Tuesday, May 18

unlearnt hitting

As an ex-student of child psychology, I can recall studying the issue of children hitting. Specifically, we covered aggression. How it can manifest for many reasons - frustration, anger, seeing others hit, being spanked, an illness, and so on. Generally, we covered the extremes of emotional issues - hitting as a symptom of something painful going on.

What we didn't cover was unlearnt hitting in pre-toddlers. That is, hitting that seems innate. And certainly not unlearnt unemotional hitting.

The Wildflower is a very physical child. Actually, that's an understatement. She rarely stops moving. She does have periods of stillness - such as when reading a book. But mostly she moves, even when feeding. She has never been that baby that falls asleep feeding. And before 6 months of age, she was perpetually restless in her sleep.

And she expresses her emotions physically. Once I understood the benefits of allowing her to cry in my loving arms, her night restlessness was reduced.

If she's angry she clenches her fists, stiffens her body, and shouts a definite NO. She hops about when she's extra happy. She's huge on hugs and pretty big on kisses. Frustration at a toy sees it thrown across the room or hitting it. Self-conscious anxiety produces a similar effect. She usually kicks out or rolls about when having a diaper or clothes change. She was almost permanently attached to me until only a few months ago. She watches dvds standing up, and she moves into sleep rather than relaxing into it.


Yes, a highly physical and tactile child.
Me, I can't help but seeing this as typical Aries behaviour.

At first, I found her hitting disappointing. How can my child be a hitter? She has never seen hitting, has never been spanked or handled roughly. She gets tons of attention and love. I let her express her emotions. We have bounderies but otherwise we keep 'no' down to a minimum. Our days are relaxed. My child was going to be the loving peaceful child of a loving peaceful mama... yeah, good luck with that Mon.

I have now accepted it as simply part of her character. She expresses every emotion physically. Hitting out is not 'bad' behaviour. It's one way a small child expresses themselves without our adult tools of control. MAny times it's impulse based. Neither does it have to stem from some deep-rooted anxiety, emotional turmoil, or negligent parenting.

She is physical, willful, often easily frustrated, and prefers her own way on anything. So angry emotions are peppered throughout the day. She hasn't had a full on tantrum yet. I think in part because I know when she needs a big release (through a big cry and thrash out on the bed), because I let her express frustration (never telling her to not cry, or not shout. I do ask her not to whine. And if she is calm enough, to speak nicely if she's shouting), I divert her attention or offer alternatives, I listen to her (98% of the time, the other 2% when I'm going to lose my mind, I walk away). And in large part to the fact that although her temper is quick she's also quick to get over things.

 in daddy's shoes

So this is all well and good. But.... she still hits. And hitting is not pleasant, socially acceptable, and one day she might hurt another child.

She has mostly hit me, and her toys. And I have understood that hitting me is good, in that I am her safe place, so she feels safe to lash out at me. A lot of mothers take it really hard when their child behaves the worst with them, not realising it means the child trusts them the most. A too well-behaved child is a fearful child.... but that's another post for another time.
She has been known to slap her own head and face.

So, a few days ago I saw her lift her hand to slap another child (her 'hitting' is really a slapping). I caught her eye and gave her the 'mama look', you know the one. And although her arm continued on it's way, she held back. The other child was oblivious to it.

I'm not really sure what to do about it. My first solution was to show her that it hurt me and that I was sad. But I think she was too young for that. So then I showed anger (mild), saying 'we don't hit', 'hitting is not nice', 'don't hit'... that sort of thing. Not really working.

I tried using positive words. 'be gentle', 'nicely, nicely' (which she understands as caresses), 'tell mama what you want', 'do you want a hug?'... and others. Sometimes works.

I tried ignoring it. Sometimes worked, sometimes made her hit harder.
I've redirected her to hitting a pillow. Sometimes works, sometimes gets her angrier.

I have moved her hands away, and stood up and walked away to create a physical boundary. Works for the moment.

I'm not willing to try time out.

