My 3.5 year old has suddenly starting hitting, throwing things, and biting my husband and me. Most of what I read seems to apply to toddlers and those with lack of language, but since my son is older and has very advanced language, neither of these apply.
During the 2’s he was an amazingly well behaved kid, just being his easy-going, good-natured self. But as he approached 3.5 he started with the hitting, usually for no apparent reason — like, he runs by me and hits me, pinches me, throws a hard toy at me. I thought I had all the patience in the world for him until he started repeatedly hurting me, and I find myself yelling at him to stop hurting me.
After I read some of the posts on your website, I changed my approach and would calmly say things like, “You hit me. That hurts mommy. Is there something that is bothering you?” Inevitably, he would give me a silly answer like, “I don’t know how to talk.” And a little while later he would do something out of nowhere to hurt me again.
Sometimes I think maybe I am not paying enough attention to him (I am a stay at home mom), but today we were sitting outside just eating lunch and he picked up his bowl and smacked me on the leg with it, then threw the bowl at me.
Last night he didn’t want my husband to put him to bed, so I said no problem, I will do it. My husband asked him for a hug good night, and after my son gave him a hug, he punched him in the chest. This is not the first time he has punched my husband, and I can see it is getting to him.
It can be tricky to give parents advice when all I have to go on is a snapshot of their situation. I invariably have many more questions than answers, but I’m happy to give it a try. I generally begin by looking for clues, channeling my inner Nancy Drew (devoured her books as a kid and briefly played her on TV in a former life). Here are some statements I was struck by in your note:
“During the 2’s he was an amazingly well-behaved kid, just being his easy-going, good-natured self.” Hmmm… It’s unusual for a toddler not to demonstrate at least a smidgen of resistance and defiance. Is it possible that you and your husband have been trying to skirt power struggles by catering and acquiescing to your boy? Do you give in to your son’s requests to avoid his displeasure? A subsequent comment seems to indicate that you do…
“Last night he didn’t want my husband to put him to bed, so I said no problem, I will do it.” Assuming your husband is the affectionate dad I’d imagine him to be, why honor this type of request? Why allow your son to toss his dad aside at his whim? It sounds like you may be mistaking this typical toddler test for a need for mom’s company.
I often counsel parents who work hard at being respectful, sensitive and gentle; so hard, in fact, that every interaction with their child has them walking on eggshells, tentative about their choices and directions, fearful that their child might “crack” and get upset or make them feel like mean, overly strict parents.
They’re understandably gob-smacked when their efforts are rewarded with something akin to your son’s punch to the chest.
Worries about upsetting our kids can prevent us from seeing that their undesirable behavior is a question that needs to be answered clearly. And when children aren’t getting the answers they need, these questions become more insistent.
“I thought I had all the patience in the world for him until he started repeatedly hurting me, and I find myself yelling at him to stop hurting me.” Here is more evidence of your wonderful respect and patience, but it is misplaced. When children are pushing our limits, they need our capable leadership far more than they need our patience. It isn’t fair to expect toddlers and preschoolers to decide of their own volition to follow our directions or stop bothering us because they adore us (as our peers would). They have a developmental need to assert their individuality (which means testing and disagreeing with us often), while also feeling safely reined in by our clear boundaries.
If we are reticent to be our kids’ teachers and leaders, we burden them with an uncomfortable amount of power, especially when we allow them to drain us of “all the patience in the world” and cause us to yell. That isn’t fair. Rather than yelling at our children to stop, they need us to confidently stop them.
“After I read some of the posts on your website, I changed my approach and would calmly say things like, “You hit me. That hurts mommy. Is there something that is bothering you?”” This makes me worry that my points aren’t coming across clearly. I would not recommend saying the things you mention, because:
He knows he hit you. He knows that it hurts you. He says, “I don’t know how to talk,” because what’s bothering him is difficult for him to understand, much less express in words. He is, however, expressing himself loud and clear through his behavior. What bothers him is your lack of response. He needs and deserves a clear, direct answer to his question: “What happens when I hit you? Bite you? Throw toys at you?”
So, I recommend:
1) Respond confidently and comfortably (not angrily), be matter-of-fact, “I don’t want you to hit.”
2) If he continues, I would block him: “You feel like hitting. I will stop you.” Hold his wrists or hands if you need to, put away any toys and objects he’s using unsafely.
3) Instead of referring to yourself as “mommy”, which is indirect and less connected, speak to him as a person…in the first person. These are important exchanges between you and your son, (not “mommy” in the abstract), and your connection needs to be clear and solid.
Calmly preventing your boy from hurting you may evoke his anger, which would be the healthiest thing that could happen, because he’s probably been storing these uncomfortable feelings for quite some time. He’ll need assurance that you fully accept and don’t fear his feelings. Let the feelings be, and when he’s calmer, reconnect by acknowledging (without pity), “You wanted to hit and I won’t let you. That was upsetting.”
Getting comfortable with this basic limit-setting dynamic is essential:
We confidently establish a boundary. Our child expresses displeasure (which can include frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, rage). We stay anchored during this storm, patiently accepting and acknowledging our child’s displeasure.
“Sometimes I think maybe I am not paying enough attention to him.” What I sense may be missing is a particular kind of attention that can be the most elusive for respectful, gentle parents: confident leadership. Prevent your son from bothering you and igniting your anger. Believe in his ability to handle difficult feelings. Provide clarity, protection and acceptance. There is no more loving way to connect.
I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my book:
You might also find my podcasts helpful. Here are a couple that are on this topic:
I also recommend:
1, 2, 3, The Toddler Years (a wonderful guidebook that applies to preschoolers as well)
Stop! 5 Easy Steps to Effective Limit Setting With Toddlers by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby
My discipline posts, podcast and book: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available on Audible!)