Kids hit. There, I said it. But that’s not good enough, right? You want to figure out “why” your kid hits. Fine. A child may hit when:
- others do not understand what he wants or needs.
- he does not have the words to describe what he wants or needs.
- he is frustrated with his inability to solve a given problem.
- he has an illness or other physical discomfort.
- he is hungry.
- he is tired.
- he is tired or anxious.
- he is reacting to your stress.
- he has changes in his environment.
- he feels competitive or jealous of a friend or sibling.
- when he wants attention.
- he is not yet able to do things he wants to do.
You are going to see this same list of reasons below when we discuss tantrums, and whether the reason for the poor behavior results in hitting or having a tantrum, there are certain behaviors that are simply unacceptable. There are almost always identifiable reasons for why a child hits, but we should not let these reasons become excuses. For example, if your child hits you because he is tired, it is unfortunate that he’s tired, and you should indeed try to put him down for a nap or the night, however, the question still remains: What do you do about the fact that he hit you? Here is “A. T.I.P.” for when your child hits you or another person.
- Supervise your child as closely as possible during play with other children.
- Provide frequent verbal reminders throughout play.
- Avoid or minimize possible triggers to whatever extent is reasonably possible.
- Say, “Hitting hurts, we play nicely with our friends”, etc.
- Encourage the child who hit to comfort the “victim” and show the “wound” to build empathy.
- Give acknowledgment and praise for not hitting
- Redirect and encourage a child who is about to hit to “use words” or “show” what he wants
- Ignoring may be an effective strategy for many behaviors (e.g., tantrums), but generally, ignoring is NOT a good option because hitting often results in physical and/or social difficulties.
- You may choose to ignore minor or playful attempts by your child to hit, but be sure that your ignoring does not inadvertently encourage hitting.
- Use “Time-Out” (see the detailed discussion of “Time-Out” in the preceding chapter).
- Remove privileges.
- Containment of the aggressive child (in a brief, immediate, effective, appropriate, and humane manner).
“What do you mean ‘Contain’ the aggressive child?”
For the most severe, persistent, and difficult to manage problems with hitting (or other physically aggressive behaviors, such as kicking, pulling hair, biting) you may choose to (or need to) use physical containment of the aggressive child (in a brief, immediate, effective, appropriate, and humane manner). We will now cover some more specific rules for the use of “containment.”
- Physical “Containment” should be used when a child’s actions pose a threat to himself, others or property.
- “Least Restrictive Containment” should be used whenever possible. That is, hold the body part that the aggressive child used to hit (e.g., if a child hits, contain his hands, if he kicks, contain his feet). It is often necessary, though, to contain a child more fully in a “box hold” by sitting down, facing the child away from you, wrapping your arms around his arms, wrapping your legs around his legs, and pulling your face back to avoid being head-butted and possibly having your nose broken. Of course, safety is far and away the greatest priority. It is crucial to avoid containing a child in a way that may result in physical injury (e.g., bruising, “Nurse-Maid’s Elbow”). It is best to ask your pediatrician for specifics and a demonstration of safe techniques for containment of your child when he poses a threat to himself, others, or property.
- “Less is More” and fewer verbalizations during an incident of aggression will help to de-escalate. Release your containment after a very brief period of 5 seconds, because doing so lets a child practice self-control while still angry. Of course, it is quite likely that the child will still be enraged and hit again. If (or when) the child hits again (within the same incident), increase your containment to 10 seconds. You would increase your containment to 15 seconds for the third time the child hits within that incident, etc., etc. If the child seems to be escalating without demonstrating any sign of calming, (and/or if you are losing patience), then a “time-out” is indicated. Please see the “time-out” section below for a thorough discussion of ways to properly implement “time-out.”
- Don’t change the rules. If a child was originally being contained for hitting, it is unfair to then say, “I’ll let you go when you calm down,” because, after all, crying in and of itself is not a threat to self, others, or property and is, therefore, not a “containable” offense (as per our Rule #1 above).
- Maintain self-control when you use this Containment technique. Self-control for adults comes through forethought, maintaining rationality, having reasonable expectations, and physical preparation/planning.
- Help your child build self-control. This goal is lofty, yet noble and ultimately attainable. Self-control for children comes through opportunity to be angry (free of restraint), with choices for positive behavior and consequences for unacceptable behavior.
- Help your child build empathy (i.e., an understanding of how another person feels). You may build empathy by asking questions in a firm, yet nurturing and educative tone of voice, rather than in a threatening or guilt-invoking tone. For example, you may ask, “Johnny, how do you think Suzy felt when you hit her? How do you think you would feel if Suzy hit you?” With a younger or less verbal child, you can build empathy by prompting the child who was aggressive to do something kind for his “victim” (e.g., give a hug/pat, bring a toy, etc.).
- Build social skills. Of course, we would expect resistance or further escalation of hostility but stay in control, ignore when the aggressive child refuses to participate, and maintain firm limits if he attempts to use aggression or intimidation again. Fun techniques for the building of social skills include trading, use of words/gestures, modeling kindness, turn-taking, “triangles of sharing” (all of which can be found in the section below on “Toy Jacking”).