Toddlerhood is the perfect storm of immaturity, impulsivity, and limited communication skills. This leads to a host of behavior problems, including 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, it is an important opportunity for intervention and discipleship. Here are a few tips that can help you use this stage for equipping and teaching if your toddler hits.
Talk about feelings
You can start using feelings language from a very young age. Using basic feelings words (such as sad, mad, happy) at a very early age can give your child the language to express himself. You can use drawings of feelings faces, such as this one, to help your child identify the variety of feelings they experience.
When you are reading books together, pause at various points and ask him to guess what a character is feeling based upon the expression on his face. Developing your child’s emotional intelligence is a great way to help him have the language necessary to express himself when feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. He will be more likely to use his words instead of his hands to better communicate what he is feeling.
When you notice your child’s anger building, you can start to verbally express what you are seeing. You can say something like, “I can see that your fists are tight and you are breathing fast. You are getting angry.” This will help your child tune into their own internal state and give you both more time to intervene before the hitting happens.
Model anger management
When you get mad, do you hit you 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. If you struggle to remain calm when you are upset, explore some ways that you can regulate your emotions. Ask for prayer. Ask your spouse to give you a “cue word” such as “careful.” This simple word can cue you into the fact that you are starting to escalate.
Here are some other things you can do in the moment to help yourself de-escalate:
- Inhale, hold your breath and then exhale strongly
- Do a few jumping jacks
- Lay on the floor with your legs up a wall and breathe deeply
- Walk away
- Press your palms together
- Count back from 100 by three’s
- Recite a bible verse that calms you
- Smell a calming scent
- Give yourself a quick self-massage
Try to remind yourself that even if you need to use these interventions frequently, you are being a blessing to your toddler who will see that there are alternatives to explosive emotions.
Along with these calming strategies, you can also narrate during the process. You can say something like, “I am feeling very angry! I feel hot and fiery inside! I don’t want to act on my anger, so I am going to breathe out really hard a couple of times.”
Provide alternatives to hitting
There is some debate whether hitting an inanimate object is a good alternative to hitting a person. Some studies have found that this can actually increase anger. Some alternatives your child can try (in addition to the options for you above!) are:
- Give themselves a firm bear hug
- Squeeze and release fists
- Throw ice cubes onto the driveway
- Ask for a hug
In addition, make sure knows how to use words to make his feelings known. Your child will likely not be able to do this in the moment, but when they are calm you can have them use a feelings poster to point to how they were feeling inside.
It helps to be clear, outside of challenging moments. Tell your child that hitting is not okay and why your family believes that to be so. You can playfully act out a scene that is often a trigger for their anger and have your child practice one of the alternatives above.
It’s also important to tell your child what he can expect to happen if he does hit another person.
How to intervene if your toddler hits
Despite all of your hard work and preparation, your toddler will still likely hit from time to time when angry. You can firmly say, “You may not hit people. That is not okay.” Remove your child to a safe spot, employ a time out or a place them in a calm down corner. Ask them what they need to calm down (suggest some of the ideas above). If they are completely dysregulated, they will be unable to engage in this discussion. You will need to ride out the storm, with either a calm presence (if that works for your child) or by removing yourself, checking back in periodically until they are calm. When your child is calm, you can move on to the next step.
Create a discipleship opportunity
You can use this opportunity to talk to your child about how God can help them with their big feelings. Even though they made a mistake, you love him and God does too. You may want to use our Heart of the Matter Cards at this point to help your child understand God’s will for them. Take a moment to pray together, thanking God for His love and forgiveness.
Teach them to make amends
This step is often overlooked, but is essential. If your child hits another person, it is important for them to find a way to make it right. This can include a nice gesture, a gentle touch with permission, an apology, a picture, sharing a favorite toy, or serving the person in some way. Ask your child how they would like to show that they are sorry, allowing them a chance to have some autonomy about how the relationship is restored.
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!” right before it looks like he might hit. You may just cut him off at the pass!