Life With Nine Kids

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Preschoolers and Toddlers: Hitting & Anger

A mom close to me asked my advice on what they could do to get their three year old to stop hitting them. Below is my advice. I wrote so much on the topic that I decided to add a bit more to it and expanded it into a big ol' fat blog post!

Preschoolers and Hitting
  In my experience preschoolers hit when they feel like they have too little control over their own lives or a particular situation. They hit for other reasons too: being angry, bored, tired, lonely, hungry, unable to communicate (because they are literally learning an entire language they don't yet fluently speak). Preschoolers may hit because they are being just plain wild, playful, or immature. Many people don't realize young kids will hit when they are not feeling well, especially if they are teething. It seems all my 2-3 year old kiddos go through a really angry stage that often includes hitting when they are teething molars. They may also hit because they feel you have wronged them in some way. Some examples that could make them feel this way and spur aggressive behavior: not spending enough time with them, spanking them, fighting with others in front of them, and life changes such as a big move, divorce, or death of a loved one. Too much TV and any violent TV (even cartoon violence) can trigger a child's impulse to hit. Look for triggers for the hitting and try to determine and eliminate the source the best you can.

  Preschoolers may hit or act out in other ways because they are testing boundaries, which means they are actually testing the really fascinating concept of cause and effect. Look at the little stinker as a scientist -and you are the experiment! 

 Over reacting to a child hitting can make them hit more, but under reacting can make them hit more too! What are you to do? I don’t know. I do know maturity plays into this though; developmentally it’s normal for little kids to hit and some have more trouble with it than others. You have to test not reacting very much and reacting a little bit and see if you can find a balance and solution.
  It is HARD being three years old... and four, and five, and six, and seven, and twenty-seven…you get the point. Seriously though, in my experience it looks really darn hard to be a preschooler. 

Preschoolers: What do they see? How do they feel?
 Preschoolers are little people who have feelings and thoughts and are learning about the world around them at a rapid pace. They want to accomplish simple tasks themselves and it makes them feel good and accomplished. For many preschoolers being told what to do all day everyday is hard and frustrating. Not being able to say many words or explain yourself is frustrating. Not knowing what things are called is frustrating. Not being understood is frustrating. Most preschoolers hear the word 'no' or 'stop' more than any other word. That's frustrating! To top it off when you are that age and you are walking near or standing in line with adults all you see is butts and crotches at your face level. Imagine for one moment the view of a toddler and preschooler. Now imagine looking up towards the ceiling or sky all day long just see other people's faces. To top off all that your brain isn't fully developed to process why some things are the way they are.This is why I bet being a toddler/preschooler is probably much harder than anyone gives these young kids credit for.
3 things I’ve learned:
1. What you do as a parent will probably not make a difference overnight. It takes consistency and weeks, months, and sometimes a year for your efforts to show. This does not make you a parenting failure; this makes you in for the long haul. No one said this parenting gig was easy. It's totally NOT easy. Talking to your kid, teaching your kid, getting down to their level, and being there for them as they mature is what makes you a successful parent. There is not always a quick fix to behavior problems, so tell yourself to stay strong.

2. Sometimes behavior problems are not really problems. The word "problem" implies something is wrong or dysfunctional with the child. More often than not they are actually developmentally normal milestones kids have to go through. Kids are all different and their challenges and hardships will be different. Different or "problem" doesn't equal abnormal. Everybody (adults and kids) have things they need to work on at various times in their lives.

3. Spanking doesn't work. In the long-term spanking just teaches that the person who can hit the hardest wins. If you can't control the impulse to hit then you simply cannot expect to teach your child to control theirs. Hitting kids is the one sure fire way to teach them that they have no control over their life and that makes people regardless of age feel out of control and angry. Studies show over and over again that spanking is not good for kids and in the long run does damage. There is compelling research that shows it alters brain development. Spanking can slow cognitive development (thinking, understanding, learning, and memory) and increase the risk of mental health disorders. Those are some of the reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association both oppose striking a child or adolescent for any reason. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not endorse spanking under any circumstance. It's a form of punishment that becomes less effective with repeated use, according to the AAP; it also makes discipline more difficult as the child outgrows it. 
 Can you imagine spanking a child for teething molars or coming down with a cold? They may not be feeling well when they aren't listening, hitting, or saying "no" to you. And you could hit them for them actually being hurt and/or not feeling well and never even know it. How horrible!

At Our House:
 When our kids have hit us (Sebastian has even kicked and scratched us as a 3-4 year old and was one of the most frustrated/angry kids we have ever had) we have repeatedly taken them aside and explained to them that we do not hit them. If they are anger-hitting we wait until they are calm and we are sure they are listening. We don't force them to listen; we wait for an opportunity that looks like they will listen. At times Sebastian has put his hands over his ears to ignore us and we don't let that upset us or insist he take his hands off, we simply wait until he is ready to listen.

