Handling Hurtful Kids

Category: Behavior and Discipline

What do you do when your child hurts your feelings either by stating preference over one parent, saying mean things or worse, becomes physically aggressive towards you? According to Parents in the PSP community this can be a normal part of a child’s development. Here are tips from local moms and dads about how to get through this tough time.

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 PSP has pulled together what members have shared over the years about this painful – and common – behavior.




From Park Slope Parents' Medical Liason, Philippa Gordon:

"A three year old is not yet developmentally capable of rationally deciding not to act on his aggressive impulses, so even if he seems to understand when you explain to him why he shouldn’t act that way, he cannot translate that understanding into self-control yet. Over the following year his abilities to do so will increase greatly. For the meantime, remember the saying: One word of discipline for every year of the child’s age” , so “No Hitting!” or Don’t squeeze Sam!” in a firm but not scary voice , accompanied by a brisk but not violent removal from the scene of the crime, and then just move on.

You may want to look at the book ONE TWO THREE … MAGIC by Thomas Phelan.  Emotionally, your child is going through some sort of inner disturbance which he cannot yet articulate — if he could, he wouldn’t be acting out. It is probably a normal developmental phenomenon, and the job is to support him through it without getting him blacklisted at daycare, but also without making him feel guilty and afraid. The trick is to approach him with the calm conviction that he’s fine and whatever he’s going through is manageable and will be over soon, and that you understand and are not worried or angry. If your response makes him feel that he is making you worried or anxious, he will become more anxious, and if he feels you are angry with him, he will feel afraid and guilty. Again these emotions have to be demonstrated by your demeanor and actions; if your facial expression and body language convey tension and anxiety and anger, it doesn’t matter what you are saying to him at this age; his cognitive development is not there yet.

A good book is KEEPING YOUR CHILD IN MIND by Claudia Gold MD.  Finally, you might ask your pediatrician to refer you to a child therapist in the neighborhood — not because your child needs therapy, but to sit down with you and discuss some techniques and approaches to these behavioral changes in a way that will get your family through this episode with the least amount of upset. The techniques gained this way will make you more confident the next time one of these events comes along, and then you won’t have to work so hard at appearing calm, because you will actually feel calmer."


Experiences and Advice from other PSP Members:


Have a thick skin and a zero tolerance policy for that kind of behavior:

“The husband should be very matter of fact and not react as though he is hurt, even though it is hurtful.  Just say "Nope, I'm giving the bath" or "Too bad, you've got me now" when the kid says, "I want Mom."

If the kid says "I don't like you" or "Go away" he should, calmly and authoritatively, say, "That's not acceptable.  We don't talk to people like that in our family."

And he should absolutely not get whatever he wants at that point - neither from Mom or Dad.

If the kid says this stuff in front of the mother, she should tell him it's not acceptable and apologize to her husband, e.g. "I'm really sorry Danny said that mean thing to you.  I know neither you nor I would ever say something like that to Danny.  We'll just have to keep working at teaching him what's allowed in our family."   And, again, don't give him whatever he wants from her.

She should try to tamp down her feelings of discomfort at her son showing affection to her in front of the father, but also absolutely not allow any hugs or kisses right after the mean behavior, saying "I don't feel like hugging you when you're so mean to Daddy."

Mostly they need to disengage a little and see this as inappropriate behavior to be corrected and not a comment on either of their worth as parents.  Kids do lots of things that are potentially hurtful as they learn how to deal with other people, in the family and outside.

Parents need to have fairly thick skins if they're going to teach kids how to behave, or at least to act like they have thick skins.”


Have patience, “you’ll get your turn”:

“We have dealt with this in both directions - our son was all about mommy for so long, and other times was all about daddy - kids that age can't lie and there are pro's and con's to that.  It really does change around, I wouldn't worry about it.  Our son is now almost 6 years old and still sometimes calls me (mom) daddy by mistake and vice versa (which cracks me up), when he's trying to get someone's attention, he used to call us by our nanny's name sometimes and then correct himself.  He preferred me for a long time and it really upset my husband and I kept saying "you'll get your turn" and then when he did I didn't get upset even though of course I liked being preferred.”


