My three year old is hitting, mostly siblings and other children what do I do? 1,2,3 is no longer working and I feel hitting a child (spanking) only promotes this behavior.
In order to approach a child’s undesirable behavior, it helps to first understand why a child is engaging in the activity. As a child grows he needs to go through stages which help develop his personality and abilities. At each stage of development a child needs to master certain goals or tasks in order to move on to the next stage and continue to grow.
Developmentally, a three year old child is learning about Autonomy. Children at this age attempt to develop autonomy by learning to control their own bodily functions. This includes learning how to eat, how to go to the bathroom and how to go to sleep on their own. A three year old also needs to learn how to behave socially and interact with other children as well as adults. Young children need to use their newly acquired motor, speech and cognitive skills to explore the world around them. While attempting these tasks, children test their limits and learn what behavior is acceptable. Unfortunately this learning and exploring can get them into a lot of trouble.
A parent needs to help their children master the tasks of each developmental stage safely, guiding and teaching them along the way. Parents provide role models for socially acceptable behavior, teach their children about their cultural and religious beliefs and provide discipline and guidance. Children need discipline and guidance so that they can be socialized into the community.
Bringing up a child is the most important and the most difficult job you will ever have in your life. It takes an exorbitant amount of patience, fortitude, mental strength, forbearance, understanding, energy and sacrifice. This does not mean that a parent is meant to be a doormat, take abuse from their children or happily accept bad behavior. It means that in the midst of all of the confusion, tantrums, exhaustion, frustration and judgments from onlookers who think they can do better; you need to keep your composure, remain a good role model and stay in control. After all, a three year old does not have the cognitive ability or personality development to understand the complete consequences of their behavior. A three year old cannot comprehend the damage that can occur from running freely in a parking lot on a Saturday afternoon, but a parent surely does.
It is important for each parent to know that all children engage in negative behaviors. At some point, every child will hit, bite, talk back, touch the stove, pull the dog’s tail, curse and run in the street. Just because your child engages in these undesirable behaviors does not mean that you are a bad parent. As soon a parent comes to the realization that it is normal for their child to go through these same stages, it will be much easier to embrace a plan for disciplining their child.
The one thing that is more important than a child’s negative behavior is how a parent reacts to this behavior. Children thrive on all types of attention and therefore yelling and screaming at a child as a form of discipline usually does not work. If a child is looking for attention from their parent, they will continue to engage in negative behaviors in order to get the attention that they feel that they need, whether it be positive or negative.
I can make a few suggestions that may help parents deal with the different stages that their children are going through. By no means will each intervention work for every child nor will the suggestions miraculously work on the very first try. Each parent knows their child best and will be able to determine which interventions will work for their particular situation.
When I refer to discipline, I am not talking about physically hitting a child. Corporal punishment has never been proven to result in discipline.(1) Hitting a child is a parent’s way of venting their anger and can be physically and psychologically damaging to a child. This form of discipline is not recommended.
Because of this misuse of discipline, many people believe that the word discipline has a negative connotation. I like to refer to discipline on a more positive note. Basically, discipline is learning. If a parent views discipline as a learning process, they will be more willing to embrace the idea knowing that it actually helps a child develop. Learning is a process that occurs over time, and so is discipline. Therefore patience and consistency are needed in order to help a child progress through the normal stages of development.(1)
When disciplining a child, it is important to be consistent in your expectations and to enforce the consequences that you set. Repeatedly threatening to punish your son for hitting without actually following through with the punishment does not work. When this approach is taken, a child does not interpret the reprimand as being “important”, nor will he understand the need to change his behavior.
Consistency also means each child in the family needs to follow the same rules. Allowing one child to do something and not the other can lead to frustration, sibling rivalry and bad behavior.(1) Adult caregivers also need to be consistent in their approach by agreeing upon and enforcing the same house rules. Acceptance of a certain behavior by one parent and not the other can give the child the wrong message and contribute to unwanted behavior.(1)
The first step in disciplining a child is “giving praise”. This may sound absurd, but children can learn to get the attention they need from positive feedback. Non-verbal gestures and showing signs of affection such as giving a hug, a pat on the head or a kiss are very important to a child. Providing positive reinforcement can condition your child to want to please you with his behavior.
