It’s a mortifying moment: you’re at a playdate when your child’s friend turns, tearstained, to his mother, complaining that your son just whacked him. Or your instruction for a simple action is greeted with an enraged smack. Ashleigh Sacks, an educational psychologist at Crossroads Remedial School and in private practice at HappyMe Psychology, explains children’s behaviour is often a complex interplay of environmental, development, genetic and educational components. All of these combine to create that compulsion to smack. The good news is there’s a reason why your toddler hits, and once you understand it, you can take action.
“Toddlers experience the world as an interesting and dynamic place, with much to see, learn and do. However, their ability to do so is often limited by their own capacity, and by the adults and children around them,” Ashleigh explains. It’s not surprising that many toddlers feel frustrated by these limitations. But, lacking the capabilities to express this frustration, they communicate it the only way they know how: by lashing out. This behaviour is often worse if the child feels hungry or tired.
What to do:
Ashleigh points out that shouting at, or hitting a child is unlikely to teach them to stop doing the behaviour. “Children learn from adults’ example, not from what they say. Hitting a child who smacks reinforces the idea that we hit when we feel frustrated,” she says. Instead, explain calmly, yet firmly, that hitting is unacceptable, and offer an alternative. “You could say, ‘I can see you are frustrated, but we don’t hurt people. Maybe you can try taking a breath, hugging a teddy bear really tight, asking for help, taking a walk or jumping on a trampoline.”
During their early years, children experience the world primarily through their senses. The problem, though, is that a child’s sensory system may not be fully regulated, and so they may explore their surrounds by squeezing, pinching, punching and kicking. This may be exacerbated if the child feels overwhelmed and the senses go into high alert.
What to do:
Watch out for cues signifying your child feels overstimulated. If she looks agitated, tense, cries or covers her ears, remove her from the environment as soon as possible. Ashleigh recommends providing a safe space in the home where kids can have ‘calm down’ time. On the other hand, your child may be a sensory seeker, who hits and wrestles to obtain the extra sensory input they crave. In these situations, a bear hug, deep pressure or outdoor activity may help. Ask an occupational therapist for guidance.
Humans, even little ones, love attention, positive or negative. “Parents tend to react strongly when their children hit. This puts a lot of emphasis on the behaviour, and what we focus on, grows,” says Ashleigh.
What to do:
Stop the drama. A calm response is more likely to lead to positive results in the future. Instead of shouting, use a calm voice to tell your child it is never ok to hurt others, even when we are angry. Take care to model this behaviour yourself. And, when you see your child displaying the desired behaviour, remember to reward your child with positive praise and encouragement.
“As a child psychologist, I tend to see that certain children seem to be bigger targets for being hurt. It appears that those children who offer the biggest reactions to being hurt are often the biggest targets. For children who hit there may be a big element of interest and curiosity at play. They want to know what will happen if they hit the other child and how the child will react,” Ashleigh says. “It’s part of learning about their impact on the world around them.”
What to do:
It’s important to remember this is a natural part of development, says Ashleigh. “Children are not born as fully functioning adults. They grow and adjust to their environment, and have to learn how to interact positively with others. A responsive adult can help by removing the child from this situation and redirecting their interest, while offering guidance, correcting behaviour and teaching them how to express emotions positively.”