I give lots of encourgement for desirable behaviour, such as when she hugs or caresses me, another person, or a toy.

Telling her things like, 'I understand you're angry', has no affect.

I have given her hitting things, like a xylophone, piano, and drum. Doesn't really have an affect.

Often, her source of frustration isn't obvious. Otherwise I would deal with that. Many times the source is something really simple, like being self-conscious if I look at her while she was doing something non-descript. So many times she doesn't even appear frustrated, just does it. In fact, her hitting rarely follows an angry outburst. Except for a frustrated reaction to a 'no' or uncooperative toy, it's often done much more matter-of-factly. Occassionaly it has been part of a game she's made up. I understand that sometimes she's experimenting with her physical world. Still not an okay behaviour for me.

So for me, the hitting issue is stopping the behaviour, and secondly, understanding why she hits out when seemly feeling fine. To be clear, I'm not freaking out about this, I'm pretty relaxed about early years stuff. But I have decided I'm not okay with this continuing or escalating.

For many children, hitting can be a phase that passes. But if a child hits from some innate need to express physically, then I feel it needs guidance.

I understand that at two years old she has weak impulse control, and that she's only just barely entering an empathic stage. She may just grow out of it. But now that she's raised her hand to another child, I want to step in more.

Hitting in a non-chalant way is, I believe, part of testing her physical bounderies.
I want to help her understand that another person has the right to be touched as they find appropriate, and subsequently, she too has the right to tell someone, no, don't hit me.

I'm about to turn to the books for the first time over a 'discipline' issue! Thought I would turn to you guys first.

I've decided to retry ignoring most of it and saying a simple, 'we don't hit', when I feel the need to. I do feel she's a little older and might be ready.


  1. Ahhhh, yes I'm dealing with this too - but more extreme and not with Rye, but with the child I mind.

    She is 19 months old, and the only action I've found that is discouraging this behaviour, is I pick her up and remove her from the immediate scene and sit her down and tell her hitting is unkind and hurts.

    To be perfectly honest, I'm at a lost what else I could do. She has hurt Rye on a couple of occasions - kicked him in the face, hit him over the head with a heavy wooden toy, for no apparent reason. She hits children at toddler groups, the twins that come to play. So, yes, I speak sternly, let my mannerism, and tone of voice let her know that I am not happy with her behaviour and remove her from the immediate vicinity.

    It has worked to a degree, she hits and kicks less often and, she has shown some self control over the impulse on occasion. I know it is an age appropriate behaviour, so I know she will grow out of it, especially has her verbal skills improve. IN the meantime, I remain vigilent and just keep removing her if she hits.

    I don't know really what else I could do. So I will be reading otehr replies you receive with interest :-)

  2. Wow, I love the fact that you said it is typical Aries behaviour. My 3rd child, my wonderful, headstrong, kind of aggressive little girl was my first experience with and Aries child. At first I was wondering why my little girl was displaing thses behaviors, but then I realized she seems to fit the Aries profile quite well. I have found with her that "time in" works quite well. I don't like time outs but I do like the idea of taking her away from the others and just sitting and holding her until she feels calm wash over her. At first I got critisism b/c everyone felt I was rewarding her with time alone with me for being bad, but to me it seems more like a help to get her to calm down with someone she trusts.She is now 4 and those instances have become few, even though she is still my very typical Aries, she has learned to walk away from most situations that get her going.

  3. hmmmm, yes, this is an interesting one that has been testing me as a parent as well. my youngest son (4.5 yo) seems to be a bit like your daughter with the hitting. he's also VERY physical, always has been. neither of my children have ever been hit or spanked either. my oldest son had never hit anyone and doesn;t even raise his hand to his little brother when he's "under attack". for that i'm grateful. i've tried pretty much everything you've listed in your post and he still hits, himself and others, but mostly me. i have noticed lately though that he's been stopping himself (sometimes) before hitting and will tell me what he wants to do, for example, "i'm mad and i want to hit you, mama." i immediately thank him for not doing it because i know that it would be painful. if he choses to hit me anyway i move to avoid it and tell him i don't want to be hit. when he hits himself i have a much harder time knowing what to do. it's really painful to watch, but i try to remember it isn't about me and my feelings. sometimes i will say something like, "that looks painful. please don't hit my son."
    like your daughter, he's never had a full blown tantrum though, unlike my oldest son who does not hit. he (my 7 yr old) has 1 or 2 meltdowns a week lately, which is more than usual. he's just turned 7 and is going through major changes.
    i often feel like i'm walking around in the dark on this issue. i try not to stress about it, but i do wish i had a better sense of what was actually happening for him when he hits.

