What to Do When Your Child Hits You
Recently, a number of parents have contacted me about their
children's violent behavior. These children, usually 2-6
years old, have started to strike out at anyone who denies
them what they wish, including their parents. Most of these
parents are concerned that their children are going off in
the wrong direction and are in somewhat of a panic about
their child's violent acts. This article will discuss what
it means when your young child hits you and what you should
do about it.
Aggressive Behavior in Young Children
The first thing a parent should realize is that aggressive
behavior is both normal and common in young children. Until
a child reaches the age of six, he is not developmentally
mature enough to curb his impulse to hit, kick, or bite. A
child may actually know that hitting is wrong, but a child
at this age often can't control himself.
Why a Child Hits
There are several reasons why a small child chooses to hit.
I will go through the common ones.
Frustration and Anger
Anger is a major problem with children. Anger is an
expression of the child's pain and frustration concerning
the lack of control he has over his world.
Something happens that deeply troubles your son. He wants
to do something and you stop him. Since your child is
young, even though his feelings are very strong, he lacks
the tools to express his frustration appropriately. This
further frustrates him and he explodes in anger. He may
strike at you with the only tools at his disposal, by
Inability to Communicate
One of the reason the "terrible two's" are terrible is that
two year olds have very strong wants and desires, but they
lack the skills to communicate them to others. Since they
lack the verbal skills they express themselves by other
means. They have tantrums and they hit.
Let's take a common example. Your child wants to do
something and you stop him. This displeases him greatly.
He really wants to say to you: "Mommy, dear, I find
it confining and inhibiting when you don't let me
explore my environment. If you will consult the latest
child developmental research you will realize that I
have a need to learn about my world and delve into its
intricacies. This is how I grow and develop
intellectually. Don't you think it is unwise to be an
overprotective parent? Surely you don't want to stunt
my growth. I plan to be in University in sixteen years.
How do you expect me to be prepared for it if you don't
let me learn? So please, just back off a little. I want
to see what happens when I stick my fork in the
Most toddlers do not express themselves like this, but if
they could this is the type of thing they would say.
Instead they express themselves with the tools that they
have available which include crying, tantrums, and hitting
Times of Stress
Growing up is hard work. Many times children, who face
developmental challenges and are under a lot of stress, go
through an aggressive phase. This can be because they have
less energy for self control or because the stressful event
just pushes them over and makes every little inconvenience
seem so much bigger. The result is that such a child is
more likely to resort to hitting.
Need to Feel Control
We all need to feel like we have control of the world
around us and children are no exception. However, your
child has very little control over what happens to him.
Often hitting is your child's way of trying to control some
aspect of his world. It can be his form of self assertion.
Your child needs your attention. Normally he would prefer
to get it in a positive way. However, negative attention is
better than nothing. A child who is frequently ignored may
quickly discover that he becomes center stage when he
fights and hits others.
If you react strongly to your child's hitting you may be
fueling a lot of future problems. Reacting strongly to
negative behavior encourages the child to continue behaving
This is one of the reasons How to Improve Your Child's
Behavior spends so much time focusing on developing
positive attention. Testing Your Rules
This is a less common reason for hitting. Children are
constantly testing their limits. A child may hit just to
see if he can get away with it.
What to do About Hitting
You can get your child to stop hitting by giving him
another outlet to express his frustration. You might be
able to channel his desire to hit by giving him something
appropriate to strike. We have used a punching bag in the
past. My wife even drew a picture of each member of the
family so the child could pound the particular person that
was causing him anger.
If you don't like a punching bag you can also use a doll or
stuffed animal. One parent chose to teach her child who had
a biting problem to bite a doll.
Review the Incident
This works as your child gets older. After the crisis has
passed go back over the incident and talk it over with your
child when he is calm and rational. Make lists of what
might work when he gets angry or when there is something
you need to tell him that he won't like. Then, when the
next crisis happens, you can refer back to the conversion
you had with him:
"You are getting angry again... remember what you and I
have decided? You said, and we wrote this down, that
when you got angry you would... instead of hitting
Teach Communication through Language
It is very healthy for a child to learn to use words to
express negative emotions. Teach them to say, "I am really
mad right now!" or "I am fuming right now!"
Once a child can express his feelings in a more direct and
mature way, the hitting will slowly stop.
Acknowledge Your Child's Feelings
Children hit because they can't communicate their feelings.
When you acknowledge your child's feelings you eliminate
this reason for hitting.
Say things like:
"You must be very upset that I won't let you do----"
This does not mean you are giving in, but it will remove
one of the causes of his anger by showing him you
understand his feelings. It is alright for a child to feel
angry. It is normal. What you want to teach him is to
express anger in ways other than hitting.
Teach that Hitting is Wrong
Even though your child may not be old enough to help
himself, it is important that your child know that
aggressive behavior is wrong. Children don't know
automatically that hitting is wrong. This is something they
have to be taught.
When your child tries to hit you, grab his hands firmly,
look him in the eyes and say:
"You are not allowed to hit Mommy."
Children's books that deal with anger are also a great
teaching tool for children. Pay Attention to Triggers
Pay attention to your child's daily cycles. Is there a
particular time of day that aggressive behavior increases?
If your child loses control before dinner or after school,
it may just be a sign that he is hungry. Healthy snacks
like nuts, vegetables and fruits may take care of the
Does your child hit when overtired? Then quiet time might
be the answer. If you pay attention to what is happening in
your child's world, then you may find an easy solution to
much of his aggressive behavior.
Be a Good Role Model
I do not want to get into the issue of whether spanking a
child is good or bad parenting. However, children are more
likely to hit if they see the parents hitting. If you are
concerned about aggressive behavior in your child, then
your child should not see you use spanking as a form of
punishment. That means if you choose to spank another
child, you should do it privately and in a way your
aggressive child does not see or know about it.
Limit Exposure to Aggression
You should keep your children from seeing aggressive images
on television, in movies, and in books. You should also
avoid aggressive video games and toys.
For most children, violent behavior is just a stage. Sooner
or later they grow out of it. Your job as a parent is to
understand the cause of your child's hitting. Then you can
teach your child better ways of expressing himself other
than by hitting.
Anthony Kane, MD has been helping parents of ADHD and
Oppositional Defiant Disorder children online since 2003.
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