How to Handle Hitting

PSP members offer advice on dealing with violent behaviors in elementary-aged kids.

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One parent asked the Advice Group…


“Looking for advice, books, or maybe a rec for a parenting coach/therapist to talk to about a 5 year old who hits.

For the last few months, when my son gets angry, he tries to hit/kick/pinch/etc. He mostly does this to me (his mom, who he’s most attached to), but sometimes to his dad too, and he once took a swipe at his nanny. Never at friends, his baby sister, or any other kids or adults - he’s actually quite gentle with other kids and an angel at school.

He doesn’t seem to really be trying to hurt me - he swipes at me but doesn’t hit hard. When I move out of the way or say things like, “I won’t let you hurt me”, he keeps going at me, trying to kick, scratch, whatever- but again not really hard. It’s like he wants to be in constant contact with me but in a hostile way. When I tell him I need to leave the situation by going to a different room (leaving him safe with his dad), he has a complete meltdown, crying hysterically. It’s not always obvious what causes his violent reactions- there are times it’s clear what he’s angry about (not getting what he wants, etc) but others when something that seems like a minor annoyance sets him off.

Most of the advice I’ve read has been about toddlers who hit, so it doesn’t seem as relevant for his age. I’ve been reading Dr Becky, Big Little Feelings,  and other similar parenting blogs/accounts. I talk about keeping my body safe, just like I need to keep his body safe. I’ve tried talking to him when we’re both calm about finding other things to do with his body when he’s angry (stomping his feet on the floor, hitting the couch), tried narrating his feelings (‘you seem frustrated/angry/etc’) but nothing seems to help.

Has anyone dealt with this with a 5yr old, and have strategies that helped? Or know of any good resources or people to talk to? Lately it’s been happening every week and is so exhausting. I’m also worried that it’ll spill over beyond me and that he’ll hit his sister or another kid, or that he’ll start actually hitting hard.”

 

Members advise…


It’s common and you’re not alone.

“First of all it’s really common and it’s not surprising that your child is showing this behavior just around those he is closest to which often happens in family life. A child makes it through a day of school handling lots of challenges and some hard things. Then when returning home wants to show his closest caregivers the upsets he stored away in the day.”

“Good luck. You’re not alone, he’s not a monster, you’re not shitty parents. For my son it was just very, very big feelings in a very small and sensitive body.”

 

Verbally sympathize and offer comfort.

“If you haven't read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk I would highly recommend it.

The very simplified upshot is to verbally sympathize with kids, ie ‘you seem to be really upset,’ and ‘I can imagine XX makes you feel frustrated,’ etc etc.

It seems corny but I've found it to be very helpful overall with my kids who are 6, 10 and 13.”

“Giving your child warm attention while preventing yourself from getting hurt is a good thing to try. In a loving tone say no no no and hold their hand to interrupt the hit or scoop them up in a playful snuggle. Sometimes that will bring tears or laughter and eventually you have a child who is back in contact and able to be their loving cooperative self.

It’s not always that simple. If it’s a mild thing that scared or confused a young child just one warm playful interruption may suffice. Many times though there are deeper fears that have accumulated so it might be a challenging project particularly at difficult times like going through a pandemic, losing a loved one etc.”

 

In the moment, though, you may just need to ride it out.

“I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I have very similar sounding situations with my youngest who’s now 9. He is a sweet and gentle kid who has no behavioral issues at school (besides wanting to talk to his friends at all times). He is sensitive and feels things very deeply.

But sometimes he has what we call ‘rage storms’. This can be brought on by seemingly small things like having to stop screen time while also hungry, tired, etc. or sometimes it seems it comes out of nowhere. When he goes there, he does a lot of what you’re describing, hitting but without intent to do serious harm. He will also say things like he hates us or that he wants to kill his brother. Charming!

After trying different approaches over the years, what I’ve found is that in that moment, nothing helps but to ride it out. Anything I say is fuel for his anger. Whether I acknowledge his feelings, tell him I love him, ask him to stop…it all just gives him something to push back on. I just restrain him, stay very calm, and say nothing. Anything other than that prolongs it. Eventually he tires out or I can feel a slight energy shift and I’ll ask him an unrelated question in a quiet voice. Something like, wasn’t there a video you wanted to show me earlier? Or, which book are you reading these days?

Sometimes it distracts him enough to answer and then he can find his way out. It’s like he’s been in an altered state. Thankfully it’s more of a monthly than a weekly occurrence because it’s intense! He’s usually very engaged, relaxed and snuggly after.

This is just to say ‘I feel you!’ And share what works for us. It’s gotten slightly better now he’s 9 but he’ll always be a big emotions guy! So I don’t have a solution besides stay as calm as you can when it happens. Unnaturally calm. It’s so hard (for me) but ultimately helps us both get through the moment more quickly.

 

Work with them on mindfulness and grounding techniques like narrating and naming feelings.

“Yes, my older son who is now 8 hit me from when he was around 2 to when he was around 6.5, and very rarely - when he is extremely tired - he will hit me now. He hit hard. It hurt. It was INCREDIBLY hard to parent through. Nothing made me lose it faster. He also bit me often when he was a toddler - and often when he was just super excited!

