In this episode: A parent says she feels helpless because her 2-year-old has been hitting other kids. She says her son loves people and enjoys playing with others, but parents are now keeping their kids away from him. She has tried several approaches, but nothing has worked, so she’s looking to Janet for some fresh advice.
Transcript of “My Child Won’t Stop Hitting”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury, welcome to Unruffled. Today I am responding to an email from an anxious parent whose toddler’s been hitting and pushing other kids. She’s tried a few strategies to stop the behavior but it’s continuing. She says she’s feeling helpless and she’s looking for some guidance.
“Hi Janet. I’m not sure if this is the right way to reach out to you but I couldn’t really wait any longer to seek your help. My two year old toddler has been hitting other kids since he was twenty months old. I’ve tried staying calm, talking it out, taking him out of the situation, time-outs, etc. He seems to be doing this not out of anger but just as a thrill. He keeps beating kids on their face and pushing them.
I’m really concerned about this now and just don’t know how to handle it. Should I hope this is a phase? He does say “Sorry.” But, after 10-15 minutes he’s back doing it again. This is really worrying me since parents keep their kids away from my little one. My son loves people and enjoys playing with others, but I guess one of his ways is to push and hit, which makes other kids cry. There’s no one particular situation when he does it. He may be playing alone and if he sees babies and other kids playing by themselves or with others, he runs up to them and hits their face or pushes them down. I just feel so helpless everyday when I see him do this at the park or when my friends come over with their kids. Thank you so much Janet. I’m looking forward to your guidance.”
Okay, so a few things stuck out here for me. The first is this parent’s comment, “He seems to be doing this not out of anger but just as a thrill.” I can certainly understand why she sees it that way, because sometimes children do seem to be smiling or excited, you know in a positive way when they do these kinds of behaviors. But, I feel like it’s going to take this parent in the wrong direction completely if she actually perceives this as thrilling for her son, in a positive way. That he’s having a good time when he’s doing this. I don’t believe that’s true. I think he might well be in an excited kind of danger-state because he’s known for a long time that his mother doesn’t want him to do this. That he’s doing something wrong. It’s this impulse that he keeps doing. You know, maybe the way we would be following an impulse to do a behavior that we know isn’t positive. But there is this excitement about, I’m going to eat this really decadent desert, even though I’m on a diet. Or whatever it is. So, this isn’t happy camper, “I’m really having a great time here” behavior.
And the problem with seeing it that way is that it really distances us from our child. We start to see them as somebody that’s just so different from us in what they like and what they like to do. That’s dangerous because children actually need the opposite. They need us to give them the safety of our calm response and our on it response. That’s one thing that I hear in this parent’s note is that she’s letting this kind of stuff go a little bit rather than being on it. And children, they don’t feel safe — like us if we’re in the candy store or the soda fountain and we’re on a diet and nobody’s there to stop us. It’s not a comfortable feeling. He needs so desperately to feel his mother’s protection and to feel protected and safe, we have to feel also accepted and understood in our behavior. Which I realize is hard to do, but it’s especially hard to do if we see him as actually enjoying this icky stuff.
So, that was the first thing that stuck out for me that I would love to help this parent see differently. See the scared little immature guy there that knows very well that he’s doing something wrong. He learned that the first time that he did one of these things by the reaction. Children are very tuned into our reaction. We don’t have to give them the lesson more than once that this is wrong. But, he’s going to do it. His impulse is telling him to do it. He needs his parents to really love that little guy and feel for him and give him that help that he needs.
So, the way that this will look for this parent is being on this behavior in a physical way right away, preventative if possible. That could mean being what I call a buddy guard. Being next to him. Seeing when he’s going up to a child. One of the situations she describes is, he may be playing alone and if he sees babies and other kids playing by themselves or with others, he runs up to them and hits their face or pushes them down. So, seeing when he’s running up to other children and starting to be able to perceive even that energy in him, if possible. That’s not always possible. That excited, “I am in my impulse,” energy that he really needs help with, right away. Ideally she would be there, and that doesn’t mean every second for the rest of his life forever. It just means while she’s helping to give him different messaging here. When she says she’s staying calm, that’s good.
Talking it out isn’t helpful because, imagine you know you’re doing something wrong, but you did it. You ate the chocolate sundae and now the person that you’ve asked to help you with this impulse or that you need to help you with this impulse is now telling you, once again, “Well, chocolate has this many calories and you know, makes you gain weight and this is bad for your body.” And all of that stuff. Talking about it doesn’t help. So, I would talk way less, maybe not even say anything. Just being there. “Whoa, I’m going to stop you. Yeah, I saw you wanted to hit.” While your hand is there … I was describing this to somebody and I liked the way they translated it. They said, “Oh, you’re saying block before talk.” So, I’ll use that.
