By Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW
A reader recently posed this question:
"We have been struggling for some time with our three year old hitting and kicking others. It is happening both and school and at home. He has an older brother who is six, and is generally a happy, easygoing child. He is very articulate and can express himself quite well, so this behavior is surprising to us."
It's particularly upsetting for us because he acts so happy and smiles when he hits, so it seems kind of deviant; yet my head tells me he's just looking for attention or testing for safety. We know it’s not going to help the situation to think of him as hitter. Instead, we want to understand the need, from his perspective, to hit, push, or kick others. We would love some ideas for how to deal with this issue.
I am so glad you asked this question! Aggression is one of those parenting challenges that tends to get us very worked up, yet most parents of toddlers and preschoolers deal with it at some point. We know they are normal behaviors and that they will pass, but somehow they speak to that inner critic in us. Why is my kid doing this? What will other parents think?
You mention that your son communicates well, so while he may be being aggressive for a reason, my gut feeling is that it is not from frustration with being unable to express himself. He may just be bored at that moment and has found a great way to get a lot of attention.
One strategy that may be helpful, particularly because he is acting happy while hitting and kicking, is drawing his attention to how the other child is feeling. I have found that younger siblings often want to play with their older sibling but are not great at initiating it, so they use aggression because it gets their big bro or sis engaged quickly. If that is the case, I would have lots of talks about ways he can invite his big brother to play with him.
It may also be helpful to spend a few days paying close attention to when it happens. What is the setting? What happens beforehand? What happens after? Time of day, before or after meals, how much sleep he has had? Put your scientist hat on and see if you can break the code.
Teaching him ways to handle his emotions is key. Talk to him about what he CAN do when he feels angry: "It’s not ok to hit people but it is ok to do x." Share with him what you do when you are mad, sad, or want attention and help him figure out what will work for him.
Here are some other steps to try:
1. Get down on his level, look him in the eyes and say "It’s not OK to hit or kick because it hurts other people." Try to keep a kind, firm tone. Not yelling, not a lot of emotions, just the facts. I wouldn't say anything else to him before checking in with the other person.
2. Then I would draw his attention to the other person: "How do you think your brother might feeling right now?" If he doesn't answer, ask the other child. If the other child is not able to answer, you can describe what you notice.
3. Have a conversation with him when he is calm. Say something like "I notice you have been using your body in a way that might hurt other people. It’s ok to be mad, to want some attention, or want someone to play with, but hitting and kicking hurt people, so let’s talk about other things could you do when you are feeling mad, left out, etc."
4. Then come up with a plan for what he might do at those times, and equally important, what you will do. We cannot control anyone else’s behavior, but we can set kind and firm boundaries and let our kids know what we will do.
For example, you could decide that if he continued to hit or kick, you would need to leave the situation. Next, check for his understanding. Ask him what will happen if he kicks or hits other people when you are out. Before going to social outings, you can ask him what he needs to do to keep himself and his friends safe. Ask him if he remembers what you will do if hitting or kicking occur.
5. When it happens, follow through in a calm way. When we can keep our own emotions in check and respond in a kind and firm way, we are most effective. You could say, "Ok, we are not being safe with our bodies so we need to leave now." He will of course be livid, so it will be really important to work on keeping yourself calm. Avoid the urge to lecture, yell, or engage in a power struggle because this only reinforces that his kicking and hitting get a big response and a ton of attention from his parents.
Follow through is a very important part of helping kids find a different way, so it’s critical to plan how to respond at a calm time. Only commit to what you know you can execute in a respectful way. We won’t be perfect every time and neither will our kids. If we do make a mistake, it’s just an opportunity to model how we want our children to recover from mistakes. If we say we will do something but don't follow through, our children will just keep testing every time. After a few times of responding in a calm, decisive manner, children often let go of the behavior because it’s not giving them the power they were getting from the situation in the past.
6. In addition, I would make sure he is getting plenty of time with you and your co-parent. It doesn't take much. If children get 20-30 minutes of child-directed, uninterrupted play time with parents, it can make all the difference. If he stops getting attention for hitting and kicking, you will need to make up for it in other ways, so give lots of encouragement at the times he is asking for attention in positive ways.
I hope these tips will give you and your family some effective tools to move your son from using his body to using his words. This is a developmental process, and the more he feels your clarity on the situation and your empathy for his feelings, the more he will be willing to use more productive ways of communicating.
Sarina Behar Natkin, LICSW, is a parent educator and consultant in the Seattle area. She is co-owner of Grow Parenting, where this piece was originally posted.