Taking time out of your busy day to praise your child for something that he does right will be time well spent. This will take an extra effort and some days it may be very difficult to find anything that your child does right. You can choose something very simple to praise your son for, such as how well he puts on his socks. You will be surprised how your child’s face will light up and how well he will behave when he is praised for no reason.
For example if you are having a problem with your son kicking a ball in the house, you can say to him, “You are big and strong and really good at kicking. Kids like you need to kick the ball outside where there is more room. Only babies who kick the ball a few inches should kick the ball inside". You can follow this by taking him outside to kick the ball in the yard for a short while. Children thrive on this type of attention and will want to show you what else they can do. You may find that running around outdoors for a few minutes with your son may be the break that you both need.
You are more likely to receive the response that you want by using a positive approach. This will work much better than repeatedly yelling at your child each time he kicks the ball in the house and becoming frustrated when he does not listen.
Immediate positive attention will probably work best. At the same time, it is important not to make promises that will likely be broken. If you say, “Daddy will play ball with you when he comes home from work” and there is a chance that Dad will get home late, it is better not to offer this as a solution.
Unfortunately, because of life’s circumstances, it may not always be physically possible to give your child the type of attention that he needs. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to recruit the help of friends or relatives. You may not have the time to go outside and play ball, but an uncle or Grandpa may welcome the chance.
The second step in disciplining a child is paying attention to the surrounding circumstances that trigger your child’s unwanted behavior. Is your son hitting because he is seeking attention? Overtired? Was he hit first ? Is he is frustrated or bored? Does he hit because he doesn’t know how to verbalize his needs? Many times adjusting the inciting factor is more productive than repeatedly reprimanding your child.
If a child tends to hit when he is tired, it’s better to break up the playtime and give your child a nap before the situation gets out of control. If your child hits because he has free time or he is bored, scheduling activities may be the answer for you.
Some children hit another child because they are looking for attention. If you find that this is the case with your child, it would be important to give the attention to the child who was hit and not your son. By giving the attention the person who is hit, your son will learn that he will not get the outcome that he was expecting and will eventually stop the behavior.(2)
When observing your child’s behavior, if you see that the other child constantly grabs his toys, pushes him or hits him; and after holding back your son finally hits this child, this is a different story. Expecting your son not to hit back in this scenario is setting your expectations much too high. It is only natural for a child to react this way when he is treated badly. Learning to deal with this type of treatment requires a level of maturity and self control that needs to be developed over time. In such a scenario you may want to talk with the other child or the other child’s parent about preventing this type of behavior in the future.
On the other hand, if your son is the one doing the hitting for no apparent reason or because he doesn’t get what he wants, this needs to be addressed. If this is the case, your child needs guidance regarding the socially acceptable way of getting what he wants. The first step in disciplining socially unacceptable behavior is to show your son that you are displeased.
You can show your child that you are displeased with your facial expressions, tone of voice and by refraining from affection. Children learn to pick up on non-verbal cues and gestures at a very young age and can learn how to behave from these cues from their parents.(1)
Smiling at a child, using a sweet voice and saying, “Now honey, Mommy doesn’t like that behavior” is not the way to portray that you disapprove. Your child needs to know that you are not happy with the behavior, that you will not tolerate the behavior and that there will be consequences. When mixed messages are communicated, unclear expectation are established.
Children need to learn that there are consequences to bad behavior. If your son was at school and hit an older child, that older child most likely would hit him back and hurt him or use other measures to ostracize him from the group. Therefore it is important for children to learn at a young age that you can not get away with bad behavior without something bad happening. This lesson will only help your child socialize better when he is older.
The next question that parents usually ask is, “What types of consequences are appropriate?” Typically removing a young child from the situation, away from the attention, away from the activity and putting him in “time out” is a good option. Explain to your child that his behavior is not acceptable and now he can no longer play. Removing your child from the activity for just a few minutes is sufficient. Prolonged isolation is not effective because this can lead to bad feelings, frustration and worse behavior.(1) The purpose of a "time out" is to redirect bad behavior, not to fuel it.
