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My Toddler Won’t Stop Hitting Me

image source: heather neal
image source: heather neal

For so long, my innocent little toddler was oh so sweet. He’d look at me with his big blue eyes and kiss me on the nose just because. He’d give me an unsolicited hug and “Mommy, I love you” that would melt my heart 100 times over.

And then one day he hit me. He smacked me right across the face and laughed. Then, those formerly sweet blue eyes wrinkled up with more giggles and he did it again. Over time, he added kicking and punching to his repertoire. Often this happened when he was angry or when I could see he couldn’t find the right emotion to process whatever he was experiencing, but sometimes he did it just because. It’s the “just because” that gets me more than anything because it’s just mean and aggressive, not a confused form of expression or developmental stage. Ever the one to look on the bright side, I seem to be the sole target of his misguided aggression. Though it’s yet to transfer over to his classmates or friends, I know that’s not something I can count on and that I need to put a lid on these unfortunate behaviors before it becomes anything more serious. (And it’d probably be refreshing for my husband to not have me answer, “Our 3-year-old is being mean again and beating me up,” when he calls to check in on us.)

The problem though, like with most parenting issues, is that it’s not so easy to stop this behavior. We’ve tried teaching him what things are OK to hit, thinking he needs the physical action because he doesn’t have the words or mental capability to process whatever emotion he’s experiencing at the time. Couches and pillows are allowed; parents and friends are off-limits. That worked for a week or so, until he just thought it was funny to beat up the poor couch, clearly defeating the purpose of positive expression.

We ended all forms of play that might send confusing messages: no play-biting, poking, or drum rolls on his belly. Maybe this helped in a general sense, but there was no measurable outcome.

We banned anything that portrayed aggression in a positive light. Since he’s not exposed to all that much, this mostly meant no more viewings of Wreck It, Ralph, seeing as how he liked to go around play-pummeling things while saying, “I’m wrecking you, I’m wrecking you!” I know, good parenting there. But really, that much truly was play and wasn’t directly correlated to his outbursts, so not watching it put an end to the pretending, but not the real hitting or kicking.

Not ones to give up easily, next we tried teaching him what different emotions looked and felt like. We practiced silly face, sad face, mad face, happy face, and hurt face. While it provided a bit of entertainment on all of our parts, it didn’t do much to directly affect the behaviors.

Next up, and honestly the last on my list of ideas to attempt, we tried the “do something else with your hands approach.” Namely, whenever he felt the need to hit, we urged him to clap really loudly instead. He surprised me (as 3-year-olds are known to do) by catching on immediately and taking great delight in the fact that clapping made mommy really happy. However, the clapping usually only happened after he’d hit me and I gave him the silent “look” reminder that he should be clapping instead. So while it cut down on repeated attempts and turned a potentially angry kid — happy, it didn’t provide a complete solution.

Now I realize maybe it’s just a phase or perhaps it’s even completely normal behavior for his age, but I have a hard time choosing to let it go without attempting to squelch it in a positive manner (if that’s even possible). I want my son to be able to express himself, but without being mean or turning into a bully. So … help?

Have you dealt with an aggressive toddler/preschooler? What helped you work through it?

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Article Posted 5 years Ago

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