Toddlerhood is the perfect storm of immaturity, impulsivity, and limited communication skills. This leads to a host of behavior problems, like hitting, that can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle the ups and downs of this developmental stage. While, for most toddlers, this is simply a phase that will pass with time, there are some things you can do to better weather the storm.
1. Talk to your child about his or her feelings. Start these discussions of very basic feelings (sad, mad, happy) at a very early age to help your child develop skills to use words to express himself. Use drawings of faces to help your child identify the variety of feelings that he can experience. When you are reading books together, pause at various points and ask him to guess what some of the characters are feeling based upon the expression on their faces.
2. Model appropriate anger management. When you get mad, do you hit your leg, pound your fist on the table or demonstrate your anger in a physical manner? Your children are watching. They are too young to differentiate that hitting a wall is different than hitting a peer – they simply see the hitting as the response to anger. Use your words instead.
3. Tell him what he can do instead. Despite what is sometimes prescribed as an alternative, hitting a pillow or another inanimate object is not a good solution to hitting a person. You do not want your child to learn that physical outbursts are the only way to release angry feelings. In addition, a pillow may not always be available. Instead, come up with a better alternative for releasing pent up tension such as crossing his arms tightly across his chest (like he is giving himself a bear hug) or repeatedly squeezing and releasing his fists. In addition, make sure knows how to use words to make his feelings known.
4. During a time of peace, tell your toddler what you expect of him. Tell him that hitting is not okay and tell them why your family believes that to be so. Tell him that he may not hurt another person when he is angry. Act out a scene where he might hit in response and have him practice one of the different approaches listed above. Also tell him what will happen if he does hit.
5. Provide consequences. Unfortunately, despite all of your hard work and preparation, your toddler will still likely hit from time to time when angry. Provide swift and appropriate consequences when he does. Find a consequence that deals in your child’s “currency.” Remove him from the activity, remove a favorite toy, cancel the next play date or trip to the park. Explain that he needs to show you that he can use his words when angry before you can trust him with other children.
6. Make sure amends are made. This step is often overlooked, but is essential. If your child hits another person, he must apologize and find a way to make it right. This can include a nice gesture, a picture, sharing a favorite toy, or serving the person in some way. Don’t accept a counterfeit apology. He may need to calm down for quite a while before the apology is heartfelt. Give him time, but make sure it is sincere.
7. Notice any exceptions. If you see any time when your child would be likely to hit, but does not, point it out with great gusto and fanfare. He needs lots of encouragement in this area. You can even jump in with a statement of praise such as, “Wow – you are really angry, but you haven’t hit! Wonderful!” right before it looks like he might hit. You may just cut him off at the pass!
If this sounds like a lot of work, you are right. But who said parenting would be easy?! If you put the energy into correction when your children are young, you will have much less reparative work to do when they are older.