It can be incredibly hard to stay calm when our own children hit us. Both our instinctual physical defense system and intense emotions can get triggered in a flash!
I remember the period when one of my children hit me almost every day; I became scared of him, trying to steer clear of where he was. We know that children can feel it when we pull away so although it can feel hard to do, the key to reducing hitting is to connect more with our aggressive child.
Here are 10 steps to reducing hitting behavior in your children:
The first thing to do when our child hits us is to FREEZE.
Remembering our calm-down plan can feel impossible when we are hit. The feeling of pain will automatically trigger the "reptilian brain," which is the part that makes our heart pound, breathing quicken and stomach flip. It is common to think that our child is out to get us. This part of our brain can hijack our good reason, making us scream or be rough with our child.
We need to take time to calm our fight-or-flight reaction, then help our child do the same. My calm-down plan in this case is to tell myself, "freeze sister" and then I count back from 11 to -1 by 2s (this odd number makes it easier for the brain to focus more on counting and less on shouting). It's ok if you have to step into another room to regroup, as long as your child is safe.
Stop your child from hitting you, others or objects.
I grab my child's arm when I see a hit headed my way. I do that firmly, yet gently and say, "No hitting. I will make sure you don't hurt anyone."
Remind yourself that your child is having a hard time "self-regulating."
Self-regulation is our ability to assess a situation, which we find overwhelming and respond in a way that helps us calm down. I have included a section on self-regulation in my book Taming Tantrums if you'd like to learn more about it: this is really important parenting information.
Respond thoughtfully with a limit statement.
Get to eye-level with your child and speak to her in a gentle voice. First comment by setting limits for your child's behavior by using a statement that includes:
1. How you feel
2. Validations of her feelings
3. Explanation that the behavior is unacceptable.
Something like this, "My arm is sore... you hurt me. I can see that you are angry. I won't let you hurt me or anyone else. Hitting people is not ok."
Consider where the hit came from.
Take a moment to ask yourself, What happened in her world to prompt the hit?
Is she: Disappointed? Upset that plans have changed? Not going to get something she really wants? In a compromised state? Missing you? Feeling you are too hard on her?
Identifying the source of the hit will tell you what the first feeling is. Anger/frustration is the second feeling, which likely provoked the hit.
Help your child identify the first feeling.
Use empathy to help your child work on the feelings behind the hit. For example, if your child hit you because she was sad her friend couldn't come over, shine a light on that emotion. Talk about how you would feel like this, "I understand you are sad because Anna couldn't come over. I feel sad, too, when I am excited to play but can't."
Accept if you have had a bad parenting moment and your child is angry with you.
If you did something that may have angered your child, talk to her about that situation. I wrote more about how do that in this piece, How To Do Parent-Child Relationship Repair.
Make it safe for your child to feel the first feeling.
When a parent is calm, understanding and patient, it is easier for a child to connect with the intense feelings inside her. Keep chatting with your child about the situation, focusing on feeling words. Once your child feels you are there for her and not going to make her feel badly, she will likely become sad, which is the usual culprit for hits.
Be a detective, asking questions about what is upsetting her, although steer away from "why" questions with younger children, as they don't usually have answers to that even if the reason for the hit is apparent to you.
Talk about "mixed feelings."
This is when you use a statement to explain to your child that it is okay to be angry, but at the same time, you know that hitting a person hurts him/her and that is NOT okay.
Make a plan to stop the hits next time.
With younger children, I use the term "angry bubbles" like this, "Next time you are full of angry bubbles and they turn your mad into mean, what can you do to make sure those bubbles don't form into a hit? Let's make a plan."
With a toddler, try, "Hits are for pillows, not people," or "No hitting, hurting, or throwing." You can make a poster and draw symbols for those words. I explain more about how to react to toddler hitting in this piece, as it is a natural instinct to hit, and our job as parents to calmly train them not to.
With older children, you could talk about how the brain works, specifically how to reel in the reptilian brain when it hijacks us. Consider different options to stopping the hits/throws/shouts that will actually work. Remember that this is a work in progress so keep repeating this process until the brain builds the bridge between the "freaking out" part of the mind to the rational part.
Here is an excellent example of a script to use when an older child hits by Laura Markham, PhD.