This is the request I received most recently from a mum:
My 4 yr old boy continually picks on and hits his younger brother and sister and I have tried everything to make him stop. Any ideas??
I once saw a parent chastise his daughter for hitting.
“Don’t hit your sister!”he exclaimed, before slapping her across the leg as a punishment. Most often, children hit because they have watched someone else use hitting as a strategy for getting something. Mum and dad might smack from time to time, which results in the child believing that this is an acceptable way to demonstrate dissatisfaction. Or perhaps they’ve seen similar behaviour in a movie, or from a friend or sibling.
There are several suggestions for how to discourage a child (or anyone for that matter) from hitting.
First, when a child DOES hit, immediately remove him or her from the situation (gently and without being aggressive). Explain clearly that ‘we do not hit’, or ‘your sister/brother is not for hitting’. And remind your child that hands are for being kind. By making violent responses a complete non-option and being consistent with this position, children will learn that hitting is unacceptable in your home. (This also requires parents to follow the same rule).
Second, asking ‘why’ usually results in a verbal stoush between those involved. Instead, separate the children and tend to the ‘victim’ first. Ensure that s/he is ok. Then go to the aggressor and SAY WHAT YOU SAW.
“I saw you hit your brother.”
If you ask what happened your child may lie to escape punishment. Then he’ll be in trouble for two things – lying and hitting. Focus on what you know.
Third, use perspective taking to identify how he is feeling.
“You must have been really angry to hit.” Or “You seemed to be really upset when you hit him.”
Your child will likely launch into either; 1. Tears, or 2. A lengthy justification for his behaviour. Rather than emphasising why his feelings are ‘wrong’ (which they may or may not be), empathise.
“I can see how that would upset you.”
“Wow, that really did make you angry.”
“It seems as though that really got under your skin and annoyed you.”
Fourth, when your child feels understood, ask him to describe how his sibling feels as a result of the situation. When your child understands how his behaviour affects others, real learning can occur.
Lastly, use this conversation to ask your child for alternative solutions to the hitting strategy. You might ask why we don’t hit in our family, and then ask how else he could deal with the situation.
Kids’ emotions can be strong. When their emotions lead to violence parents should become involved in guiding them to better alternatives. Using perspective taking, empathy, and kindness models effective conflict resolution, considers their feelings, and helps them internalise an understanding of how others feel. Young children will be challenged by these strategies (due to developmental issues), and there is no quick fix, but responding to hitting kids with firm limits and empathy will lead to lots less hitting.