You are not alone:

“Although I don't have any recommendations or advice to offer you at this point, I can at least tell you that I'm going through something similar with my 20-month old girl... and I'm a full time mom!!  Her father has been spending more time with her since he's been freelancing/working from home.  He's definitely more fun than I am right now because I'm 32 weeks pregnant.  She absolutely prefers her dad most of the time, she has even gone so far as pushed me away from her at times when I try to hold her or comfort her.  She'll often demand that daddy pick her up, or put her to bed...etc.

She can also be very loving towards me, but it doesn't seem to outweigh the "rejection" behavior I'm getting from her.   It's been very discouraging, and hurtful... I also feel like I must be doing something wrong; but can't figure out what to do differently.  It's especially difficult when she won't even accept my comfort when she's upset. One thing I have noticed is that she's much better with me when her father isn't around (basically when she doesn't have a choice).

Everyone I talk to tells me it's a phase, but somehow lately it seems like it's just become the norm. Anyway, again, I'm sorry I don't have much to offer other than you're not alone.”


Pick one method and REMAIN FIRM:

“What I learned was just to pick one method and stick to it. Eventually, it will no longer be interesting. Also, if possible (and I'm not always so good at this) try not to give them the emotional reaction they're looking for.

The one main lesson my sister's pediatrician said was that for all bad behavior (her daughter would hit someone the second dad would come home from work) - try not to hug at the end of correcting the behavior. Or do anything positive. It is natural to make them say sorry and then for the parent to hug, pat, kiss, congratulate, etc. for having made it better - or 'making up'. Her pediatrician points out that they then act out as a way to get to the final hug, (or whatever positive thing comes at the end). So, once my child comes out of the corner, we have him apologize or whatever needs to be talked about and then tell him to go find something else to do for a bit or something else to play with. We do it in a way so that he knows it's not further punishment and that he's free to play - but that he needs to go find something to do himself. Thank god I got this tip from her doctor – it has saved us a lot of headaches!


Use neutralizing language that mirrors what your child is saying:

“Both my 12 y.o. and 3 y.o. have gone through phases where they have very vocally preferred one parent over the other.  (Wait until they're 12 and can articulate the myriad reasons Dad is so much more awesome, fun, stylish and just generally a better human specimen!)

Seriously, though, it doesn't feel good, but I think it is really normal.  He may be mad at you for going back to work (or, down the line, with Dad for going on a business trip), but it's not that you've done anything wrong, per se.  He just doesn't like the change.

Over the years, I find what works best is to just neutrally mirror back the feeling. "You really love Daddy.  You wish he could help you get ready for school today."  It kind of defuses the feelings on both sides.  I would draw the line at any kind of "I hate you. You're yucky." type language.  Again, neutrally state: "We don't call names/say hate in our house."  Warning, the neutral mirroring language feels really dorky at first. It's from this 1970s-era book "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk."  It's weird how well it works, though!”


One mother made peace with the situation and accepted rather than resisted the situation:

 “I was in the same situation when I went back to work with my first child. I also got pregnant soon after my first son was born so b/w that and then taking care of his younger brother, my older son to this day has preferred his dad. I initially hoped and though it was a phase but it isn't. There temperaments just happen to be a better fit. My son is head strong and spirited as they say and I just don't have the patience for it. I still feel bad about it but I get to play second fiddle...I always get the second preference. I just reread your email and it says he is 2.5 year old and just now when you went back to work, he started preferring his dad, that means before that things were just fine for you two. This may very well be a developmental phase for you two...for us it’s a fact of life. On a brighter note, since I have mostly stayed home with the second one, he always wants me :-)

I have made peace with it.”


Sometimes Dad is better at some things/issues, and vice versa:

“I definitely went through this with my older son – for a long while. And felt like crap about it – for a long while.  My second child initially “preferred” me so I felt a little better (in a sort of sick way.)  I remember one time my older child saying “Josh has daddy, and Ethan has mommy,” clearly acknowledging the family dynamic.  Now however, my son is 15 and he is definitely very even about his preferences.  For some things, dad is definitely the chosen one.  But in other situations, it is definitely me.  And interestingly, my younger child has become much closer to dad in recent years.  I think fundamentally, my husband’s interactions with Joshua (the older one)are more “in sync” with Josh’s natural style, but I think Josh realizes we each tap into different aspects of him, and he appreciates it.  At this point, given my younger son’s nascent surliness, I definitely prefer spending time with Josh.

