Understanding why your child hits

By Dominique Groenveld, Oh Beehave

It is common for young children to hit others as a way of expressing their feelings of anger, upset or frustration. Luckily, it is possible to understand the motivation behind a child's hitting behaviour, and put in place strategies to make the behaviour stop.

You may have heard some statements about children hitting other children such as “it’s just a normal part of development” or “they’re just going through a phase”.

While this might help make us feel better about their behaviour, unfortunately, it might not actually be the case that this type of behaviour is part of a phase or even part of typical development.

Although children hitting other children is a common behaviour that is observed amongst children in some parts of the world, it is not common across all cultures.

Which is good news, because it means there are ways to stop your child from hitting others!

There can be a lot of reasons why a child hits. For example, they may be exposed in some way to anger or aggression (anything from seeing this behaviour from others kids in the playground, to their siblings, witnessing it on TV, or even observing their parents hitting them or their siblings).

Some children may not have developed the verbal skills to express when they become frustrated, so they “act out” their angry feelings, while others just may not have learnt any alternative behaviours (yet) that can help them achieve whatever it is they are trying to achieve by hitting. Regardless of the reason for your child’s hitting behaviour, what you really want is for the hitting to stop.

Luckily, there are a few things you can try. The most effective way to prevent continued hitting behaviour is to persist with one strategy for at least a few weeks (it may take some time before you start to see any changes):

1. Understand

Start by developing an understanding of why your child hits.

The next time you observe your child hitting, ask them to describe what happened. This will help you understand the motivation behind why they were hitting, and where they learnt hitting as a strategy. This will also help you identify which strategy will work best to reduce hitting in the future.

For example, if you observe your child hitting another child, or another child tells you that your child hit them, start by understanding the situation. Rather than saying “why did you hit?” (your child might not be able to explain why they hit!) say “tell me what happened”.

You may also consider asking your child where they have seen “hitting” before (this can help you identify if it’s on a TV program, in the playground, or somewhere else).

This gives your child an opportunity to reflect on their behaviour, helps you understand the trigger for their hitting behaviour and opens up the conversation for you to work with them to identify alternative strategies for hitting.

2. Physiological responses

One way to help reduce hitting behaviour, is to teach your child to learn how they feel physically just before they hit someone.

In order to do this, help your child identify the physiological responses associated with anger and aggression (for example, heart beating fast, face or skin starts to feel hot, fists clench, breathing gets faster etc.).

Once your child has learnt to identify how they feel physically before they hit someone, it will be easier for them to choose alternatives to hitting (i.e. they will learn to anticipate that they are going to hit someone before it happens, which gives them time to choose an alternative behaviour to hitting).

Make sure you take the time to discuss with and help your child practice some alternatives to hitting (such as taking deep breaths, walking away, discussing their feelings, squishing a squeezy ball etc.)

3. Monitor exposure

Monitor the amount of aggressive behaviour your child is exposed to. For example on TV, in books or comics, in sports, with other children they interact with.

If the exposure is through technology, consider reducing the amount of time your child spends interacting with that technology.

If the aggressive behaviour is with other children or within sporting activities, talk to your child about the appropriateness of their behaviour.

For example: “I know you see Tommy hit others in the playground when he is unhappy. That does not mean it is OK for you to hit others when you are unhappy.”

Reducing the amount of violence your child witnesses can reduce the likelihood that they will copy those behaviours.

4. Avoid hitting your child.

When your child experiences you hitting them, or see’s you hitting another child, they are learning that “hitting” is an acceptable way to deal with another persons’ behaviour.

They also learn that hitting is particularly acceptable when they don’t like the behaviour another person is displaying.

Using one of the strategies listed above, consistently over time, should help reduce your child’s hitting behaviour.

Reebye, P. (2005). Aggression During Early Years – Infancy and Preschool. The Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review. 14(1)

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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