  4. My situation is a bit different as my son has autism and is hyperactive. Every child is different; about the only sure thing is in about five years we'll be told everything we did was wrong! So you just have to muddle through best you can.

    For my son, giving him another outlet and redirecting his anger worked. He destroyed a rosebush of mine without even realising what he was doing - it was purely cause and effect. I explained what he had done to him and didn't let up until he got it. Then we bought a new rosebush and he tended it - and still does. He used to have four-five meltdowns every day (I thought I would go mad) but we adjusted the room for him in order to let him throw and roll around without hurting himself - and ignored him. Yes, horror - but again, he was searching for cause and effect, and when we didn't give him the effect, he stopped. Eventually he grew out of this - and believe me, there was a time I thought I would be patching holes in walls, doors, and bathing bruises on myself for the rest of my life. But it got better.

    I think all kids hit this point; they perform this behaviour not because they learned it, but because they have no other way to express themselves, and also because it creates a reaction - usually a huge one, especially if the parents have a big thing about non-hitting. We've had to address this in my son's school as he no longer hits without a good cause - if someone is verbally winding him up, he's the one who gets caught because he's the one who physically lashes out - and then he gets frustrated for getting punished for something he didn't start. So, we've had to make the school aware of this and they have kept an eye on things (as well as having a word with the lads they've caught winding up my son).

    No easy answers, methinks, but I think it's safe to say every child does this at some stage. And this too shall pass.

  5. I'm interested in the responses to this one. My daughter is similarly physical, and I found myself smiling in recognition at the kicking during nappy changes (which we now mainly do standing up) and the standing to watch TV. She moves from the moment she wakes up (diving over me to see Daddy) to the moment she goes to sleep (pacified by the breast of course).

    So far we have got off fairly lightly on the hitting issue. She hits me when she's angry and she hits the cat to see what happens but she has (touch wood) never done it to another child. My tactic so far has been to say "We don't hit" followed by redirection eg "Stroke the cat instead" accompanied by a demonstration of the preferred behaviour. This works well at the time. Of course it doesn't stop her hitting me or cat on another day, but I don't think she's old enough to learn never to hit. She's not even 2. I think I'm fortunate in that I am not at all worried by this behaviour.

  6. I have had the same sort of problem with my 3 year old daughter. She has always been a physical person. Since I have had her younger brother she always gets into his face and screams that she doesn't like him and tries to push him or hit him. I was raised in a family where physical punishment was a normal. I promised myself that I would not raise my children like that. I have sat down with my daughter and let her hit a doll that she has and asked her whether she thought that baby felt sad or hurt that she had hit it. We agreed the baby did not like being hit and would cry when it was hit. We talked about how being hit does not make people feel good and how she would not like to be hit. I do understand that hitting is just a child's way of lashing out. They don't have the words to explain their frustration. They don't know what else to do. It just happens sometimes. I work on a dementia unit in a home and I deal with a similar problem there. They always teach us to redirect the resident so they can overcome their frustration. I just talk quietly with them. After their violent episode seems to subside with some gently talking, I get down on their level and gently touch their hand to reassure them that I am here to help them and I explain that we can fix their problem together. This has really helped me with my children in that I take them away from the situation, get down on their level and try to work through their anger. I am always looking for other ways to try to work through these issues.

