Helping Children Avoid Physical Aggression: "My Son Hits Other Kids"


My two-year-old son Jack is a hitter, and an occasional pusher. He usually gets physical when he’s fighting with another toddler over a toy, but sometimes it will come out of nowhere. I understand that this is normal behavior for a two-year-old, but it’s still embarrassing, not to mention traumatic for the child who gets hurt. My question is, what is the right way to respond when Jack hits or pushes another child? And is there anything I can do to reduce this impulse in him, or do I just need to wait for him to grow out of it? (You can assume that he’s well-rested and well-fed when these outbursts occur; I know kids are more likely to lash out when they’re tired or hungry.)

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

First, the solution:

When Jack hits or pushes another child (or adult) you should immediately remove him from the situation and guide him to a nearby spot where you can have him sit quietly next to you for one or two minutes.

While removing him from the situation you should say, “We don’t hit other people” and “When you hit someone you need a timeout.” You can phrase this in a way that’s most natural for you so long as you avoid adding judgment, anger, or yelling (so don’t use “wrong”, “bad”, “naughty” or any other pejorative comment). Then sit next to him and insist that he get quiet before you start his time out. “If you need to cry that’s okay. But I can’t start your time out until you can sit quietly.” So the first time you do this a one-minute time out can take 10 minutes (9 minutes of crying or tantrums and then the one or two quiet minutes).

It’s important that during the time out, or waiting for him to become quiet, you are neither talking nor cuddling with Jack. Otherwise, the time out time can become a reinforcer for the hitting you’re trying to stop. The time out is meant to be boring and frustrating, and conversation and cuddling remove this necessary frustration.

After the time out is over you should ask Jack “Why did you need to take a time out?” or “What did you do to ______ that made you have a time out?” And give him some time to come to the answer himself. This way he becomes a more proactive problem solver.

Now, the explanation:

There are two primary motivations driving a two-year-old’s pushing and hitting. First, emotionally he is trying to understand his own power and his emerging identity in relation to others. Second, intellectually his actions are exploring his environment in a quest to understand what the rules are and how things work.

Emotionally, two-year-old Jack is aware of his own power and needs but not yet aware of the power and needs of others. He enjoys asserting his power but feels anxiety at not fully understanding who’s in control. So while pushing and hitting are natural, they are also a cry for boundaries. He is trying to find out where he and his power end and you and your power begin. Only by coming up against the expressed will of another (mostly you), does he begin to understand others as like himself. Your giving him firm, consistent action consequences will enable him to develop capacities for intimacy (a real awareness of others as equal to himself), will relieve the anxiety he feels because he will feel you’re in control, and will allow him to slowly develop the capacity for self-control and emotional regulation. (For a more in-depth explanation of this stage of development go to my blog A Seismic Shift In Parenting and the succeeding three blogs.)

Intellectually, Jack wants to know what happens when he hits and pushes. Does he get what he wants? Does he get to talk to mom for a few minutes? Does he have to say the words “I’m sorry”? So it’s important that your response sends a clear message to Jack: “Hitting and pushing will not get you what you want. Rather, they will result in you feeling frustrated.” Let the consequence create frustration around his choice as opposed to having your anger, judgment or moralizing create shame or guilt in his assertion of his power. In this way you can coach him into an understanding of the cause and effect nature of his choices and interdependent autonomy.

Lastly, avoid the common mistake of trying to substitute reasoned discussion for real consequences. Your two-year-old is trying to learn the meaning of his actions and your words. If your words aren’t rooted firmly in action then your son will learn that your words aren’t dependable and that he can use them for manipulation. Discussions are fine after the consequence is finished.

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