Note from the editor: It is important to us that TNF expose you to both sides of the coin on parenting issues. Your child may not fit the personality described by one writer but s/he may very well be like another. Each week in this Q & A segment we will juxtapose two parenting philosophies –one as proposed by Julie & Holly (more of an unconditional parenting style), and the other by Joe Newman, who provides a more transactional parenting approach.
My two-year-old son Jack is a hitter, and an occasional pusher. He usually gets physical when he’s fighting with another toddler over a toy, but sometimes it will come out of nowhere. I understand that this is normal behavior for a two-year-old, but it’s still embarrassing, not to mention traumatic for the child who gets hurt. My question is, what is the right way to respond when Jack hits or pushes another child? And is there anything I can do to reduce this impulse in him, or do I just need to wait for him to grow out of it? (You can assume that he’s well-rested and well-fed when these outbursts occur; I know kids are more likely to lash out when they’re tired or hungry.)
Answer by Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg (Parents and Educators)
A hitting/pushing phase is normal for toddlers (particularly preverbal ones), but some strategies -all rooted in thoughtful connection- are more effective than others for keeping the phase as short as possible. Issuing a “time out” is often parents’ first line of defense, but this type of punishment can backfire by increasing a child’s frustration and sense of isolation. Even if time outs appear successful in the short term, they encourage children to disconnect and hide their behavior over time. Furthermore, they don’t help children understand the cause of their behavior, nor do they help them build skills to negotiate social situations. It’s critical to uphold a no-hitting boundary maintained by communicating your expectations and meeting Jack’s emotional needs.
Before social situations:
● Provide focused, positive attention so he’s grounded.
● Avoid saying “Don’t cry” or “You’re okay” when Jack is upset, because blocking the emotional release of crying can cause repressed feelings to surface later in physically aggressive acts.
● Communicate expectations before group play – “We’re going to paint and take turns. Hands are only for gentle touching.”
● Practice “Hands on your head!” Calling this can refocus Jack if he’s aggressive and give you time to intervene. Practice this at home so he learns to respond instantly.
● Practice “gentle hands”, which is how Jack would have to touch a small pet, a baby, or a flower. If Jack doesn’t know how to control his touch, then stroke Jack gently and say “gentle, like this.” Coach him to do the same.
● Encourage daily exercise, and engage Jack in contact play- wrestling, pillow fights, etc. A growing body of research supports the importance of playful physical contact with our children. While wrestling, allow your child to take the lead and “overpower” you. Some children hit in order to feel empowered and see another person’s strong reaction, so react dramatically during delineated playtime.This is especially important if your child is the youngest of his siblings (or is a girl).
If you catch him poised to hit:
● Be Jack’s linguistic and emotional coach. “You’re feeling so frustrated right now! You really want to play with that and you want to ask for it.”
● Intervene verbally. Say, “No hitting. Hitting hurts.”
● Intervene physically. Hold Jack’s hands.
● Provide an outlet for his impulse, such as: “Clap your hands 1-2-3! Now gentle hands.” Hugging and drumming the floor can also keep hands busy.
If he hits another child and there are tears, etc.:
● Verbally empathize with both children. Hold Jack firmly and be an interpreter, giving voice to Jack’s frustration and to the other child’s hurt. Model how to comfort and apologize but avoid asking Jack to say he’s sorry – it won’t be genuine. “Wow, Jack was so frustrated! Jack wanted the toy. Jack hit his friend. But hands are for gentle touching.” Then to the friend: “Ow! Jack hit you. It really hurts! We’re so sorry.”
● Consider a symbolic gesture for the hurt child, such as getting water. Involve Jack in getting it while giving him the attention he needs to recalibrate.
● Hold Jack firmly and rock or hum to him if he’s crying or trying to get away. After he’s calm, decide if it makes sense to continue playing – with increased supervision – or whether to leave the play date/group.
● If you do leave, don’t say, “We’re leaving because you hit,” which emphasizes the undesired behavior, but rather, “We need to be gentle with our friends. You feel frustrated and your hands aren’t gentle right now. We’ll play with our friends on a day when we can use gentle hands.” This will help reinforce your expectations of Jack and the limits around play, while avoiding language that tempts him to try it again.
Always stay next to a toddler who’s in a hitting stage and respond to every aggressive incident. Responding inconsistently is a hallmark of “permissive parenting”, a style that doesn’t set and maintain clear expectations for a child’s behavior. Investing in Jack’s need for connection and healthy limits will be rewarded as he grows into a self-possessed and emotionally intelligent child.
Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.
Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)
First, the solution:
When Jack hits or pushes another child (or adult) you should immediately remove him from the situation and guide him to a nearby spot where you can have him sit quietly next to you for one or two minutes.
While removing him from the situation you should say, “We don’t hit other people” and “When you hit someone you need a timeout.” You can phrase this in a way that’s most natural for you so long as you avoid adding judgment, anger, or yelling (so don’t use “wrong”, “bad”, “naughty” or any other pejorative comment). Then sit next to him and insist that he get quiet before you start his time out. “If you need to cry that’s okay. But I can’t start your time out until you can sit quietly.” So the first time you do this a one-minute time out can take 10 minutes (9 minutes of crying or tantrums and then the one or two quiet minutes).
It’s important that during the time out, or waiting for him to become quiet, you are neither talking nor cuddling with Jack. Otherwise, the time out time can become a reinforcer for the hitting you’re trying to stop. The time out is meant to be boring and frustrating, and conversation and cuddling remove this necessary frustration.
After the time out is over you should ask Jack “Why did you need to take a time out?” or “What did you do to ______ that made you have a time out?” And give him some time to come to the answer himself. This way he becomes a more proactive problem solver.
Now, the explanation:
There are two primary motivations driving a two-year-old’s pushing and hitting. First, emotionally he is trying to understand his own power and his emerging identity in relation to others. Second, intellectually his actions are exploring his environment in a quest to understand what the rules are and how things work.
Emotionally, two-year-old Jack is aware of his own power and needs but not yet aware of the power and needs of others. He enjoys asserting his power but feels anxiety at not fully understanding who’s in control. So while pushing and hitting are natural, they are also a cry for boundaries. He is trying to find out where he and his power end and you and your power begin. Only by coming up against the expressed will of another (mostly you), does he begin to understand others as like himself. Your giving him firm, consistent action consequences will enable him to develop capacities for intimacy (a real awareness of others as equal to himself), will relieve the anxiety he feels because he will feel you’re in control, and will allow him to slowly develop the capacity for self-control and emotional regulation. (For a more in-depth explanation of this stage of development go to my blog A Seismic Shift In Parenting and the succeeding three blogs.)
Intellectually, Jack wants to know what happens when he hits and pushes. Does he get what he wants? Does he get to talk to mom for a few minutes? Does he have to say the words “I’m sorry”? So it’s important that your response sends a clear message to Jack: “Hitting and pushing will not get you what you want. Rather, they will result in you feeling frustrated.” Let the consequence create frustration around his choice as opposed to having your anger, judgment or moralizing create shame or guilt in his assertion of his power. In this way you can coach him into an understanding of the cause and effect nature of his choices and interdependent autonomy.
Lastly, avoid the common mistake of trying to substitute reasoned discussion for real consequences. Your two-year-old is trying to learn the meaning of his actions and your words. If your words aren’t rooted firmly in action then your son will learn that your words aren’t dependable and that he can use them for manipulation. Discussions are fine after the consequence is finished.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.
[Photo credit: aarongilson]
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