in sync; you provide a drink before they have to ask, as well as a snack or toy, etc. Your homework is to move more slowly and wait for him to make a request. When he makes the request move slowly, you must develop his patience.
Are you parenting him precisely as you were six months ago? If he is angry, I need you to notice if you are not seeing him as he sees himself. Are babying him all the time. If you are using outdated methods, he may be furious you don’t see the Big Boy he believes himself to be. All of your niceties are seen as signs of disrespect by him. Your goal is to create autonomy and more opportunity for discussions before the usual hitting tantrum gets going. Focus on the time of day and the specific routine surrounding that first hit. This is the time where you should change your expectations of him. If it’s at breakfast, I would see which parts of the routine he can do completely by himself even if it takes longer or requires more clean up afterward. You must help him develop autonomy.
Step 2 What is his hitting style?
Are you holding him when he hits? Is he in the grocery cart? Are you standing side by side? Knowing your child’s hitting style allows you to place a safe distance between the two of you proactively. You can’t hope he won’t hit. You believe he will try so you create a space between the two of you. If you have to hold him, I face him out instead of towards me. If he generally hits you while you push the grocery cart, I strap him in and pull the cart from the front. He will not be happy when he notices the change in body positions. At that point, you say, “It’s tricky for you to use your words. I will hold you like this, push the cart from here, stand by myself, have Daddy walk with you, so you don’t hit me.”If he gets upset or cries, do not change your position.
The tantrum, crying, and begging is a result of the shock. You are not acting in your usual way, but he has not yet connected it with the hitting. You will continue this for the entire shopping run. Don’t be overly attentive as that perk comes with being pushed the old fashioned way.
This approach will only work if you are consistent. “I’m scared to try to push the cart because you always hit me. I will try tomorrow.” * Shopping for too long or too quickly will defeat the purpose.
Step 3 Role Playing or Storytelling
The most enjoyable part of coaching is role-playing or storytelling. When your partner comes home, pretend almost to hit her when she moves your coffee cup off the counter. When you raise your hand hold it in midair and say, “I’m surprised she moved my cup. I want to hit her. I don’t like that… Wait…I’m not going to hit about it, I’m going to talk about it…’ Why did you take my cup?” You will repeat this over and over. You can pretend it with a bird, a piece of furniture, with another child. The more your hitter sees other people manage the same emotion the more they are willing to change their responses. If you are not much of an actor tell a funny story about wanting to hit someone at the grocery store over broccoli. The details of the story serve to connect both of you. Your goal with this method is to help your child describe what angered them, surprise, disappointment, or frustration. Figuring that out will help ease the hitting immensely.
Step 4 I don’t like that.
Pick a time in the day when your child is happy and calm or in a generally good mood. Sit together without distractions. This is the talk where you state the problem and announce the change in response. This is the proactive coaching you and your child will come back to over and over again.
He has the right to know you are expecting a change.”I want to let you know hitting me isn’t going to work anymore. If you are angry, you can stomp your feet or talk about it. If you hit me, I will walk away.” Deliver this news with no extras added. No tremendous emotion and no talk of keeping bodies safe or making you sad. I think you’ve already tried those things.
Step 5 Become a Robot
Yes, you read it right when he hits you. (several options)
A) Walk away without saying a word.
B) Turn your back to him and remain silent.
C) Create a space between both of you, eg, strap him in the stroller, take a step back from the shopping cart, hand him to the other parent.
When there is a calm moment, state what he forfeited. “You hit me to get the chips. No hitting. You can try again tomorrow to ask for chips with your words. No chips today.” or “You hit me because you had a different idea. You can say I have a different idea and we can talk about it.”
Step 6 Learning to Communicate
He is a hitter because he can not put into words what his expectations are, or he can not figure out a way to negotiate a more pleasing outcome. Hitting in early childhood is complicated. It is equally about your expectations and coaching as much as it is about temper and habits.
While I hope to help most of you with this lengthy blog, there are also many more reasons children get stuck in a hitting phase. If you need more tailored support, please reach out me. I am here to help you understand and enjoy your child better.
Your partner in all things early childhood,
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