We Will Say Things Like:
-I do not hit you, I love you, let's be nice to each other, I'm angry too, but I don't want to hurt my family. (This works with Everett very well, it took a couple weeks for him to start understanding it though)
-Mommy and Daddy do not hit each other, what would it look like if Daddy hit Mommy? Mommy would be scared and the police would come, because it's not okay to hit people. (You can substitute any names you want) This may or may not be too abstract for a 3 year old, but caution should be used so as not scare kids into thinking police are bad or scary. For Sebastian it wasn't too abstract at 3, for Everett I'm unsure but he seems to listen to my talking. I use this because I think the relation between grown-ups not hitting each other is important to make.

Waiting for Anger to Pass before Teaching Begins:
  When kids are angry or frustrated (or even in an ornery mood) it doesn't do a lot of good to try to talk to them until they are calm. Think about yourself: Do you want to listen to common sense and be reasonable at the height of your anger? Nope.

  When a person gets angry the body is flooded with chemicals, an adrenaline rush is experienced as blood rushes to the arms and legs in a classic flight or fight reaction. When in this state breathing gets heavier, the rational mind is disengaged, the eyes dilate and most of the time all reasoning goes totally out the window. It's like being drunk, you are held accountable and are responsible for your own actions but you are at real risk of not caring to control your actions, and you are at real risk of not making reasonable decisions. So once calmer and willing to talk, even if it's a half hour later or more, what I do is I repeat a couple or few times "I do not hit you, I love you and hitting really hurts me..." 

 Once, because I did eventually give in and spank Sebastian to see if it would work and because I was at my wits end (even though I've always been very against spanking) I had to mutter the words to him: "I will NEVER spank you again. It's not okay to hit and hitting hurts and I was wrong." Things got a lot better between him and I after that and we found a way to communicate. I figured out eventually he was frustrated a lot during the day because I wasn't listening to him enough and some anger was triggered when that would happen, so I started getting down to his level (literally I'd bend down to his level) whenever I talked to him or he talked to me. I did that for a year. It helped a lot. I'll tell you what though, I felt like a giant ass for spanking him, and I told my husband I felt that way too. Seriously, they are little kids with small developing brains! Don't hit them! I was trying to get him to control and regulate himself and I was doing the exact opposite. Watch this video to see why. It's the same video I posted in my last post.
Walking Away:  
 Walking away helps kids understand you are not going to stick around and be abused. Being firm and using few words I walk away. I usually say ‘I’m not going to be around you when you hit/hurt me.’ Leaving to another room or starting another activity by yourself may show your child you will not tolerate hitting and they may change their tune when they see they are left alone. Be prepared for more hitting if they need more attention though. If they are looking for attention I think this would make the hitting worse.
THE LIST: I will tell my child the things I do for them and how they need me, how I need them, and how I don't want to hurt them or for them to hurt me. 
This could be too abstract depending on age but it has worked for me. I've had really great results with this strategy. Sometimes I talk sad and emotion filled so they can see I'm sad. I'll say some things like:
  • I make you food
  • I wash your clothes
  • I play with you
  • I held you when you were a baby and kissed you
  • I help you when you get hurt / get band-aids for you
  • I hold you when you are sick
  • I helped you fix your broken toy
  • I found your lost toy
  • I sing sings with you
  • I read to you
  • I take you to the park
  • I really, really love you and have so much fun with you
  • You make me happy and you are fun to be around
  • You are funny and sweet when you are being nice and I like that the best
 And then I start following it up with "...and when you hit me it makes me feel really sad and I'm not having fun or feeling good when you do that, can we be nice to each other please?" And sometimes I'll ask if I can have a hug to make me feel better. This is such a good strategy and can be altered for all ages 3 and over really, and for lots of problems including when a child is being disrespectful or rude/mean because you are stating your worth and asking for respect because you care for them and love them. I have used this time and time again with good results. Sometimes they smile or think I’m silly, those times I don’t react. I just go with it. Sometimes comic relief is all that’s needed to break up a bad mood.

Teach Them Words:
  It takes a little time but teaching words helps a ton. I taught Everett to tell me when he is angry. Every time he got angry I would say to him "I can see you are angry, you're SO angry, I'm sorry you feel like this, it doesn't feel good to be angry."

 I'd also offer hugs and really try and relate to him. I'd tell him it's okay to feel angry but let's try to work on feeling better. Sometimes sympathy helps; when we sympathize with their feelings they feel validated. I think we all like to feel this way. Sebastian will sometimes not be ready for sympathy when he is angry, but I try anyway. Everett responds really, really well.

A success story about teaching Everett to use words:
 Everett and I were at the chiropractor. I was seeing a doctor I don’t see very often and Everett was starting to act agitated. I saw some warning signs in him that he was slowly getting angry. He walked around the room agitated and making small huffing noises before trying to pull my shoes and socks off as I lay on the examination table. I of course told him to stop but his anger escalated to hitting. He began hitting my legs; I asked him to stop very calmly several times and told him he was hurting me.  I was trying NOT to over react. As he landed one more punch to my leg the doctor was very upset and raised her voice at him. She exclaimed, “STOP hitting your mom RIGHT NOW!” He looked very unhappy and stopped. Now I could tell he was getting ready to burst into tears or burst into a rage. Then he said it, the words I had been teaching him for weeks. He folded his arms and he grumbled, “I am angry, I AM ANGRY.” I used my soft mom voice and thanked him for using words, I told him I was sorry he was angry and asked him if he could come hold my hand to make him feel better. At first he said no, but I calmly persisted that holding his hand would help him calm down and help get the anger out. He relaxed his tense shoulders and walked over and gently grabbed my hand. I was so proud of him. And the best part is I could feel his stiff body soften and the anger melt from him.

