On the podcast, I’ve talked about our struggles with physical behavior from Nic, but I haven’t actually written much about it. @MommyBeta got a question about hitting on Twitter the other day and I realized that there was no way to respond in 140 characters. So, here’s my long-form answer.
Nic started hitting and then pushing last fall when he was about 18 months old. It was shortly after we started daycare and preschool (perhaps related, perhaps not). He had been physical with me from time to time before—we went through a short biting phase—but he had never been aggressive with other kids. And I don’t even know if I’d call it aggressive. More than anything, it’s just physical.
For instance, if his preschool friends are all doing the hokey pokey at the end of class and Nic is feeling wound up, he’ll lean his whole body into them, or turn in a circle with his arms out, hitting anyone who happens to be nearby. Or if he’s in a small playhouse with other kids, sometimes they will get a bear hug that they didn’t want. On one of his worst days, he repeatedly smacked a schoolmate over the head with a sand toy (I scooped him up and we left school immediately).
I’ve ANGUISHED over this behavior. I’ve had long talks with his preschool teacher, daycare provider, other parents and of course, my husband. Everyone says it’s just a phase, but I want to know when it will be over and how I can expedite it.
Having Nic act this way brings up so many feelings for me:
- I don’t want him to hurt other kids.
- I don’t want other kids to not want to play with him.
- I don’t want other parents to not want their kids to play with him.
- I don’t want to be the helicopter parent who is constantly hovering, but I feel like I have to in order to protect his playmates and deal with his behavior.
- I don’t want people to think he’s a bad kid.
- I don’t want people to think that I’m a bad mom.
Course of Action
My co-op preschool’s philosophy with this type of behavior is to follow these steps:
- Put the attention on the “victim.” Say, “Oh Suzy, I am so sorry that Nic pushed you. Are you ok?”
- Turn to the initiator and say, “We don’t hit our friends. Hitting hurts. Can you show Suzy a gentle touch?”
My daycare provider takes a similar approach, but also employs time outs. At home, we do both and also physically separate ourselves with he’s rough with us or our cat, “Mommy can’t play with you when you are being rough.” And then I go into a room where he can’t follow me. I’ll also set up limits and consequences, “If you push again, we’re leaving the park.” And I’m careful to follow through.
We’ve been doing this for 10 months now. Sometimes it seems like his behavior is getting better, and then it just comes back again. We’re definitely treading water.
Root of the Issue
Lately, we’ve really been trying to figure out why he’s hitting and in what situations he’s more likely to do it. Here are some of my observations:
- He’s much less likely to be physical with older kids. Especially ones he’s just met (he’s great playing in the sandbox at the park with a new group of big kids).
- As he gets more familiar with animals and kids, he tends to be more physical. We met a baby yesterday, and he was great for the first few minutes (gentle touching, singing), but then he started to test what he could do (laying his head on the baby’s lap to “snuggle,” squeezing the baby’s hands).
- The calmer the environment, the less likely he is to be physical (but one bouncy kid can spark Nic’s excitement).
- A kid in his space is an invitation to hug, lean, squeeze.
- The hitting that seems totally random seems to be a call for engagement—he wants to play.
I had put out a query on my local mother’s club forum on the topic of hitting and one mom wrote me with some excellent suggestions. She said that she really empathized with my situation and that they’ve been coping with something similar. She helped me realize that a lot of the time Nic is trying play with the other kids, but isn’t able to communicate it. Perhaps this is why he’s better with older kids—they can understand his cues and he can follow theirs better.
I never really thought that this was Nic’s issue because he is such a verbal kid. But now I think that in the moment, he just doesn’t always have the words to express what he wants. Based on the advice from the mother on the forum, we’ve been trying this approach when he does the random hitting:
- Empower the other child to say, "I don't like that."
- Tell Nic that we don’t hit our friends and that he needs to be gentle.
- Ask Nic, "Why did you do that?" (In a very non-accusatory way.) Help him to explain by asking him other questions like, "Was it over space? Did you want to play with him/her?"
- He will often respond yes or say something like, “Want to play.” I then remind him to use his words and say that he needs to ask, “More play please?” or something similar.
- Also, if I see him getting riled up (he gets this certain look on his face), I’ll remind him to, “Use your words and not your body.”
We’re only about a week into this technique, but I feel good about it. In the very least, we’re giving him tools for social interaction that should help down the road. Whether or not it will stop the physical behavior, we’ll have to see.
I just really want the world to see the sweet gentle kid that he is so much of the time. And I’m particularly nervous about how he will be with the new baby (T-minus 25 days).
If you have any good tips or words of advice, I’d love to hear them!