You're probably horrified that your toddler or preschooler has mistaken playtime for an ultimate fighting match, but don't panic. Children often hit because communicating with their hands is instinctive. Impulsive hitting doesn’t mean you have a bully or that you’re a bad parent. It simply means your child needs to learn the appropriate way to communicate.
Often, there is a pattern of behavior linked to impulsive hitting. Children become aggressive because they’re tired, sick, bored or hungry. Recent changes in family dynamics, such as a move, or a change in routine can also trigger impulsive behaviors. Sometimes the trigger is as simple as being exposed to another impulsive hitter, or the behavior has been rewarded at some point. For example, your child wants a certain toy, so he hits the child who has it. The other child cries and releases the toy. Your child feels his communication was successful because he now has the toy. Triggers don't make the behavior okay, but predicting when the behavior will happen makes it easier for parents to intervene and address it.
Letting children “fight it out” is not going to improve the situation. Most toddlers and preschoolers don’t hit with the intention to hurt. Young children are just learning to use their words to define emotions, and the key to stopping impulsive hitting is to provide them with a more acceptable type of communication until they've acquired the verbal skills to use their words instead. For example, make up a phrase to remind your child that you don’t hit, such as, “We don’t hit; we hug.” If you can intervene before your child’s hand connects with the target, block the hand with a high five. It will take time for your child to learn to think before she strikes, but with patience and persistence, you will be successful.
Use Your Words
Every time your child hits another child, remind him that hurting others is unacceptable, and explain why. Make consequences for ignoring the no-hitting rule, and be consistent. If hitting gets a time out, then make sure this occurs every time, no matter where you are. This combination of explanation and consequence builds an inner dialogue for your child that is vital to controlling impulsive behaviors. It also shows children how to use words to express anger or frustration. For example, if you say, “I know you’re angry,” or, “I know you don’t like to play the game that way,” you’re giving your child the words to express his feelings the next time the situation arises.
Model Good Communication
Your child mimics your behavior, so your reaction to anger and frustration is extremely important to overcoming the problem. If your child hits another child, separate them immediately and keep your voice and your actions calm, but firm. Address the emotion and the behavior by saying something like, “I know you are angry, but we don't hit. You’ve hurt your friend.” Never hit or spank a child that is hitting others. If Mom or Dad uses hands to communicate, it’s hard for the child to understand that it’s wrong. Don’t ignore or downplay fights between siblings, either. Make it clear every time anyone hits someone else, the behavior is not okay, and never give in to the impulse to yell or overreact to your own anger or frustration.