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Coping with Hitting, Pushing and the Like


On the podcast, I’ve talked about our struggles with physical behavior from Nic, but I haven’t actually written much about it. @MommyBeta got a question about hitting on Twitter the other day and I realized that there was no way to respond in 140 characters. So, here’s my long-form answer.Playing nice, for now.

Nic started hitting and then pushing last fall when he was about 18 months old. It was shortly after we started daycare and preschool (perhaps related, perhaps not). He had been physical with me from time to time before—we went through a short biting phase—but he had never been aggressive with other kids. And I don’t even know if I’d call it aggressive. More than anything, it’s just physical.

For instance, if his preschool friends are all doing the hokey pokey at the end of class and Nic is feeling wound up, he’ll lean his whole body into them, or turn in a circle with his arms out, hitting anyone who happens to be nearby. Or if he’s in a small playhouse with other kids, sometimes they will get a bear hug that they didn’t want. On one of his worst days, he repeatedly smacked a schoolmate over the head with a sand toy (I scooped him up and we left school immediately).

I’ve ANGUISHED over this behavior. I’ve had long talks with his preschool teacher, daycare provider, other parents and of course, my husband. Everyone says it’s just a phase, but I want to know when it will be over and how I can expedite it.

Having Nic act this way brings up so many feelings for me: 

  • I don’t want him to hurt other kids.
  • I don’t want other kids to not want to play with him.
  • I don’t want other parents to not want their kids to play with him.
  • I don’t want to be the helicopter parent who is constantly hovering, but I feel like I have to in order to protect his playmates and deal with his behavior.
  • I don’t want people to think he’s a bad kid.
  • I don’t want people to think that I’m a bad mom.

Course of Action

My co-op preschool’s philosophy with this type of behavior is to follow these steps: 

  1. Put the attention on the “victim.” Say, “Oh Suzy, I am so sorry that Nic pushed you. Are you ok?”
  2. Turn to the initiator and say, “We don’t hit our friends. Hitting hurts. Can you show Suzy a gentle touch?”

My daycare provider takes a similar approach, but also employs time outs. At home, we do both and also physically separate ourselves with he’s rough with us or our cat, “Mommy can’t play with you when you are being rough.” And then I go into a room where he can’t follow me. I’ll also set up limits and consequences, “If you push again, we’re leaving the park.” And I’m careful to follow through.

We’ve been doing this for 10 months now. Sometimes it seems like his behavior is getting better, and then it just comes back again. We’re definitely treading water.

Root of the Issue

Lately, we’ve really been trying to figure out why he’s hitting and in what situations he’s more likely to do it. Here are some of my observations: 

  • He’s much less likely to be physical with older kids. Especially ones he’s just met (he’s great playing in the sandbox at the park with a new group of big kids).
  • As he gets more familiar with animals and kids, he tends to be more physical. We met a baby yesterday, and he was great for the first few minutes (gentle touching, singing), but then he started to test what he could do (laying his head on the baby’s lap to “snuggle,” squeezing the baby’s hands).
  • The calmer the environment, the less likely he is to be physical (but one bouncy kid can spark Nic’s excitement).
  • A kid in his space is an invitation to hug, lean, squeeze.
  • The hitting that seems totally random seems to be a call for engagement—he wants to play.

New Techniques

I had put out a query on my local mother’s club forum on the topic of hitting and one mom wrote me with some excellent suggestions. She said that she really empathized with my situation and that they’ve been coping with something similar. She helped me realize that a lot of the time Nic is trying play with the other kids, but isn’t able to communicate it. Perhaps this is why he’s better with older kids—they can understand his cues and he can follow theirs better.

I never really thought that this was Nic’s issue because he is such a verbal kid. But now I think that in the moment, he just doesn’t always have the words to express what he wants. Based on the advice from the mother on the forum, we’ve been trying this approach when he does the random hitting: 

  1. Empower the other child to say, "I don't like that."
  2. Tell Nic that we don’t hit our friends and that he needs to be gentle.
  3. Ask Nic, "Why did you do that?" (In a very non-accusatory way.) Help him to explain by asking him other questions like, "Was it over space? Did you want to play with him/her?"
  4. He will often respond yes or say something like, “Want to play.” I then remind him to use his words and say that he needs to ask, “More play please?” or something similar.
  5. Also, if I see him getting riled up (he gets this certain look on his face), I’ll remind him to, “Use your words and not your body.”

