My child hits, now what?
Seeing your child hit another child is inevitable. For some children it’s a rare occurrence, and for others it’s the automatic response when they become angry or another child interferes with their play, so hitting may happen several times a day. No matter how aggressive your child’s tendencies, your response is important to keep the situation calm and to reduce the chances of it happening again in the future.
First, don’t be concerned about the other parent’s judgment. Even if you’re used to your child reacting aggressively, it is still embarrassing when they hit another child. Try not to worry about what the other parent thinks of your child or if they are questioning your parenting abilities. This can create anxiety, which makes it more difficult to stay calm and respond appropriately. Because another child was involved you will have to interact with them and most likely the parent too, however, it’s your responsibility to teach your child the correct way to behave. Whether the parent wants to admit it or not, they have probably been on your end of the situation before or will be soon.
Remain calm when addressing your child after they have hit another child, and especially refrain from any aggression. Your children internalize all of your responses and will start using the same tactics you do in escalated situations. When we spank or pull our child away aggressively to say that hitting is wrong, then they are receiving mixed signals about not using aggression. They will do what you do more than what you say, and will continue to mimic your response by using aggression when interacting with other children. Take a deep breath before approaching your child to cope with your embarrassment, anger, or other negative emotions so you can appropriately teach your child, rather than just reacting to your child.
Once you have stopped your child from hitting and have helped them calm down, encourage them to apologize, by looking the other child in the eye and saying, “I’m sorry for…”. You cannot force your child to apologize, but they should learn to begin taking responsibility if they have hurt someone else. Apologizing helps a child learn that their actions affect other people and that they need to think about another person’s emotions before acting. Young children may not fully understand this, but they will after continual explanation and practice.
Although apologizing is important to include when your child has reacted inappropriately to someone, an apology shouldn’t be the only teaching tool used after hitting. Apologizing is an important social skill for children to learn, but unless a child feels genuinely sorry enough to change their behavior, an additional consequence should be given. Apologizing doesn’t change behavior, consequences do. The type of consequence depends on your child’s age and level of understanding.
Here are some general guidelines for consequences based on age.
Under 18 months
Remove your child from the situation and show disapproval through facial expressions and a firm tone of voice. If they were angry about a physical object, take away that object for a short period of time. Explain to them that they have lost that privilege because of hitting.
18 months to 3 years
Remove your child from the situation, and once they are calm help them apologize. Then place them, or the object, in time-out for a specified period of time and explain that the time-out is a result of hitting, using the steps of Correcting Behaviors.
By this age, if not sooner, children know that hitting is not appropriate. If hitting has become a normal response, teach them how to calm down appropriately at a neutral time using the skill of Preventive Teaching.
Then reinforce calming down appropriately with positive and negative consequences. If they choose an appropriate response instead of hitting, reward them for doing so, and if they choose to hit, give a negative consequence such as completing a chore or removing a privilege. The same tactics are used from age 3 to 18. If an older child or teen is turning to hitting or fighting they still need to learn appropriate anger management skills and that there are consequences for their actions, to avoid more severe consequences later in life. Regardless of age, we can always teach our children how to interact better when playing with other children.