When it’s your kid who hits you, all bets are off the table.
The other night, I told one of my 3-year-old twins that she needed to take off her shoes before climbing on the couch. I knelt down and spoke calmly, but in true toddler fashion, she threw a tantrum. Still, I didn’t expect what happened next: swack! She slapped me across the face.
It’s not the first time my toddler has hit me — or at least, tried to — during a tantrum, but usually I’m either far enough away that she misses me entirely, like a batter swinging at a ball that’s just out of reach, or I’m standing, so she only makes light contact with my legs or arms. To be slapped in the face was shocking.
I instantly felt hurt and angry. I also had no clue what I was supposed to do in that moment — not just with my little prizefighter, but with my own emotions. Thankfully, my husband jumped right in and told my daughter, “We don’t hit. You hurt Mommy.”
And so you’re left with this knot of emotions that you can’t really do much about, and in some cases, at a loss over how to respond.
I wanted to better understand what my daughter was thinking in that moment, and, more generally, learn why young children hit. Here’s what I found out: Basically, it’s not their fault.
Usually, when children hit “they are frustrated or angry and don’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, so they have no impulse control,” Laura Markham, PhD, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, tells Yahoo Parenting.
And, developmentally speaking, it’s not surprising that my daughter struck out — preschoolers are of prime hitting age.
Small children usually lack communication skills, which fuels their frustration.
“They have a limited vocabulary and are just learning how to associate their words with their actions,” Martine Agassi, PhD, a clinical therapist and author of Hands Are Not for Hitting, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s the job of those around them to teach them how to use their words to communicate, instead of using physical gestures or physical force.”
Here’s how experts recommend handling a hitting situation, step-by-step:
1. Don’t overreact.
It’s understandable if you let out a shriek after being hit because, well, it hurts, but don’t intentionally overdo it to drive the point home.
“Your toddler will probably be excited about their newfound superpower of getting that big a noise out of you,” says Markham. “Think about much they love to push buttons and get a response. You don’t want to be the button they want to keep pushing.”
2. Take a deep breath or two.
Calm down before you interact with your child.
“Right now, you’re in a state of emergency,” says Markham. “You’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode, and your toddler looks like the enemy. So walk away and take a deep breath. Remind yourself that your child is still learning to regulate her impulses, and you’re the role model.”
If a spouse or grandparent is there, let them step in so you can take a moment. “Once you feel better, then you can intervene with your toddler,” she says.
3. Model good behavior.
Children are constantly learning how to navigate the world around them and will test different behaviors in response to different situations.
“How you respond models to your toddler how he will respond in the future,” says Agassi. “If you yell at your toddler … he will learn that yelling is what he should do. Never, ever, hit a toddler to teach them that hitting is wrong. This is a confusing message, and will only reinforce that hitting is OK.”
Instead, Agassi recommends using the words and actions that you want to see in your child. “Remember, you are your toddler’s safe place to learn,” she says. “Teach in love and he will learn in love.”
4. Reinforce that hitting hurts and then acknowledge your child’s feelings.
Let your child know that hitting is not an appropriate response to any situation.
“Simply say, ‘Hands are not for hitting,’” recommends Agassi. “Then quickly assess the situation: Did your child want something? Is he reacting to another child who just hit him? What was he trying to communicate?”
Next, affirm your child’s feelings and say, “I know you’re mad (or frustrated), but hitting is not good,” suggests Agassi. Then, tell your kid what the proper behavior is for the situation. Remember to keep your language age-appropriate.
5. Don’t punish your child.
You may be tempted to give your child a time-out (a debatable response in terms of effectiveness), but Markham says that reprimanding a child for hitting is sufficient, since they’re likely already upset that they hurt you.
“Your child hit because she was also in fight or flight, and at that moment you looked like the enemy,” she says. “But she didn’t want to hurt you — not really — and she will actually feel terrible about it.”
If you punish your child for hitting, she’ll be locked in combat with you and she won’t be able to acknowledge how terrible she feels about having hit you, points out Markham. “If you stay compassionate,” she says, “your child will be able to process all the emotions that led to the hitting and also reconnect, so future hitting is less likely.”
As for my little one, right after I got hit, I left the room to calm down. She immediately burst into tears, just as shocked at what she’d done and upset that she’d hurt me.
It didn’t take long to collect myself because I could hear her crying in the next room, and my instinct to comfort her quickly took over. I went over to her, explaining that we don’t hit. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Mommy,” and then I gave her a big hug, which we both needed. I didn’t punish my daughter because she was upset enough already, and instead focused on sending the message that hitting hurts.
We’ve had several talks and reminders about not hitting since then, and she’s been hitting less often and verbalizing how she’s feeling more. She’ll flat-out say, “I’m mad!” or “I’m frustrated!” which my husband and I applaud. We also talk her through it and have her “breathe like a lion,” which helps her calm down.
My face and I are happy to say it’s working.
This article was originally published at Yahoo Parenting. Reprinted with permission from the author.