This is all to say it’s normal.  It does hurt.  But it is not necessarily forever.”


Know that kids just don’t know the consequences of their words:

 “I think this is a normal developmental stage. Our son was very mommy, until a moment when he became enamored of daddy. And now it goes back & forth. He also has said things to both of us, as in I like mommy better or I really, really love daddy. And he has told me, I hate you when he was just mad at me for giving him a time out, or not giving in to a specific demand. I think it's very normal and kids also don't understand the full impact of their words.

We just ride with the preferences and know it bounces back & forth. And, when he says something hurtful, we point out that these are things that hurt people's feelings and daddy feels sad when he says he likes mommy better, etc.   Overall our son is also very loving towards both of us, though I know sometimes he prefers daddy. And my husband knows, sometimes he prefers mommy.

Hope this is somewhat helpful.”

Sometimes parental preference stems from routine:

“In my case, it stemmed largely from our schedules... I work full time outside the home and daddy was, until recently, working from home.  Even though we had a nanny during the day, my husband was around SO much more.  Anyway, there were many moments of sadness-- and, yes, tears (mine)-- at her clear and strong preference.  Along the way, I found that many times the "daddy preference" was partly a routine, which kids crave and rely on of course.  Her first inclination was to ask for him because that is what she was used to, but I found that sometimes just casually saying "oh, tonight it's mommy's turn" or "it's storytime with mommy" was enough to insert myself and get a good response.  Another tip, if things are particularly bad, is to give your husband some occasional "time off."  My daughter usually ends up being fine with all things mommy when daddy is not around.  So that 1:1 time can be really nice.  Hope some/most of this is helpful.  I know that you know that this is totally normal toddler behavior, but in the moment, it can feel so unfair.  Hang in there, things will even out.”

Stopping behavior has got to be managed by BOTH parents:

“I have totally dealt with that. My daughter is 3.5 and is just recently showing love, affection, tenderness towards me in the same way she has towards her father. She has always been a daddy's girl, but at about 2.5 she started saying "Go away mommy!" and would act like I was hurting her if I came near her, and hurtful things like that. As long as my husband didn't say anything, she was doing it more
and more. Finally (from my own request and other's suggestions), he put his foot down whenever she said something mean to me. He became the "bad guy" if she was mean to me.  He also made sure to point out all the great and loving things I did. Others also helped (consciously and unconsciously) by telling her how great her mommy was. Not sure what helped most to make the change, maybe just age, but certainly having my husband strongly on my side has helped a LOT - both my relationship with her and my relationship with him!

When she did say these things, it hurt a LOT. I hated it and felt like I just wanted to run away. I even lost it a few times - back when my husband wasn't saying anything - and once said I was leaving the family, that I couldn't take it anymore. (Yeah, I lost it).

Things are so so so much better now! Yeah, she'll still cuddle with him in bed in the morning (fine with me, I get to sleep!), and wants him to make her chocolate milk (fine with me, I get to stay in bed!) - but when he's not here, mommy is awesome and GIRLS RULE.”

Have your spouse integrate you in “their world” when you are not there:

“We have a similar situation. My husband is home a few hours earlier than me even though we both work FT. By the time I get home, I am often greeted by "No, mommy, no" or " "I don't want/like/love mommy", etc. Naturally, this upsets me, but I also understand that I am "intruding " in their "world" and although hurt, I have opted to just let it go and try to introduce myself slowly into their "click". I did tell my husband that the situation was increasingly upsetting to me and he has tried very actively to help do away with this behavior.

For example, before I get home, my husband tells our son that I am on my way and goes thru a list of things that we will be doing together: dinner, bath, story time, bed time, etc. When I do arrive, my husband makes a big deal about it and brings our son over for a family kiss and hug despite our son's protests. Whenever my son says that he prefers daddy to mommy, he steps in and explains that that hurts mommy...I'm sure you get it. I have found that while my husband's intervention and gentle correction of my son's anti-mommy outbursts have not changed, it has certainly made me feel better. It has certainly helped diffuse any hurt feelings on my part, make those moments pass quickly and not make them an accepted behavior. Hope this helps!”

