Our three year old is hitting other children!

Morgan is our much loved, utterly charming, smart as can be, VERY rambunctious three year old.  He’s also a bit big for his age--built solid, as they say.  Most of the time he’s happy and a lot of fun.  But more often than we like, he gets rough with us and his friends.  He’s been known to hit, push, whack--you name it.  Needless to say, this is upsetting to us and to his friends (even more to their parents).  Everyone’s given us advice about time-outs, talking to him about how it feels when he hits, how kids don’t want to play when he’s rough--but even though he clearly understands, he keeps doing it.  Last weekend we had a party and by the end he’d had two time outs! What can we do?

It sounds as if Morgan needs your help!  Even though he’s only three, a little boy who is rough with other children (not to mention his parents) can quickly become the child who is avoided by other children (not to mention their parents.  It’s not that little boys don’t hit--most do when they are frustrated, angry, or just overexcited.  But when a child is doing this a lot in different settings he’s telling you loud and clear that he needs to be helped to control himself.  The best people to help him are his parents, before other adults get into the act.

To help Morgan you will have to approach his hitting pattern in two ways:  prevention and response.  It is much better to keep Morgan from hitting in the first place rather than to hope that your reaction to his hitting will discourage him from doing so again.

The first step in prevention is to look for patterns of events or behavior that tend to lead up to hitting.  To do this, you’ll need a pad of paper or notebook (there’s probably an app, too).  Even though you think you’ll remember what happened earlier in the day, you won’t remember all the details if you wait to record.

Here are some common causes of hitting that you can recognize and prevent:

•  Hunger:  If Morgan hans’t eaten for two hours, or if his snacks are mostly carbohydrates without protein his blood sugar may drop and he will be irritable.  Young children often do not notice they are hungry and will even refuse food if they are busy playing. (Protein is important. Organic crackers with apple slices may be healthy, but they won’t keep his blood sugar stable if you don’t add some cheese, peanut butter, or a glass of milk.)

•  Fatigue:  If Morgan doesn’t get enough sleep, he’ll have less impulse control.  If you have to wake him in the morning or if he skips his nap, he hasn’t had enough sleep.  

•  OVERSTIMULATION: This is in capital letters because it is one of the most common causes of unpleasant behavior in young children.  Events that are crowded, noisy, busy and wild (like birthday parties) often lead to children losing control.  Too many events, one after the other, can also lead to breakdowns.  If you notice that Morgan can play well at the park at 9 a.m. on Saturday, but if you take him there at noon after a trip to the store, a play date, or a music class he’s likely to hit or shove--there’s the answer. For many children, two or three activities in a row lead to overload.

•  Crowding: Some children don’t like to be hemmed in, whether it’s by being squeezed in between other children or being surrounded other children when they are climbing up a slide.  They may lash out to clear space for themselves.  Even though they get in trouble, the pushing and hitting solves the immediate problem.  If You notice this pattern with Morgan, you will have to help manage his environment and teach him to use words instead of hands when he needs room.

•  Frustration: When children are in a situation where they can’t get what they want in a socially acceptable way, they sometimes misbehave.  For example, if a child wants to play with a group of children who are involved in a game and doesn’t know how to ask to join, he may get frustrated and hit--which of course, makes other children even less likely to include him.  A child who has consistent problems with social interactions can be helped by teachers and others who can teach these skills.

After you’ve done your observations about Morgan’s behavior you should be able to anticipate and minimize the situations that trigger his hitting.  But if he tends to be “physical and rambunctious” he will still need closer supervision than other children.  When you see him getting excited or building up frustration, it’s important to go to him before there is a problem.  A quiet few minutes away from other children may be all it takes, but other times you may have to leave to avoid likely misbehavior.  Think of this as helping Morgan to be successful not as punishment.  The message should be, “You’ve been doing great, but I can see you are beginning to have a hard time.  Let’s go have some quiet time together.”

If all of your efforts fail, and Morgan hits, shoves, whacks, whatever, I think it is best to have an immediate response that is predictable:  Tell him, “Hitting is not O.K., for any reason.” Then remove him from the situation for either a time away or to go home.  The goal is to have him learn that once he hits, the fun ends, and that’s it. This rule should be exactly the same whether he hits a parent or a child or whether the hit is big or small.  Morgan’s too young to figure out whether one type of hit is worse than another!

 This response will work if you are calm, consistent, and in control.  It won’t work if it is preceded by threats and warnings.  Saying “If you hit again, we’re leaving,” teaches a child that he gets one free hit!  The response will also not work if you respond with a discussion of why he hit, who did what, how the other child feels, how he would feel, all the nice things you might think should help but don’t.  The reason they don’t help is because at the point that Morgan hits, he’s emotionally overloaded and can’t have a rational discussion.  He needs time to get settled, time to calm himself with your help.  You can talk to him about the incident when you are in private, in another room, in the car, or even later in the day.  The important first step with a three year old to learn is that hitting is not O.K.!

 Last, it’s important that Morgan know that you can help him with his feelings.  Many three year olds aren’t ready to plan ahead or control their reactions to stress.  They aren’t trying to hurt others or embarrass their parents or ruin the afternoon.  They’re just being little children, and little children sometimes need a lot of adult support!