  7. This may not help with hitting other children, but it's related to the topic of hitting in general.

    One day when our three year old was very angry, I encouraged him to hit by letting him punch my open palms (like giving him a punching bag). It was very effective at letting him express his anger physically and after a minute or so, he gave me a big hug, exhausted. Since then, we've used this technique a number of times. At first, I was a bit concerned that I was encouraging him to hit, but so far, it hasn't translated into him hitting other children or us (other than when we allow him to hit our open palms).

    We have also been showing him how to do "karate kicks and punches" into the air, etc., and can't wait to get him into a martial arts class so he can channel some of that energy.

  8. Mon,

    Wish I had a magic answer for this - one thing that my heart is saying though is to express to her that it hurts you to be hit - not with anger w/ share your sadness over having your body treated that way and express your desire, just as you wrote here, "I want to help her understand that another person has the right to be touched as they find appropriate, and subsequently, she too has the right to tell someone, no, don't hit me." - her body may be young but Spirit is always listening.

    Best of luck!

  9. Hi Mon,
    I want to believe this is a phase, an uncomfortable one, but a phase nonetheless. I think you're doing the right thing by attempting to explain to her that it hurts to be hit. I love what Debbie said, "her body may be young but her Spirit is always listening".
    Stay tough! xo

  10. When Michael started hitting, I knew he had learned it from me (he hit the walls when he was angry, just like I do) and it made me so sad. Thankfully, he's not much of a natural hitter, and so it's rare that he will hit. However, I'm struggling with him grabbing things from other children, particularly younger and weaker children. I think it's a learned behavior because it started after children were doing it do him. But I am feeling a lot of what you are going through. I try to encourage empathic behavior, and we try to be extra sharing at home with him to model the desired behavior, but he still takes things from other children, and I feel a bit lost. Even if it's just a phase, I'm not okay with him making other children cry. I've considered going to parenting books or asking for ideas on my blog, too. Anyway, I don't have any advice, but I certainly feel for you.

    And I sympathize with your little girl. Here I am, all grown up, and I still have difficulties with my very physical anger. It's one of the biggest challenges in my life. Hopefully it won't be for the Wildflower.

  11. I like how careful you are with your mothering. Wildflower is very blessed.

    My dd wasn't big on hitting unless she got really frustrated. One day at coffee group a child was screaming and screaming, and the mother was ignoring her, and my dd went over and hit her. She was about one year old at the time. It was my first clue (which unfortunately I didn't recognise then) of her sensitivity to stimulus. Of course I was horrified at the time! Hitting is such a big social no-no! I personally never minded too much when tiny tots hit mine, because I knew it was just a growing up phase. But some mothers get really precious about it.

    (I DID mind when older children hit her, or when the hitting became extreme! There are some very troubled children out there.)

    As my dd went through the hitting phase, luckily short in our case, I would say "no, we don't hit, it hurts people." I apologised to the child and mother within dd's hearing, but I always tried to do it in a way that didn't put down either child. And then I would talk to her about what she could do instead when frustrated or when her ears hurt. And sometimes when other children were hitting, I'd point it out and encourage her sympathy for those who were hurt. It seemed to work well.

    I think though the underlying issue is not how they express their frustration and anger and pain - because to me an ugly look or a rude tone of voice is just as bad as hitting, because the motivation to hurt is the same - but that they are dealing with negative feelings in a harmful way, rather than acknowleging them and seeking help if they need it. I don't believe in over-processing things with a child, but I always tried to see, and state, what was going on behind the behaviour and offer a more healthy solution, although keeping the discussion light.

  12. Joxy - actually that sounds like quite aggressive behaviour. but i think you're doing the right thing in removing her from the situation. at her young age, it's really the only thing that would work i think. have you spoken with her parents?

    mamaof4 - hello fellow mama of aries! lol it's good to hear that love and conscious parenting has helped your girl deal with this. this is what i'm hoping for mine. like you, i beueve that time ins or like the hugs i give her are what she needs, rather than rewarding 'bad' behaviour.

    ladybug-zen - 4+yrs is a good time to be explaining and offering alternatives like pillows. but it is SO difficult when it's an innate behaviour! "i do wish i had a better sense of what was actually happening for him when he hits." Yes. that's how i feel, stopping the behaviour is only one side, the other is wanting to understand it, for her sake.