And then when you talk, just say something that’s really connected to your child. In a positive way. In a helpful way. In a “I’m here to keep you safe” way. Like, “Whoa, I saw you were doing that, I’m here.” Or “Seemed like you wanted to say hi to them, but I’m not going to let you do it that way.” And before you say those things, your hand is there. You’re not picking your child up and taking them completely out of the situation. That’s overkill. That’s an overreaction that just teaches him, whoa, I can’t handle these situations and I’m not safe. And my mother’s afraid of me and she thinks that I’m a bad kid that she’s gotta like, take me totally out of the situation.
I mean if something is rampant and it keeps continuing, then I would say, “You know what, I think we’re going to have to go.” or “I think we’re going to have to go into another room for a bit because you’re not safe here” And then I would consider whether you can go home or have the play date at your house another day. Seeing that he just can’t do it right now, for whatever reason.
Beating kids on their face and pushing them, so none of this is okay to do. And she can’t let it happen. And when it does happen and when it gets away from her. When it gets away from us as parents, instead of going in and now making it worse by telling him how wrong he was, again. And she’s going to make him say he’s sorry, which I don’t recommend. I have an article about that on my website, “You’ll Be Sorry.” That explains my view on that, but it really is not helpful. Again its a … Let’s go back to the chocolate sundae. Now you have to write an essay about how you shouldn’t eat a chocolate sundae.
That’s sort of what were asking them to do. It’s not going to help. It’s only going to make things worse. It’s only going to make him more aware that he has a big problem that you want him to solve. That you’re not going to be there just to help stop him. And he’s showing you that for whatever reason he’s not ready to do it. He’s not ready to solve this problem himself. He’s not ready to stop and this is probably not just going to phase out without some cost in your relationship.
So, I would change to a more protective, caring, whoa, buddy approach that comes from love. That doesn’t see him as this evil animal out there that you can’t relate to. Put your arms around him, figuratively. Let him know that you’re there. You’re on it. You’re not going to let it go for one second. That would be letting him down. So, when something does happen and I deal with this with children in my classes all the time. Something does happen that I’m not there to block or help with or the parent isn’t there to block or help with. My feeling about it is, “whoa, sorry I wasn’t there to help when you were going to that place.”
I realize this could be seen as totally permissive. It is absolutely not. It is not letting any of this get away from us but seeing it for what it is. And when children feel like we see them for who they are, these wonderful souls that, yeah they’ve got a lot of impulsive behavior. And we may be able to figure out other places that it’s coming from. When a child is more tired. When a child is hungry. Going through a big transition or just dealing with a small daily transition. But, another reason it could have been is that the child tried it out once, maybe it was a little bit of a sensory seeking hit or something. “I just want to feel these people’s bodies that I’m coming up to.” Or, “Somebody’s next to me, what happens if I do this?” And then the response they get turns it into an issue. Turns it into, “Wow, they don’t have a handle on this. I’m on my own in this. I’m not safe.” And that feeling of insecurity inside is what creates more of the behavior.
I was talking to my husband about this podcast and this question this parent asked and he was saying that he remembers when he was younger and he just wanted to see what would happen if he pushed somebody really hard or hit someone. It wasn’t out of anger. It wasn’t … I guess you could say it was like this mother said. It was like a thrill, but it was more just an exploration. So, if children explore this way and the result is that people are talking to them about it, obviously upset. They’re getting isolated in time-out for it. That’s an experiment they might have the impulse to keep trying. To see if they can get that protection. To understand why they have such power.
I’ve worked with families that have children that just keep doing that. They keep out of the blue hitting or pushing and we’ve worked hard on figuring out what’s going on. A lot of times we don’t have the complete answer, but what always works is just to be there for our child. To stop our child right away. More action, less talk. Saying very little about it. Then letting it go right away. Getting ready for the next one, if it happens. If it seems overwhelming and we don’t want to handle that anymore, we leave. We respectfully take our child out of the situation. Respectfully towards our child. Not just carrying them out like a wild animal.
So, yeah, these are challenging situations and I can certainly understand this parent’s concern and it’s very frustrating. I know I work with a lot of parents with this issue and it does go away. And it goes away sometimes immediately when that parent starts to take more calm physical control. Being ready. Being on our child’s team and letting them know that we’re there to help and we’re going to stop them right away. Not expecting our words are going to be able to do that, because they aren’t.
So, I hope that’s helpful. Besides my “You’ll Be Sorry” article, you might also wish to take a look at “Biting, Hitting, Kicking And Other Challenging Toddler Behavior.” And also another article that I have called, “A Toddler’s Need For Boundaries, No Walk In The Park.”
Also please check out some of my other podcasts at JanetLansbury.com and remember both of my books are available on audio at Audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. And Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Also, my exclusive audio series “Sessions” These are individual recordings of private consultations with parents discussing their urgent issues, is available at Sessionsaudio.com. That’s sessions, plural, audio.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.