He outgrew it. We worked very, very hard on narrating his feelings, on techniques to keep our calm, on naming feelings in his body, and we sent him to his room when he was out of control - less as punishment and more as a place to land again. My husband and I work with a child therapist to work on our responses and helping him parse his feelings and body reactions. He still struggles with big feelings, but as he gets older he is beginning to be able to find other techniques. (He told me he wants a chew toy. His friend has one and he thinks it would be soothing for him when he’s agitated and can’t figure out why.)

With what I’ve written above, you might be surprised to hear that he is also incredibly well mannered at school, gets great grades, is adored by his teachers, has friends, and other parents are often surprised if I say that he is a lot to manage at home.

This is all probably very alarming - and it has SUCKED - but it has gotten so, so much better both with age and with a child therapist for my husband and I to learn new techniques with.”

 

Resources to Explore


Hand in Hand Parenting

Hand in Hand has techniques (play listening, stay listening and special time are a few) and many articles and people to reach out to.  I recommend these practices whole heartedly.”

“Try reading [this article] and check out the resources at Hand in Hand Parenting.

It’s really important to get resources for yourself as the parent in order to try to play this way since we often didn’t get to have people try this with us and we are battling our own big struggles like parenting in a pandemic. But [Hand in Hand Parenting] gives you ways to do that by helping parents find listening partners and offering support groups and online classes. Lots of the stuff is free or low cost!”

 

Playful Parenting

“My most beloved parenting resources are a book called Playful Parenting and a website/set of courses called Hand in Hand Parenting.”

 

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

“If you haven't read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk I would highly recommend it.”

 

Dr. Becky and Dr. Siggie

“My 4 year old is also aggressive with me when very angry. I found this podcast helpful from Dr. Becky. She specifically talks about aggressive behavior and hitting in this episode.”

“I've experienced this, too.  It is so so hard.  I've found Dr. Becky at Good Inside and Dr. Siggie (I follow them both on Instagram) to be particularly helpful.  How I wish I had known about them when my child was 5!  

Dr. Becky talks about ‘Deeply Feeling Kids’ -- the ones who erupt easily, and push you away when you try to comfort them.  None of the usual advice (like empathizing-- ‘I can see you are really mad right now’ -- works with kids like this, which can make parents feel particularly useless!”

 

When I Feel Angry and The Moody Cow

"A couple of books that my son enjoys reading with me to explore anger and feelings are:

Cornelia Spelman's When I Feel Angry - she has a series with a few different feelings and I like these. 

The Moody Cow

 

Wits’ End Parenting

“We have had some similar issues with my 4 year old son and 1 year ago did some zoom sessions with Rebecah Freeling of Wits' End Parenting.

I was referred by our pediatrician and I found it helpful to have someone to listen to me, and very quickly get what was going on and give us concrete steps to help get through these difficult situations in a way that is respectful, gentle, and sensitive to how my child was feeling. 

The only downside is that it was pretty expensive, but I thought it was worth it as we learned tools that lead to behavior change in ourselves and my child within weeks.”

 

123 Magic

“My kid started this when he was 4.5 at the start of the pandemic. Would hit (and hurt) his little brother, my husband and me during violent outbursts of anger. Kick, hit even bite sometimes. He also was a TOTAL angel at school, never hit a friend, etc. friends parents had no idea re any of the violent behavior.

It’s now almost 2 years later and he’s so much better. It honestly breaks my heart how far he’s come.

It was a combination of weekly therapy, 123 magic, going back to school FT and just getting older. One thing I loved about 123 magic is you don’t ever try to talk to your kid while they’re angry. Totally ineffective.”

 

The Explosive Child

“I highly recommend Ross Greene's book The Explosive Child, which focuses on helping parents figure out what's causing the meltdowns and how to figure out how to prevent them. This is different from behavior-focused therapies, which are dominant, and which focus on changing the kid's behavior. So, basically, ‘what made your kid upset and how can you prevent that from happening in the future and how can you involve the kid in identifying a solution to the problem’ vs ‘your kid's upset, let's get him to do X instead of hit people.’ Here's a terrific and detailed slideshow that summarizes his approach (because who has time to read a whole book?!).

I found that Ross Greene's approach (particularly the ‘Plan C’ component, which is the first step and which is easy to implement!) made the biggest difference, helped bring everybody's stress level down and really helped me better understand him. He's now doing much, much better. Also, keeping a spreadsheet of what caused each meltdown, including precipitating factors, time of day, and how my son got back on track.”

 

The B Team Facebook Group

“There's also a really helpful facebook group called ‘The B Team’ for parents who are using Ross Green's method -- people post what they're working on with their kid, and folks who are really good at using this approach offer advice and help you think about what's going on and how you're implementing the plan.”

 

Further Reading and Resources from PSP


Join Park Slope Parents

"Hit Me Baby One More Time": Advice For When Your Toddler Hits You

Managing Difficult Behaviors with Small Brooklyn Psychology

PSP’s Behavior and Discipline Section


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