I never imagined that my child, at four years of age, could ignite my own fight or flight mechanisms the way he does. I can handle big emotions, meltdowns, and whiney requests, but, when he starts flailing and hitting me?! ... it takes everything I can muster not to react.
And sometimes, I do.
Sometimes, my body just takes over, and I yell or hold out a hand to keep my son at bay, which definitely adds fuel to the fire. In times like this, I'm thinking, "Please send a fire truck to my home, 'cause these flames we're throwing might engulf us all."
Why Do Kids Hit?
The reasons children hit, fight, bite, etc are really, no different than the reasons they whine cling to us, run away, or otherwise "shut down". Being aggressive, either physically, verbally, or both, is one way a child’s nervous system is wired to protect itself.
We all function from three brain states. The brainstem and limbic regions are responsible for threat detection and feeling emotions, and are functioning parts of the brain in infants and toddlers. This means that, from a very young age, our children can easily access these parts of the brain to inform the way they respond to the world around them.
The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is a part of the brain that allows for logical thoughts, high-level reason, and the ability to regulate big emotions in the face of a threat or challenge. This part of the brain doesn't become active until about age three and it does not mature until about age 25. This is why children from the tot to the teen years and beyond require patience, modeling, and guidance from the adults in their lives. They benefit from having opportunities to practice the many social and emotional skills required to regulate the body, particularly in times of high stress or upset.
Because children are not born with the neurological capacity to self-regulate, they tend to express their feelings in the form of physical actions, and many times these behaviors include one or more forms of aggression. A child’s body is so intelligently designed that anytime they feel overwhelmed, their nervous system takes over, and they literally fight to keep themselves safe.
Now, I know what you are thinking, What big threats do kids have? … To a raw and developing nervous system, quite a bit. Here are just a few:
- Sensory overwhelm
- Emotional overwhelm (frustration, fear, disappointment, anger, embarrassment, jealousy, etc)
- Being overscheduled or off routine
- Thwarted desire (Being told "no" to something they want)
- Seeking connection and attention
- Seeking power
- Unfamiliar social situations
- Developmental brain leaps
The second question you may be wondering is, So, if I give my child the red cup and they want the blue one, how can THAT be considered a threat? Get out of here! … This seems ridiculous to our logical, fully-formed adult brains, doesn’t it? But to our kids who aren’t there yet, the answer is yes. Remember, they function predominantly from the parts of the brain wired to feel big emotions and to detect and defend against perceived threats.
Let's break this down even further. In the above example where your child gets the red cup, your child knows what they want -- and when they don’t get it, they feel a big emotion like disappointment, anger, or sadness. They are typically unable to recognize or label this feeling, nor do they know what to do with it. Your child only knows that they do NOT like how they are feeling. It feels unpleasant and sometimes scary.
Their limbic brain picks up on the threat their little bodies are feeling and alerts the "fight-flight-or freeze" response found in the brainstem, and then, with their whole body, they express that feeling. All of this happens very quickly, on the inside, and what you are left to see on the outside, in the form of your child acting out, looks a lot like a little Tasmanian Devil.
The last thing you may be thinking is, But my kid knows what mad is and he knows he isn’t supposed to hit! … Such a great point, and I am glad that you brought it up. Just because you have witnessed your child doing something sometimes doesn’t mean they have mastered the skill. So, just because they know not to hit, and just because they have modeled calming strategies in the past, doesn’t mean they will be able to access that information every time. Think about it... this is not much different from us adults. When we are stressed, and our logical brain has been hijacked, we can say or do some pretty regrettable things too.
A child's brain is still under heavy construction whether they are two or twelve.
Knowing all of this can help us shift our lens as parents. Instead of, How can I fix my child’s hitting?... we can ask ourselves a different question: Why is my child hitting?
Say it with me... "Behavior is communication."
Any time a child is struggling to meet an expectation, there is a lagging skill or an unmet need below the surface. When we uncover the need, we can access ways to help our children build new skills, instead of simply punishing or shaming them.
What Do I Do When My Child Won't Stop Hitting?!
1. Start with you
This sounds weird to say because it isn’t you who is doing the hitting, but all relationships start with the self.
