For many 3-year-olds, hitting is a natural response to a dissatisfying situation. Learn how to help your child better deal with tough emotions in a non-physical way.
No parent ever expects to get “the call.” You know… the one that says your 3-year-old has hit another student in preschool. Whether or not this is new behavior, it can be frustrating nonetheless.
If you’re dealing with a similar issue, know that it’s not your fault. Hitting doesn’t necessarily come from bad parenting, but rather from your child’s inability to express his emotions in a verbal way.
“First, it’s important to understand that children don’t want to attack others,” says Hand in Hand. “They’d much rather have fun and feel safe and loved. They play well when they feel connected. But when children lose their sense of connection, they feel tense, frightened, or isolated. In this “emotional emergency,” they may lash out at other children. Children don’t intend to be mean. In fact, acts of aggression aren’t under the child’s control.”
What the Experts Say
For many young children, hitting is often a phase that they grow out of by the time they reach kindergarten. However, it’s important to nip this behavior in the bud as soon as possible. Here’s what some experts have to say about aggressive behaviors in children.
“Just because a child can talk doesn’t mean she’s able to problem-solve or attach the right words to what she’s feeling, so she may try to get what she wants by hitting or pushing.”
Alyson Schafer, Ain’t Misbehavin’: Tactics for Tantrums, Meltdowns, Bedtime Blues, and Other Perfectly Normal Kid Behaviors
“If you see your child hitting, biting, or spitting, stop the behavior immediately. Try to speak calmly, but if your child doesn’t listen, take her aside and say, “You’re out of control. You need a time-out to calm down.”
Karen J. Bannan, Why Your Toddler Hits and Bites
“If a child is hitting or kicking, there is a reason that they are doing so. That doesn’t mean that it is okay for them to hit, but it is important to validate their feelings. I don’t always do that in the heat of the moment, because I find that they are not usually ready to listen at that point. However, once things have settled down, I will try to talk to them and mirror their feelings back to them in words.”
PhD in Parenting, Toddler Hitting: 5 Strategies to Handle It
“As shocking as it may be to you, aggression is a normal part of a child’s development. Lots of children this age grab toys from classmates, hit, kick, or scream themselves blue in the face from time to time. Sometimes the cause is a simple case of fear: your child might lash out if she feels cornered by another child, for instance.”
Baby Center, Aggression: Why It Happens and What to Do About It (Ages 3 to 4)
“Know what triggers aggressive behaviors. Keep a journal (at least mental notes) identifying the correlation between how a child acts and the circumstances prompting the action. For example: “Kate bit Suzie during play group. Suzie had Kate’s favorite ball. It was almost nap time. Lots of kids in a small place. Suzie is very bossy.”
Ask Dr. Sears, 14 Ways to Stop Biting and Hitting
Communicate With the Teacher
You can’t always be there to stop the hitting behavior yourself. When your 3-year-old is at preschool, you will have to allow his or her teacher to deal with the situation to the best of their ability.
Talking to your child’s preschool teacher can be highly beneficial. Ask her what seems to trigger the hitting. For example, maybe your child is hitting shortly before lunch because he’s hungry and irritable, or perhaps he’s hitting at the end of the day when he’s tired. By knowing your child’s triggers, you can gain more control over the situation.
Target the Root of the Problem
Kids are kids – and sometimes children simply lash out for no specific reason. However, it’s important to consider if the problem runs deeper, especially if hitting is an ongoing behavior. First consider your child’s vocabulary.
At 3 years old, a toddler’s vocabulary is around 200 or more words and the average child can string together three- or four-word sentences. Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough for kids to express themselves.
When your child doesn’t know the words to say to express their anger or frustration, they may become physical. At 3 years old, using their hands to hit is easier than trying to explain the issue in words.
In other cases, communication is not the issue but rather changes going on at home. Is your child experiencing stress in some way, such as the birth of a new sibling or a divorce between parents? Once you’ve targeted the root of the problem, you can find ways to resolve the issue and diminish the hitting behavior.
Teach Problem Solving Skills
Provide your 3-year-old with alternatives that can help him make better decisions when faced with a difficult situation. For example, if your child’s first reaction to another student being mean is hitting them, offer alternatives.
Tell your child to go to his teacher for help, to walk away and play with another student, or to react to the student using his words rather than his fists. By building your child’s vocabulary, he’ll have the verbal tools needed to express himself in a healthy and positive way.
It can be concerning when your 3-year-old begins to exhibit aggressive behavior at school. However, it’s important to realize the hitting is common in young children and while the behavior should not be tolerated, it can be dealt with in a caring and compassionate way.