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How to Get Your Toddler to Stop Hitting in 5 Steps

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about my two-year-old’s delightful hitting habit.

Since then, we seem to have gotten it under control, which could either be due to our superior parenting skills or our daughter getting bored and moving onto a new phase.

I like to think it’s the former. And if that’s the case, than as usual, I owe my sister (a school psychologist known as Dr. B on my blog) a debt of gratitude.

She has been coaching me on methods to change Mazzy’s aggressive ways with her 5 Step Approach outlined below.

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Many children display aggressive behaviors such as hitting in response to specific triggers or to test out different behavior to see how others will react.

The challenge for most parents is that what may come naturally in reaction to this behavior (i.e, a BIG reaction including yelling and punishing the offending behavior) is often the opposite of what works best.

The problem with reacting harshly and negatively to aggressive acts is that it may stop the behavior momentarily but it is an ineffective way of changing behavior in the long-term.

In order to effectively shape or change a behavior, it is critical to teach your child what TO DO instead and to reward positive behavior (especially behavior that is the positive opposite of the inappropriate behavior).

When your child hits, instead of thinking he/she is behaving badly, view this behavior as a skill deficit and teach them something more appropriate to do instead.

Below is a five-step solution to help change aggressive behavior into pro-social behavior:

1) Stop the behavior: Remove your child from the situation or block their hands from making contact with you or another child. Say, “Stop” firmly but not with anger.

2) Stay calm and in control: When we react with anger at our children, we are essentially modeling the negative behavior that we want to eliminate. Yelling or hitting in anger is modeling for our children that these are acceptable ways to behave in response to situations that make us angry. Alternatively, they may be hitting to get our attention and then we are rewarding the behavior by teaching them that hitting is a powerful way to get it.

3) Acknowledge how your child might be feeling and explain why you stopped the behavior: Some children hit playfully, while other children hit when they are mad or frustrated. Label these emotions for your child and explain that it is okay to feel mad or silly but that it is not okay to hit (e.g., “You feel mad. It’s okay to feel mad but it’s not okay to hit. Hitting hurts.”) You can also explain how the behavior impacts others to teach empathy (e.g., “I don’t like that. I feel angry (or sad) because that hurt me. Hitting hurts.”) Explain that hands are not for hitting or hurting others.

4) Tell and show your child what TO DO: Use incidents of hitting to teach appropriate behavior. Your child may need to learn to touch people gently and/or to use words such as “give me please” to request items from another person, “Help me” to prevent frustration, and/or “Stop” to indicate that a peer or adult is bothering him. For example, show your child how to touch you gently or how to give you or others a high 5 (which may fulfill the same need for your child but in an appropriate way).

5) Immediately praise the appropriate behavior: Reward your child for showing or imitating the appropriate behavior after you intervene. When your child is able to say the words you told them or touch you gently after you have shown them what a nice or gentle touch looks like, provide them with plenty of enthusiastic and descriptive praise such as “You touched mom so nicely!” “Great job using your words!”

These 5 tips will help you shape and change your child’s behavior; however, sometimes the aggressive behavior continues and additional consequences and more explicit teaching is necessary.

More intensive interventions require a consistent approach used by all family members involving teaching the child what to do and what not to do and implementing positive consequences for appropriate behavior and/or negative consequences for inappropriate behavior.

For instance, you may need to (1) give your child a tangible reward when they show the appropriate behavior (e.g., give them a special treat when they use their words to ask for a toy instead of hitting a sibling); (2) take away the item or activity they are playing at the time the behavior occurs; and/or (3) give your child a brief time away from the situation until they calm down.

It is also beneficial to give one warning describing the consequence for repeating the behavior to give your child an opportunity to control their behavior on their own; however, be careful what you say because you MUST follow through if you want to successfully extinguish the behavior. Be aware that when you use warnings and negative consequences, the behavior often gets worse before it gets better.

Finally, if your child continues to exhibit aggressive behavior on a frequent basis and you are concerned about their emotional well-being and/or social skills, talk to your pediatrician.

Get more advice from Dr. B and read more from Ilana at Mommy Shorts.
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