We’re only about a week into this technique, but I feel good about it. In the very least, we’re giving him tools for social interaction that should help down the road. Whether or not it will stop the physical behavior, we’ll have to see.

I just really want the world to see the sweet gentle kid that he is so much of the time. And I’m particularly nervous about how he will be with the new baby (T-minus 25 days).

If you have any good tips or words of advice, I’d love to hear them!

Reader Comments (5)

He is still very young. It sound to me like a lot of your concern is based in fear. If you look at your statements of "wants," almost all of them could be re-written as, "I'm afraid that...." If you turn these things into positive statements - I want to have a caring, happy child who enjoys playing with friends" and then model that behavior consistently, you might feel better about all of this. But the thing is - you cannot create the life you want for him. He has to create it for himself. You can teach him and model kindness in your home, but he has to choose it for himself. The same goes for happiness. And friendships. It goes for pretty much everything.

My little girl has gone through one stage of hitting so far. We showed disapproval and tried to show her gentle. She eventually stopped for the most part, but I'm sure it will come back at some point. I think your attempt to communicate with him when he hits is great. If we want our kids to grow up to be kind kids, we just need to keep modeling kindness and showing disapproval for unkindness. We also need to let them live with the natural consequences about their behavior. Unless there is something troubling going on within them or the family unit, eventually kids will "get it." And a little peer rejection can be a good thing - it keeps kids in check. Maybe it will take him a few years to really learn the "no hitting' lesson, but that is okay. As a mom, I don't get angry when another toddler hits my child. I think it teaches her a lesson too - this is how it feels if you hit someone. It's not nice, and we don't like it. She has one little friend who does this regularly. He gets excited easily and doesn't have many words yet. We are all working to keep our kids friendly with him even though he is unpredictable. We know he'll get it as he gets older.

And if Nic does deal with peer rejection, that is an obstacle that you can teach him to work through as he gets older. How do you deal with rejection? How do you make amends? How do reach out to people in kindness if they are afraid of you or don't understand you? If he learns those things at 5, they will serve him well the rest of his life. In fact, if any of your worst fears come true, then that just presents your family with a challenge to work through. We don't want to protect our children from challenges - we want to teach them how to deal with challenges. Then when they're adults they will be much happier and more confident.

If you have a group of close friends who know that you're doing your best to help him through this phase, they are not going to reject you or think you're an awful mom. They can support you and teach their kids that we love our friends even if our friends sometimes do things that we don't like. Your close friends will also get to teach their own kids how to react when they are hit. It's good for kids to learn to stick up for themselves and say no, yet to still be kind and have fun when things are going smoothly. Outside of your close friends, why does it matter what "everyone else" in your community thinks? If people have the time and desire to sit around and make judgments of your mothering or your toddler without talking to you about it and investing their caring, why do you care what they think?

July 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMary

Ironic that WY is in the pic with dom because I could just as easily written about the exact problems we are currently having with WY and I am feeling exactly the same way you have expressed feeling..we actually had an incident before bed and I ended up in the bathroom crying out of utter frustration. Perfect timing to have read this now I can go to sleep feeling a little less u

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkim

I am SO happy I have Mommy Beta in my RSS feed so that I did not miss this post!! We are currently going through (what sounds like) the exact situation with our 21 month old little girl. I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief as I read about your experiences with your son as we have really been struggling through this 'phase' (at least I hope it's a phase-YIKES).

Thank you for sharing this and we will be adding some of your tips to our 'routine' of trying to get Portia to understand that hitting is NOT ok.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

Portia. What a super cute name! And thank YOU for letting us know that you're going through the same thing. Makes it easier somehow to know that we all deal with this in some fashion!

July 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterNatali

Thanks! My husband and I are both Shakespeare fans :) And yes, it DOES make it easier to know that whatever we are going through, someone else has gone through it (or is currently going through it) as well! That's why it is so great when someone like you openly shares your experiences. It's important for parents to never feel alone!

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

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