Try reverse psychology in a playful way:

“I'm sure this is probably not recommended by the experts, and we're probably messing our kid up for life, but I am amazed at how well reverse psychology seems to work. It even works when our daughter is on to it (which she usually is now that she's 6) and we can get her to do so many things she would otherwise resist. For example, my husband would come home and announce (playfully), "I don't want ANY kisses. No kisses and NO HUGS!" Our daughter would then start giggling and run over to him and hug and kiss him.

I think when he does this it shows that he is being playful and that he is secure. While I think it's usually important to make kids aware of other people's hurt feelings, in this situation it can be too burdensome and can have the opposite effect. Playfulness and distraction can sometimes diffuse these moments better than too much guilt-inducing direct confrontation.”


“We did something similar with our son. It got to be that when [my son] heard my husband unlocking the door, he would start to loudly protest him coming in and would sometimes run to the door to try to push him back out. One day [my husband] just went with it and said, "Oh well, I guess I'll leave." And he did - he went out the door, down the steps and out to the lobby of our building. Beckett was intrigued and thought that it was funny and followed him out. We couldn't find him at first and then we rounded a corner, Steve jumped out and we all laughed. Somehow that broke the ice a bit. We did some variations of that afterward, but mostly that was because B instigated it in order to have Steve hide and jump out.”


Repeat Time Out:


“Have you tried the book "Hands are not for hitting"? That's a good book. For repeat unpleasant behavior I just kept repeat time-outing it over and over and over again. Try not to hit back as that undermines your point. Hang in there. It'll pass.”

Book recommended: Hands are not for hitting


Stay calm and redirect anger with “playful parenting” techniques:


“Remember that this is totally age-appropriate behavior. Not that it means it's ok that she's hitting you and others, but it's exactly the kind experimentation toddlers engage in at this age.

The key is to redirect it to more appropriate outlets. And remain calm. Easier said than done, I know. My 21 month old son is also loving the hitting/biting/pulling hair and making Mommy and big sister scream in pain portion of the program. And my reaction is not always stellar. But I try to keep the message simple: "No hitting. Hitting hurts." And then redirect to another game. Build a tower of blocks to knock down. Find a stuffed animal to hit/bite/throw. Run around/play chase/gotchya, whatever, to burn up some energy.

Also, to help stave off such episodes in the first place, one thing that works for us is power games. "Whatever you do, DON'T throw the socks off the bed!! Oh no! You threw the socks off the bed! Now they're all over the floor, what will we do?" etc etc. The bigger your reaction, the more they will enjoy it. The trick is to find something you really don't mind that they do (and is safe for everyone) but that also gives them the tangible satisfaction that they are craving. Throwing something, banging pot lids together, stomping around. Obviously the games need to be modified based on age, etc.

Currently, my son's favorite power game is to run up to me and say "NO!" with a gleam in his eye and a stern finger. So I immediately plead "Oh, please say yes?? Please? Oh I'm so sad..." mock tears, mock anger, the works. He giggles and says "NO!" again. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I also recommend checking out Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. He has a website, too.

Good luck! This phase can be incredibly frustrating and challenging, I know. But it is a phase.”

Website Recommended: Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen


“I was told to remove myself physically and repeat the no hitting mantra. I also (as crazy as it sounds) would say things like ‘I understand you are angry (when appropriate) and you can hit this pillow if you need to express your anger.’”


Remain calm:

 “It is pretty important to keep your reaction to a minimum. The best thing is to speak gently and softly, to say "no", to say that it hurts when she hits you and then to try to move on to another activity (i.e. distraction). If she continues to hit you, I would stand up, say that it hurts when she hits you, and walk away if necessary. I remember asking my daughter, "Does Mommy hit you?" to which the answer was "no."

I also remember the watching a preschool teacher deal with a hitting situation at school-this is, of course, at an older age than your daughter, but it is still very common for children to experiment at that age, too. I remember the teacher addressing the "hitter" by saying, "Hitting is not allowed. It hurts when you hit someone. Did you want to hurt (child's name)?" Of course, the hitter responded by saying that they didn't want to hurt that person, and then the children went on to some other activity as happy as could be after a quick, "I'm sorry."

The most important thing is not to react strongly to the hitting because the kids at that stage are just looking for a big reaction to what they are doing. Save the really big reactions for when they are doing something really great!”


Further Reading on Park Slope Parents:

What to do when your kid bites

How to deal with a challenging 4 year old

Handling extreme temper tantrums