Sometimes removing a child from the situation means, leaving a party early, taking your child outside of the house, taking him away from the party for a few minutes, leaving a play date early, leaving a store, sending a friend home early or changing your plans. This will very likely be inconvenient for you and cause your child to become very upset. Don’t be afraid about insulting friends or family members, because they should understand that discipline is a very important part of a child’s development. You will find that you will only need to do this once and your son will learn quickly that you mean business and that his actions will not be tolerated.
Removing or taking away privileges is a good option for older children.(1) As a parent you know what activity, if taken away will have the greatest impact; whether it be not watching television for an hour, not listening to music or not using the computer or favorite videogame. Privileges should be withheld shortly after the incident so that the child relates the unwanted behavior directly to a negative consequence. Putting off a punishment gives the child the opportunity to coerce you to take back the punishment. You can prevent this confrontation and the possibility of forgetting the offense if the punishment is not delayed.
If most of your son’s hitting is between siblings, reprimands should be reserved for instances when one child is clearly overpowering a younger child who is not able to defend himself or if the situation causes a frenzy that is out of control.(2) Sometimes children just need to roughhouse a little bit and enjoy tumbling around with no intent to hurt each other.
If this is the case, you may want to recruit the help from their father or grandparent who can spend time roughhousing outdoors or playing sports during the time of day that the children tend to need activity. If this is not possible it is important to set limits on their behavior so that they understand that roughhousing is not appropriate in certain situations. For example, they can not partake in this type of activity at the store or at Grandma’s house. When they are home children need to know that it is not acceptable to engage in behavior that is likely to result in injury such as jumping off furniture or throwing objects at each that other.
One of the most important things that a parent needs to understand about discipline is, it is impossible to control a child’s behavior, but it is possible to teach a child to control their own behavior.(2) It is also important to remember that you are older and smarter then your children. You have the power to react a certain way and to manipulate the environment.
For example, if your children tend to get into fights when you are preparing dinner, make this the time of day when they do their chores. Separate them and assign each child a chore in different parts of the house. One child picks up the toys, the other child takes the garbage out, while the other makes lunches for school. This way you take away the opportunity for them to become irritated or frustrated with each other which otherwise may have led to hitting.
If your children behave poorly and hit each other when they are tired or hungry then make sure they eat a good meal and take a nap before you go to a party. In some cases you may need to go to the party late or leave early before the commotion begins. If your youngest son hits because he can not join in with the activities of the older kids, you can plan family activities that gives each individual an opportunity to be involved. Just remember that you have the ability to create a change in the environment that can minimize the unwanted behavior.
Lastly, every parent heard of the phrase, “You have to pick your battles”. It is true that you have to decide which bad behavior needs to be reprimanded and which behavior can be overlooked. But I say, “Pick the battles that you know you will win”. In other words ,there are certain situations that you can predict that your children will misbehave.
For example, you know if you try to go out shopping with your children that they will fight; either because they are bored or because they don’t want to go shopping. If you take them out all day shopping, you know that you will lose the battle. Instead of putting yourself in a situation where you know that you will lose, it’s better not to choose that battle at all.
Instead, hire a babysitter and go shopping by yourself or send one of your children over another child’s house for a play date. Another option is to make a quick trip to only one store to purchase only one item or make a game out of the trip. Have a contest to see who can guess what mom is shopping for, who can find 25 red items in the store or have a scavenger hunt to see who can find items on a preprinted list. By keeping your children busy, you can avoid a battle and get your shopping done without your children spiraling out of control.
Simply reprimanding or punishing a child will not teach him the way to behave in the future. Teaching a new behavior is the final step and probably the most important part of disciplining your child. Once a child demonstrates bad behavior it is important to give him ideas how to deal with the situation better the next time. For example, tell your son that you expect him to use his words, not his hands. You can role play with him and figure out other ways to deal with a frustrating situation. You can teach him to ask for a toy, come to you for help or find another toy to play with instead of using “hitting” as a means to get what he wants.
I wish you success!
(1)Betz C, Hunsberger M, Wright S. Family-Centered Nursing Care of Children. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA:W.B.Saunders Company. 1994:436-440.
(2)First LR. Creative and effective parenting tips- a generalist’s prospective. Presented at: Masters of Pediatrics 2006. Leadership Conference. January 20-25, 2006:Bal Harbour Fla.
Lisa-ann Kelly R.N., P.N.P.,C.
Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
Pediatric Advice About Childhood Development