Dear Professor Mom,
I am having a difficult time teaching my three-year-old not to hit or push other children. I worry about taking him to playgroups or the park, because he often
becomes aggressive with others. What can I do to stop this kind of behaviour?
When children are young, they don’t always have the words or patience to express their needs in appropriate ways. Without the necessary words, children will use their hands (hitting and pushing), feet (kicking) and even their mouths (biting) to express their feelings. Try these tips for encouraging your children to regulate their own emotions.
Although it can be alarming to see your child act aggressively, try and stay positive. Instead of running over and saying, “Don’t hit! That’s not nice!” make it a teaching moment. Use this opportunity to teach your child how to treat others by phrasing it in a positive way. Once you have stopped your child from hitting and pushing (by placing your body between the two children and crouching down to their level) you could say, “Be gentle with your friend, hands are not for hitting or pushing.”
Instead of forcing your child to apologize, it is more important to help your child understand how their actions make others feel. “When you hit someone, it hurts their body and makes them feel sad. But when you use your gentle hands, it makes others feel safe and happy.”
Reflect on what you saw
After you have intervened and have taken the time to teach your child about the way we treat others, reflect on what you saw and ask yourself, “What is my child trying to tell me through his/her behaviour?” When you see your child hitting another child, they could be telling you that they are angry, frustrated, bored, overwhelmed, tired, sad, or even playful.
Once you have established what your child needs and supported them in dealing with their feelings, encourage them to go back and play. Stay close to where your child is playing without interfering in their play. If you see your child is getting upset and starts to hit again, reinforce that they need to “use gentle hands” and redirect them to another area in the playground.
You have redirected them, played Bakery, Tag, or some other fun game, but your child is still being aggressive toward other children. It is important to remember that children at this age are starting to learn that they have power in their relationships. They like to feel like they have a say in what happens, and so they should. It is important to involve our children in making decisions, because it teaches them to problem solve and establish appropriate boundaries for themselves. At this age, give your child only two choices. Any more would be too overwhelming.
Time In vs. Time Out
You have redirected your child and given them choices, and they are still being aggressive. Instead of giving a Time OUT – where you place them somewhere by themselves for a few minutes – try a Time IN. This involves sitting with your child (in this case, on the bench at the park) and talking to them about how they are feeling and digging a bit deeper into what their behaviour is telling you.
Take a few minutes to sit with them while they calm down, and find ways to connect. In a traditional Time Out, parents set the time and decide when their children can return to an activity. In a Time In, children learn to regulate their own emotions and decide when they are ready to play. Only give your child two Time Ins (if needed) before moving onto something else.
Your child has returned to play, but is still having a hard time regulating their emotions. After giving your child two Time Ins, you may need to establish some consequences. Consequences should be done in a positive way, teaching your child that life has natural consequences for doing certain things. Often we come up with consequences that don’t relate to the situation.
Example: “Because you were hitting other children at the park, there will be no watching television for the rest of the day.” These kinds of consequences are confusing for children and don’t teach them the direct connection between their actions and logical outcomes. A logical consequence to hitting other children at the park is that your child will need to leave the park and try again another day.
Try again another time
When deciding to implement a consequence, use positive wording. Instead of saying, “You have to leave the park because you are being bad,” tell your child what you see and assure them they will have another chance at a later date.
Example: “It looks to me like you are tired and having a difficult time being gentle; let’s go home and we will try again another day.” If they protest, continue to assure them that they can try again at another time and talk about the different things they can do when they get home.
Meghan Wright is a Certified Life Coach and Professor of Early Childhood Education. She has worked with children and families for over 15 years in a variety of child care settings. Reach Meghan at www.theprofessormom.com, her blog www.theprofessormom.blogspot.ca or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ProfessorMom.