- First, overcome your fears. Your child will most likely not grow up to be a bully or a serial killer. They are a good kid having a hard time. When we take actions based on fear alone, we are living into the future, and reacting to a reality that doesn’t exist. This removes us from the present situation and makes it harder for us to focus on responding rather than reacting to the very real needs that exist underneath our child's behavior today (aka routines, connection, outdoor playtime, sleep, a sense of control, predictable limits, etc).
- Notice your triggers. When your child is aggressive, what thoughts do you think and what feelings do you feel? Scared … embarrassed … alarmed … angry? Just your awareness alone in a moment when you are feeling triggered is powerful. When you can name what is living for you emotionally, you can better return to your body and develop strategies to manage your emotions. Remember, what we are working towards is co-regulation with our children. When we, ourselves, are feeling dysregulated or escalated as a parent, it is challenging if not impossible to help de-escalate our children.
2. Look for escalation cues
Notice the verbal and nonverbal warning signs that may communicate that your child is escalating. These include being tearful, pacing, balled fists, shaking, clenched jaw, fidgeting, grunting, or talking in a faster and/or higher-pitched tone.
3. Intervene immediately
When it comes to physical or verbal aggression, our role is to take action.
- When your child shows signs of building agitation, use preventative tools such as:
- Verbally and nonverbally communicating safety (which may include saying, “You are safe” or getting eye level or below)
- Noticing and naming feelings (“It seems like something doesn’t feel good to you right now.”)
- Inserting play or distraction
- As your child begins to escalate into hitting, kicking, destroying, or using harsh words, redirect to more appropriate outlets.
- For hitting/kicking: Hit a drum, kick a ball, do wall push-ups, have a crash pad, do mountain climbers
- For destroying: Get outside, tear paper, use a “pop bubble” sensory toy, crumble graham crackers, snap dry pasta, or pop balloons
- For harsh words: Practice breathing, have a replacement or code word, and/or move together into another room designated for your child to express their feelings. This may be loud or physical but it will be safe and not directed at any one person.
- During the peak of aggression, when your child is attempting to hurt himself or another, jump in to create a safe physical distance for yourself or another child. If your child continues to charge, use environmental prompts such as couch cushions or pillows. It may also be helpful to remove your child from the charged moment to a more controlled environment like a bedroom. Stay with your child or in a proximity that is both safe for you and soothing for her. During this time, your child is deep in their low brain. They will likely be triggered by questions, increased talking, lectures, and your attempts for logic so less may be more.
- As your child moves through their overwhelm, their nervous system will begin to de-escalate. Stay in close physical proximity if your child will allow it, and stay listening. In doing so, you show your child that their big emotions are not contagious.
- To help your child recover, take a Time-In to discuss what happened, how they felt, and tools for next time. This may happen directly after the incident but also much later like at bedtime or the next day. The best time to practice and teach about emotions is outside of escalation. When they are in their lower brain parts, they cannot access their learning brain.
How Do I Set Boundaries Around Hitting?
We will not like all of our children’s behaviors. It would be abnormal if we did. Regardless, our children want to know that:
- We can handle them when they are feeling their worst
- We love them unconditionally and will lead and guide them through the rough times
- Their behavior (aka development) doesn’t threaten their place in our family system, even when we are feeling challenged or confused by them.
To validate your child’s emotions and set boundaries around necessary physical or verbally aggressive behaviors, use clear and respectful statements like:
- It is okay to feel mad. It is not okay to hit.
- I won’t let you hit me.
- I know you don’t want to hurt me. I will keep our bodies safe.
- I see this feels hard. I am here for you.
- You are safe.
- It's okay to feel all your feelings.
- You must be feeling very upset to say those things.
Children often act out how they are feeling, so if they are acting out of control, it is likely they are feeling out of control. When we can model our own ability to regulate and extend this capacity to our children, the next generation can learn how to recognize, feel, and manage their big feelings, instead of suppressing them. This is how we break the generational cycle of reacting to violence with violence. Rather than perpetuating this hurtful cycle, we can address the lagging skills and unmet needs of the child that live underneath their aggressive behaviors.
With tools and support, we can help children differentiate between their feelings and their behaviors. This process takes time, but your efforts to connect with, guide, and support your child through even their most overwhelming emotions will be absorbed.
Hang in there. I know this feels like a bumpy ride... but buckle up, and be there for and with your child through all the ups and downs. They are growing skills that will serve them for a lifetime.