Is your child hitting? Here's what you can do.

What is it with kids and hitting?! If your child is anything like mine, he or she sometimes gets into an out-of-control hitting frenzy. It could be only occasional, or maybe it’s turned into a real phase. 

It is not fun!

Actually this is very common – and it’s completely normal behaviour for toddlers and preschool kids (and even school-age kids).

So why is the hitting happening? And what can we do about it.

First let’s understand what’s going on when kids hit (or bite!)

Ask any daycare or kindergarten teacher and they'll tell you - scuffles over the best spade in the sandpit or the favourite toy are an everyday occurrence!

Some children are more emotionally sensitive or easily-activated than others. So one child might hit the one who has the spade they want, while another just runs and tells the teacher, and yet another just finds a different spade. And it's the same at home with you - some kids have big emotional reactions and lash out, while others don't.   

If it's your child who is a hitter it can be really upsetting to be hit - and embarrassing to see them hit someone else.

So what happens in the brain of the child who does hit? 

Well, when he (or she) loses out on the best spade he feels it as a threat (an emergency, to his brain!) and this triggers the emotional centre of his brain (the amygdala) to respond. It rapidly floods the child’s brain with hormones of fear. This cascades into a fight-flight reaction in his body- his heart rate goes up and the blood rushes to his muscles priming his body to lash out (“fight”) or run (“flight”). An easily available way to lash out is to hit.

It's good to empathise with them for a moment here: when kids get overwhelmed with difficult emotions like anger, fear or hurt, they tend to lash out as a way to externalise – or get rid of – these horrible feelings.  

Young children who hit literally cannot control themselves – their brains are not developed enough for the rational, controlled part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) to take over and stop them from hitting. This part of the brain develops around 6 or 7 years old when it becomes strong enough to reign in the hitting impulse – the child can recall that it will hurt the other person and cause them to be shunned, and they remember not to do it! 

For more on what's happening in your child's brain when they have a meltdown, read my blog The Science of a Meltdown.

I still have to deal with the hitting challenge, even with a 5 year old! The other evening – at witching hour – my daughter started hitting my husband and me as we were trying to get her to sit down for dinner. She was tired and had a head cold – and she just wanted to keep playing. As we got frustrated with her refusal to sit down for dinner, we became pushy and stern and she reacted with anger and started hitting us – first my husband and then me when I intervened.

In that moment we were a threat to her – she is highly sensitive and her impulse to feel free is powerful. When we threaten that, she lashes out. If she’s tired, hungry or over stimulated her ability to control her reaction is diminished as the emotion totally takes over her brain.

(Have you ever felt “hangry” – where you’re so hungry that you feel like hitting something or someone? It’s the same thing – when our brain’s energy is low we have difficulty using our prefrontal cortex, as it takes a lot more effort and energy!)

So why do kids hit their most loved ones – their parents?

It’s perhaps less surprising that kids hit their siblings or other kids – they often have to compete for toys, food or space with other kids and conflict is almost inevitable.

But as far as I know my daughter has never hit another child – she only hits us!

So why do kids hit their parents, the people they love most in the world and who they depend on? Even parents (like me!) who are gentle with their children and don’t shout or threaten our kids get hit!

In short, the emotions of fear or threat have taken over their brain and there’s nothing to inhibit their reaction when they’re with their parents. When kids are at daycare or school the social pressures to behave are strong, so they put a lot of effort into keeping it together all day!

But when they are with us parents they don’t have to try to fit in and so their guard is lowered – and all the emotions come pouring out. That’s why you may have found your child behaves fine all day at daycare and then when you pick them up they have a meltdown or get difficult. All their willpower quota for that day has been used up!

So what can we do about the hitting?

Here are some key things to do to handle your hitting child:

  1. Don’t ignore the hitting nor leave them alone. Kids want your attention and reaction – it’s a call for help when they’re not coping. Give them your attention while showing that you won’t accept them hitting. Stay with them so they can learn how to handle their emotions better – if you leave them alone they won’t learn a better way and they also won’t process their emotions.

  2. Protect yourself or others who are being hit. Move yourself or siblings so they won’t be hurt. Or hold your child’s arms or protect yourself with a pillow if it’s really getting dangerous.
  3. Name the emotions so they can learn. Say “I can see you’re angry because I won’t let you have a cookie before dinner. You feel mad.”
  4. Do emotion coaching so they can learn how to handle it better. “You’re very angry but I won’t let you hit me. Hitting hurts. No hitting. When you’re angry you can tell me what you want. And you can stomp on the floor.” Say it firmly but without raising your voice or acting angry.
  5. When your child is having a meltdown (you can see they’re totally overwhelmed and have lost control) you need to help them let off all that energy and emotion. Here’s what I did when my daughter got into a hitting frenzy the other night:
  • I said firmly “I can see you’re very angry. No hitting. Hitting hurts me.”
  • I held up a pillow and said, “Do you want to hit this pillow? If you’re angry you can hit this pillow.” (This often turns it into a game after she’s let off steam!)
  • On that occasion she didn’t want to hit the pillow – she wanted to hit me! The emotional anger had totally overtaken her brain.
  • Since my diversion of the hitting (the pillow) didn’t work this time, as she’d gone too far into overwhelm, I had to intervene. I got down to her level and held her arms so she couldn’t hit me – I looked into her eyes and I said “Stop hitting!” very firmly (without shouting).
  • She started crying and I then gently pulled her onto my lap to cry. Once she had cried for a while she let me cuddle her, and then she was fine to come to dinner with me.

When children’s big emotions like fear, hurt or anger build up, the energy has to go somewhere – and that’s either into hitting (or biting, throwing, screaming etc.) or into crying. Crying is much better as it means your child is letting out the underlying hurt or sadness beneath the anger – so it’s a very effective way to process emotions so they aren’t held in the body.

So if consistent emotion coaching doesn’t stop the hitting, then you might need to help your child process their underlying hurt, sadness or loneliness by having a good cry. You can do this by connecting with them and talking gently about their underlying emotions with them.

For a child who hits or bites other kids or siblings, this tends to be a reactionary hit rather than the hitting frenzy I described above. Usually the other child has a toy or something your child wants – and he feels hurt and angry and lashes out to get the toy back.

I wrote a great blog on how to handle this situation – you can read it here.

Remember that hitting is a phase. Your child will not be a hitter forever! With consistent coaching from you and lots of love and connection, your child will learn how to handle his or her big emotions without hitting. I promise!