I never imagined that my child, at four years old, 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 to his aggression.
And sometimes, I do. Sometimes, my body just takes over (because a human can only take so much assault) that I yell or hold out a hand to keep him at bay. As you can imagine, this only adds gas to the fire. Better send a fire truck to our home, cause the flames are engulfing us all.
Why Do Kids Hit?
Really, no different than whining or clinging, or running away or shutting down, physical and verbal aggression is one way our 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 fully functioning at birth. This means that our children can easily access them.
The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to logically reason and regulate threats and emotions, isn’t online until age three and isn’t fully mature until about age 25. This means that our children require lots of guidance and practice to grow these higher-level skills.
Because children are driven by emotion and lag tools for regulation, what they feel in the moment comes out of their bodies as some sort of behavior. For many kids, this is aggression. Our 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)
- Feeling tired
- 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, that is considered a threat? Get out of here! … Seems kooky to our logical, fully formed brain, doesn’t it? But to our kids who aren’t there yet, the answer is yes. Remember, they function predominantly from the other side of their brain governed by emotions.
Let me explain. In this instance, your child knows what they want and when they don’t get it, they feel a certain big emotion. They don’t know what that feeling is or what to do with it, they just know they don’t like it. It feels unpleasant, and that feels scary. Their limbic brain picks up on the threat and alerts their brainstem, and then, with their whole body, they express that feeling. All of that is happening very quickly and on the inside. What you see is 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 that 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. That’s not too different from us adults. When our logical brain has been hijacked, we can do some regretful stuff, too. Their brain is still under heavy construction whether they are two or fifteen.
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 new question: Why is my child hitting? Any time children struggle to meet an expectation, there is a lagging skill or unmet need below the surface. When we uncover the roadblock, we can access ways to help our children, not punish or shame 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 self.
- First, overcome your fears. Your child won’t grow up to be a psycho. They are a good kid having a hard time. When we live in our fear, we live in the future, which is a moment that doesn’t even exist yet. This takes away from the present situation and what our child needs right now.
- 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 is powerful. When you can name what is living for you in the moment, you can better return to your body and develop strategies to manage your big emotions. Remember, an escalated parent is unable to de-escalate their child.
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, have a room designated for her to get out her feelings loudly (not directed at anyone)
- 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. Their actions are communication, an outreach for help. What our children want to know is that we can handle them at their worst, that we are there to lead and guide them, and that their misbehavior (aka development) doesn’t threaten their place in the family system.
To do this, validate your child’s emotions and set boundaries around necessary physical or verbally aggressive behaviors. 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.
- I can handle your big emotions. You are safe.
- Wow, those are big words. You must be upset to say those things.
- I won’t let you say those kinds of words to me. Let’s find a new way to express what you’re feeling.
Children act how they feel. So if they are acting out of control, it is likely because they feel out of control. When we can model our own regulation and extend our emotional capacity to them, they learn how to feel big feelings (instead of suppressing them). Through these tools, we can help children differentiate between their feelings and their behaviors. This may take time, but your connection efforts will be absorbed. Hang in there. It feels like a bumpy ride, and this too shall pass.