My three oldest children are boys. My wife and I enjoy their energy and enthusiasm for life. However, we have also experienced the frustration that comes when they have struggled to control their anger and expressed it through tantrums and hitting. As a parent, I could relate to a question a reader wrote me in response to a resent post about parenting boys…
“I understand that some things boys don’t have to learn, it’s just in them. I am a single mom with a 5 yr. old who likes to hit. How do I teach him that hitting is not the answer? It tends to come out when he gets angry and I haven’t been able to teach him or get him to understand that hitting is not the answer. What do I do?”
What can we do?
Before I address ways that we can actually teach our child to stop hitting and do something more appropriate, I want to share an excerpt from the book Positive Parenting in Action by Laura Ling and Rebecca Eanes. They remind us that, “First it is important to understand that children who are aggressive are children who are scared, hurt or feeling disconnected.” With this in mind, we look to the second principle of TRU Parenting, the relationship.
Make sure you have plenty of positive opportunities to just be together and play. Continue to build the relationship. Often times aggressive behavior is simply an attention seeking behavior or exhibited out of frustration from a loss of control. Make special efforts to give them attention and shared power while things are going well. This alone can greatly impact and decrease aggressive behavior. Even if the aggression does not stop, the better the relationship, the more effective the teaching will be. This is all part of the cycle that feeds and reinforces the aggressive behavior.
What do we want them to know?
When our kids are in a cycle of hitting and aggressive behavior, there are primarily two things we want to teach them.
- To stop hitting &
- How to express themselves in more appropriate ways or what to do instead.
Learning always happens more effectively when we teach throughout the cycle rather than simply teaching reactively. When we know that hitting is a problem, we can plan ahead and ensure that we teach the positive emotional regulation, expression and communication that we intend to teach, rather than inadvertently teaching and reinforcing negative habits or behaviors. (Although we will be focusing on the TRU principle of Teaching in this post, the other principles of Relationship and Upgrading ourselves stand as guiding principles in how we teach.)
Teaching occurs before the hitting even happens again. Teaching will also continue during an episode and after the next aggressive instance has passed. There is no need to wait to teach your child alternatives to hitting or other aggressive acts. You can teach at the following three times.
Before it happens again:
- Teach during the good times: Look for and deliberately create “good times” together. During those good times, problem solve together by saying something like, “Hey buddy, I’ve noticed that you’ve really had a hard time when___________ (fill in the blank with something that triggers his anger and hitting). What do you think we could do to help that go more smoothly? Is there anything I could do to help you calm down when that happens? Are there any things you could do to get through it without hitting?” When your child finds his own solutions, they are more powerful and useful to him.
- Assertively set a clear limit and boundary: As an appendage to the conversation above, tell your child, “Hitting is not okay! I’ll remind you of this anytime you are getting angry so we can all stay safe and we can remember other ways to show and tell you’re angry.”
- Role play alternative ways to deal with and express anger and make a plan: Blow bubbles to practice taking deep breathes and then role play when he would use it. Make a stop sign out of paper that can be placed on a board in a common, open place that will help him stop and think before hitting. Practice asking and polite language. Offer a safe place he can go if he is upset and needs to cool down and practice going there in different scenarios. Read books about expressing emotions. Plan what you and your child will do when the “BIG emotions” present themselves. Think of key words that help you and him remember the plan. If the plan is to go outside and run around the house, a key phrase might be, “Looks like time to run!” You could plan to run together. The more fun it is, the more likely he will be able to use it in the moment of anger. Write or draw the plan out together if it helps.
During the next aggressive event:
- Stick to the plan: Remind your child, “hitting is not okay!” Then remind them of alternatives using the short key word or phrase you identified with them. Do not use a lot of words but follow the plan for reminding that you created together.
- Maintain your boundaries and limits: Don’t let him hit or hurt you or others, but be calm, empathetic and reassuring. If they try to hit you when you go near them, get down at his level but don’t go within their reach if he will not stop hitting or being aggressive. Wait it out from a distance if necessary.
- Use observation words and empathize: “You seem angry about Billy playing with the car you wanted to play with. I’ll bet that’s tough.” Give a hug as soon as they are calm enough not to hit or hurt anyone. Talk softly and calmly. Let him cry and thank him for sharing his feelings and not hitting. Remember, you are his external emotional regulatory system.
After the storm:
- Do not change a request or give in to aggressive demands: There is never any need for cruelty or unkind words but there is no need to cave to the aggressive child either. If the aggression came about because he wanted something, do not allow the child to have it. If the aggression was an attempt to get out of following a request, maintain that your child fulfill the request after he has calmed down again.
- Forgive and show and outpouring of love: Don’t allow the outburst to drive a wedge between you and your child. Tell him you love him and find ways to reconnect.
- Review the plan and make adjustments: After things have calmed down, return to the before stage of the cycle but this time, instead of creating a new plan, review what you agreed upon. Talk about what went well and what you could do to improve. Tell your child that you appreciate their help and efforts.
When the reader asked the question, “How do I teach him that hitting is not the answer?” A friend, Anna Seewald MEd, MPsy, founder of Authentic parenting offered some wonderful insight. She said,
“The message he has to hear is that being angry is OK, expressing it by hitting others or ruining property is not acceptable. If a child has a lot of pent up anger/frustration providing outlets for safely expressing all his emotions regularly is very helpful…
Anger is the most difficult emotion to control yet many parents ask their little ones in the heat of extreme anger to use their words. We can talk about the event after the storm is gone.
Having emotions is part of being human. Learning to recognize and safely express them is vital.”
I appreciated these wise words from Anna. As we teach our children throughout the cycles of daily living, we provide the opportunities they need to connect and express themselves in healthy ways. We teach them that hitting is not acceptable and how to express their wants, needs and emotions. We take the guess work out of managing the next hurricane and instead can focus on building stronger and healthier relationships.
Comment: If you have a child that struggles with aggressive behavior, give these suggestions a try and let us know how things go.
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