    Hathor's Bath - hi there, thanks for sharing your story. "we'll be told everything we did was wrong" chuckle...
    i think for me it's the random hitting that's difficult to understand. hitting a toy when it doesn't cooperate makes sense, you know? i'm glad to hear the school is understanding.

    Hi Cave Mother - glad that you're not worried about it, it IS age appropriate behaviour afterall. but it's good that it's never been a thing for her anyway. i do find it really interesting when it's innate and started as young as my girl. i'm in awe at standing up nappy changes! :D

    Hey Jacqeline - thanks for sharing. 3yrs old is old enough to begin understanding feelings in others, so i think you're doing the perfect thing. i do prefer talking gently to her rather than sternly, but with mixed results it hasn't been very motivating to continue. although now that she's older i do want to retry some things.

  13. Janice? - that's great to hear that it worked for you. it's likely my over-analysing, but that tactic would concern me, especially for a boy - perhaps learning it's okay to hit someone you love. i know, i know, i'm being too Freudian. lol but it's great to hear it didn't translate into hitting others, that he has contained it.
    I think that physical sports with kicks and punches is a brilliant outlet.

    Deb - yes, i've done that, little effect. but am going to retry a non-stern approach.

    Jenn - hello lovely, well, the intense hitting might be a phase, but she is an innate hitter and has been hitting from months of age. so that's why it's become an issue for me, that i want to help her with.

    Lisa - in many ways, hitting the walls is good, it's a safe outlet compated to hitting others or himself. grabbing toys is totally age appropriate behaviour. wildflower is great at sharing because of many things we have done, but she has now seen other children grab off her, and i know if she spent even more time with them she'll pick it up as a defense. i would just be gentle with him and remind him that so-and-so was playing with x toy, let's give it back to her and she'll be happy, that sort of thing. i wouldn't just take the toy from him and return it, b/c that's actually the same grabbing behaviour. i see most parents do that.

    sarah - i think now about other children that perhaps it was an innate behaviour that was never guided, rather than they're all 'troubled'. but yes, there are a LOT of very frustrated children around. i totally agree about not putting down either child, at this age it is not 'bad' behaviour. i think a phase hitting is quite easy to handle, as long as it isn't allowed to escalate, but innate hitting has really stumped me. of course there are total non-hitters who internalise their negative feelings, so i think i have it easier :)

  14. For what it's worth, I think what you said in your final para is the best way to deal - generally ignore, remind that it's not acceptable, but in a simple, calm manner. One other thing i would suggest, is that if (IF) it goes to hitting other children while you are out, also saying if you hit we have to leave, and then, obviously, follow through - either both of you leaving the room/area for a bit, or going right home. Although that can be awful (and frustrating if you're having a good time with other parents) it completely gets the message across, and, in my experience, only needs to happen once or twice before the message gets home that hitting means the end of fun playtimes.

  15. Oh, wow, this has been helpful in some ways, though now I'm also a little worried. Luna is only nine months old, but already she has taken to biting me and grabbing me (in a very rough way) when she doesn't get what she wants. Of course, this could be typical, I'm actually not sure, but I do worry about it getting worse, and I worry, too, about whether I'm dealing with it in the right way, which is to generally say, "nice-nice" and move her mouth or hands away (which works sometimes), then I continue on with what we were doing, whether it was talking or nursing or playing. I don't want to punish her and make her feel unloved, but at the same time, I'm not sure how to best express to her that it hurts when she almost draws blood.

  16. I meant to say also that she does this when she doesn't get what she wants as quickly as she wants it, and she also gets aggressive when she's tired and can't get to sleep. I know she's trying to communicate by being very physically aggressive, so I keep thinking there's a better way for me to communicate to her that she doesn't have to be so physically aggressive to communicate with me.

