Why does my kid hit me?

Is she a burgeoning sadist, or just a normal kid?

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science and parenting journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

Question for you. Is my two-year-old a sadist? Sometimes, if she does something that hurts me, like hit me in the head with a toy, I say "Ouch! Please don't do that, it hurts!" She then gets the most evil grin on her face and it becomes her MISSION to do the thing that hurts me as much as possible for the rest of the day. What do I do?!

Sincerely,

Bruised

Dear Bruised,

I’ll tell you what to do. Go get yourself an ice pack. And then hold it against your aching head while you read on, because I have good news: Your kid’s antics are not a sign that she’s on the express train to the penitentiary. Little kids hit their parents for so many reasons, and it’s actually quite normal.

In a minute, I’m going to get into the many reasons kids hit, but here’s an important underlying factor: They have a poorly developed frontal lobe, the part of the brain that’s responsible for controlling impulses. “They are able to understand that hitting is not okay, they are able to tell you that hitting is not okay — and then five minutes later, they hit you,” said clinical psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, the author of The Tantrum Survival Guide. They can talk the talk, because their verbal skills are often fairly advanced by the age of three or four, but they can’t actually walk the walk and control their impulses like they promised they would. Damn those kids and their lack of follow-through.

But in all seriousness: Parents grossly overestimate their kids’ skills in this area. In a 2016 survey, the Zero to Three Foundation asked parents when they think kids have the impulse control needed to resist the desire to do forbidden things. More than half of parents — 56 percent — said they expect kids to have this skill by the age of three. Ha! This skill doesn’t even start developing until the age of three-and-a-half or four — and it takes a lot more time before kids can tap into it consistently. Here are some things to keep in mind about hitting — and some ideas for how to handle it when it arises.

  1. Remember that kids hit for various reasons, and almost none of them are “because they want to hurt you.”

The unrealistic expectations parents have often lead us to interpret kids’ physical behavior in a highly negative way: He must have been trying to hurt me. He’s being a total asshole. This, thankfully, is unlikely to be the case.

Kids resort to hitting in so many situations. Sometimes, of course, they do it out of anger — or because they’re having other big feelings and, as Hershberg puts it, “those feelings get so big that they come out of their body.” It’s not that they’re making the conscious decision to inflict pain on you; they just don’t have the ability to control themselves and come up with a better solution. “They don't mean to be hurtful,” insisted Claire Lerner, a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist.

Another reason little kids hit is because they crave sensory stimulation. This may be an especially big driver of unsavory physical behavior right now, when so many kids are stuck at home without many physical outlets. They aren’t really thinking about the fact that they’re hitting us; they just desperately need to hit, because hitting fulfills a physical need. They may also hit while they’re deeply engrossed in play, and not realize that what they’re doing hurts. “A lot of times kids don't know their strength,” Hershberg said.

Other times, kids hit to provoke us — to get attention, get a response. (This is what I suspect is happening with your kid, Bruised.) “They're all about trying to figure out how their actions cause reactions in other people. And they're constantly making a calculus of, ‘Was that a successful behavior? Did it get a big reaction? Did I get a lot of attention?’” Lerner explained. Let’s face it, kids are competing against a lot of things for our attention these days. Sometimes hitting us is the most surefire way to get us to look up from our phones or laptops and make eye contact — because damned if it doesn’t work. Parents typically respond to these pleas for attention by giving kids exactly what they want, and that only serves to reinforce the behavior, Lerner said. Parents play to the drama, saying things like You've made Mommy really sad, you hurt my feelings, and the kid is like Yes! It worked! I'll use that one again.

  1. If your kid hits you when they’re got big feelings, give them more appropriate ways to channel their emotions.

Let’s start with what to do when you suspect your kid is hitting you because she’s overwhelmed by feelings. Maybe she’s raging mad because you took away her iPad. First, go ahead and tell your kid that hitting people isn’t OK. But do it in a way that doesn’t shame them, that acknowledges their feelings, and that, ideally, provides them with other, better outlets. “I would say to a child in that situation, ‘Oh, we don't hit people, because people have feelings. We can hit objects.’ And what I do with these kids is get them a range of tools that they can safely get this impulse out,” Lerner explained. Just telling a young child to “stop it” rarely works, she noted, because hitting is meeting some unmet need — it’s far better to give them a different, more appropriate target. Maybe you walk them over to the couch and tell them they can hit the couch instead. Hershberg suggested that you say something like, Oh, your feelings are getting so big that they are coming out of your body. Let’s go bang on the couch.

It’s important, too, to let kids be mad when they’re mad, and not try to convince them that they shouldn’t be mad. This is something that parents often do. We say, Why are you so upset? This isn’t a big deal, or But you should want to to bed now, so you can get lots of rest and we can have more fun tomorrow. Instead, let them be mad, validate their anger, and then give them appropriate ways to express it. If you’ve just taken the iPad away, Lerner said, and your kid picks up a toy car and throws it at you, the best thing to do is to pick up the toy, put it away, and say something like We don’t throw toys. If you need something to throw, let's get you something to throw. I know you're mad that the iPad’s off — I totally get it, I don't expect you to like it — so we can get you something to throw. And when you're ready to move on, I can't wait to have a helper in the kitchen. The goal is to let them know that they are entitled to their feelings, that you will give them the space and the tools to express those feelings, and you’ll be there for them once they feel better and want to hang out with you again.

  1. If you suspect your kid is hitting because of unmet sensory needs, to try identify patterns so you can preemptively address them.

Some kids hit, shove and slam into others because they have sensory needs that are met by intense physical contact. Maybe you notice that your kid starts running around the kitchen at top speed every day and periodically slams into you while you’re trying to make lunch.

In these situations, you want to watch for and track their patterns — to try to figure out whether the behavior typically happens at certain times of day, after certain activities, or in certain situations. If so, you might be able to prevent their hitting and shoving by getting your child to engage in more appropriate physically intense work, which occupational therapists call “heavy work.” (For more on heavy work, check out this resource.)

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your child’s physical needs, talk to your pediatrician, who might recommend that your child be evaluated by an occupational therapist. (Here’s a link to a feature I wrote for Scientific American Mind several years ago about what the science says about handling kids’ sensory issues; it’s behind a paywall.)

  1. If you think your kid is hitting to provoke a response or to get attention, don’t get upset — but try, again, to direct them to more appropriate behavior.

Bruised: I think this is what your kid is doing — she’s hitting you to get a rise out of you. So……don’t let her get a rise out of you, otherwise you’re just reinforcing the behavior. Many parents will, understandably, say things like Ow, that hurts! Please stop hurting me!, and while the intentions are very good, your kid may actually love that she’s getting that big reaction and continue hitting you — which, of course, is the opposite of what you and your bruised head want.

This doesn’t mean you want to entirely ignore the behavior, though, Lerner said — because that may just encourage your child to up the ante. Instead, she suggested, meet the behavior with positivity and re-direction. “This is all I would do. He goes to hit, and you say, ‘Do you need to hit? Let's get you something to hit,’” Lerner suggested. “It completely defies the purpose of their behavior, which then diffuses the power of the behavior.”

The main take-home is this: Do your best to stay calm when kids hit and to not jump to scary conclusions. Of course, if you’re worried about your child (especially if they’re older, like five or six, and still hitting a lot), it’s never a bad idea to talk to your pediatrician. But far too many parents worry that there is something wrong with their little kids who hit, Hershberg said, and they don’t need to. “Parents, when they tell me their kid is ‘violent’ — I'm like, let's start with ‘aggressive.’ Let's even say ‘physical,’” she said. “It’s part of normal development.”

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