 Later thinking about it I figured out the main trigger; he heard me say that maybe I should have his back looked at because he fell really hard the previous day. He heard that and obviously didn’t want to be seen that day, plus he was tired. I was pretty annoyed at the doctor afterwards and when I was telling Ricky about the incident I followed it up with, “So BOOM doctor, take that! My kid is AWESOME and so am I for teaching him how to use words to express himself so I could help him!” I know the doc meant well and didn’t want him hurting me, but I didn’t receive her “help” as helpful. He’s only three years old. And actually he had only been three years old for one month! This brings me to the next part:

Holding Hands
 I always taught my younger kids that holding hands is a relaxing thing and it works for winding them down. It started rather sweetly and innocently when they were weaning as a way to connect and stay close when they fell asleep instead of nursing. It has time and time again turned into a way for me to reconnect with them when they are tired, angry, or otherwise upset. In the story above it obviously helped Everett.
Teach Hitting Alternatives: 
 If they still need to display a physical reaction offer that instead of hitting maybe they try to hit a pillow to express anger, frustration, or pent up energy. Or, offer the idea to stomp their feet. I do this with Everett, I show him to clinch his fists and jump up and down and say “I’m SO ANGRY” over and over. It’s better than hitting. And if they take to this idea and then do this on their own you can know they are angry before hitting and even meltdowns might begin.

The Boy Thing
  My girls were pretty easy preschoolers, in general they were classic little girly-girls. My boys have been classic stereotypical boys. They run and bounce off the walls and turn everything into a toy gun. They carry sticks everywhere and fight monsters and bad guys. Our boys have extreme "boy" personalities and we have A LOT of contact challenges. Teaching personal boundaries is a constant lesson that actually takes years.

 We have two really nice teenage boys now but it took a lot of consistent patience, reminding, and us understanding about the way their brains worked when they were younger. As we are still learning! They literally bounced off the walls and wrestled almost all of the time. Sage was the hitter mostly; Ethan was the high energy one bouncing off the walls. Ethan was able to burn off energy in the basement or outdoors and so did often. Sage took constant reminding about why we should not hit others.  

 Sebastian and Everett have been even wilder than Sage and Ethan, which I didn't know was even possible. I swear God gave me both those boys because he knew I wouldn't beat them. The techniques I outlined above have helped. There are times I’m totally at the end of my rope and I think they are “bad” kids. But I knew at the end of the day they really are just kids. There is no one size fits all personality, and I was dealt some really hard wonderful, tough, FUN personalities. 
Not Easy...
Typing all of this out made me totally realize we have a lot of strategies for dealing with our kids/boys. It all sounds kind of easy in print. (Don't all parenting tips?!) I'm thinking after re-reading this that we're doing a pretty good job and we have clear concise ways of dealing with the kids without hitting them, and that's great! But in reality, while we do have good positive strategies, they don't work the first time or maybe even the hundredth time. I don't know how long it took for me to teach Everett to say he's angry. He just started doing it one day. Repetition is key with kids. Everett has a pretty good hold on his anger now and we can talk it out quickly, but there's always something else around the corner. He loves dumping stuff. Toys, books, crackers, the magnets off the fridge, whatever. He cries his head off when I don't let him pour his own cereal and milk. He's a busy kid and he gets bored easily. Just the other day the stinker poked holes with a long nail in the new mini bounce house they got for Christmas, and a few days before that he hammered the front of the brand new refrigerator and told me he was just fixing it. He's entered the 'color on the wall' stage too. (He's not as bad at that as Sebastian was, whoa that kid LOVED walls. Why? I do not know.) Kids mature, they do! They will mature and grow and learn and be on the road to new things eventually. I've learned you can work with them or against them. Either way they are going to make you totally nuts.

1 comment:

Natasha said...

Thanks for sharing. I do enjoy reading your blogs. I also want to say that hitting is also a natural human reaction. Even as adults we find ourselves having to "control" our anger, and sometimes we just want to punch the person we are mad at it. I feel that this is our "fight" with our flesh. As children learn and grow, we need to guide them with the right behavior. However I do agree with spanking, it says right in the bible, spare the rod spoil the child. But spanking should be meant for when a child is "rebelling" and should not be done out of anger. There is a very fine line of when you should and should not spank. I don't agree with spanking a child after they were caught hitting. I do agree to use positive discipline by explaining to them why they shouldn't hit. I am also a follower of Jesus Christ, so my view might be very different from others.