  17. Julie - i totally agree with you on following through, and i'm curently making the bounderies even clearer for her.

    shatimama - my girl had a very short biting period, possibly around the same age as Luna, although i think now it was after 1yr.
    Every child is different in sensitivity, so yu have to guage was is appropriate with her. my girl needs firmness to get a response. so i would make a shocked noise and say 'hurt!'. that worked for mine. she was very clear it wasn't ok. and of course lots of hugs afterwards, it's so impulsive at this age, it's certainly not 'bad' behaviour.

  18. yeah, I suppose she'll grow out of hitting when she's able to use other ways of venting her frustration or when the hitting matures into another form of behaviour. T is absolutely physical and tactile but also a non stop talker. He is noisy from wake to sleep with no rest in between unless he's listening. (he's a good listening thank heavens). But he's very gentle and calm emotionally or vocalises his anger as opposed to getting physical with it.

    The only thing I can think of when responding to WF saying "hitting isn't good, we don't hit, etc, etc" is instead to say something like "we use hands for playing, or eating, or patting, or cuddling, or holding hands etc, etc ..." I know that when you say the action you don't want the child to keep doing, often they just keep hearing that action. So like if my children are running inside somewhere unsafe or where it's not ok, instead of "stop running or don't run etc" I say "walking please" and they are definitely more responsive to the latter.
    It does take me time to work out the affirmative response or to work out what behaviour I actually want them to be doing instead and at the time, and a lot of the time (most of the time these days) I fall back on default mode of "stop!" or "don't!" xyz. But if I had one child I am positive I would have more patience and head space to be more creative about what I say that is still clear and appropriate for my child to hear.

    Right then, now that I've written that, I will take my own advice and apply it tomorrow when Cgirl who has just started hitting does it.
    (honestly, I would make one of those completely hypocritical or ironic therapists - rarely practicing what I preach!! so much unlearning still to go ...).

    But I suppose with the WF and her hitting it's about venting her frustrations in another way that's not hitting. Hitting the ground or stamping feet instead? I will remind C of those things as she used to stamp her feet when angry just like a little bull before charging (she's taurus).

  19. My Rowan (3-1/2) is also very physical and headstrong and, I, like Janice, found that offering him my open palms to strike when he's in a frenzy will diffuse the agression. We also signed him up for an excellent karate class. Although I was hesitant to indulge the agression, that physical outlet within a loving yet stern structure has been fantastic! He will still lash out at me and my husband on occasion, but he very clearly knows the boundaries when it comes to friends, family and strangers.

  20. Amanda: Thanks for sharing that -- great to know that has worked for Rowan too, and he's clear on the boundaries.

    I actually haven't needed to use this tactic since I posted and have thought that perhaps using a pillow (if it's handy) would be useful in the future.

    I can't wait to get my guy into Karate too!

  21. Mon, Well I am a bit late on this and I will admit I have NOT read all the comments, so just ignore this or even delete it if it's entirely irrelevant by now! I can relate to all of this. I went through all of this with the twins in spades (or duplicate, anyway.) Their hitting of each other was the biggest problem, and I did feel it had gotten somewhat dangerous, and that it would spill over into their relationships with other children if I didn't stop it at a certain point. As you know they are Leo moons. In the end, I did do timeouts with them, at about 2 1/2 years of age I think, when I was very certain they both could understand why, and each time I repeated why and said I wanted them to take a minute to 'calm down' etc. And did make them stay there for 2 minutes - a real 'timeout', which I had never done with my first. Later, when they were calmer, we would talk about how they might have handled it instead, the exact words they could have used instead of hitting. And then with my son (as I think you know), I have also worked with trying to find other ways for him to release pent-up energy - jumping, hitting pillows, running around the yard, etc.

    Anyway, it 'worked' for whatever that is worth. They do not hit. And they will sometimes suggest to each other what the other could say instead when they are angry. It is pretty cute actually, I wish wrote more of this stuff down.

    So that's my story:-) In this case, I don't regret the time-outs, although generally I don't like 'punitive' type measures like that.

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