Why do children hit? Why does repeating “gentle hands” doesn’t work? And 8 steps following which you can actually teach your child to express himself without hitting.
We know that children hit when they are angry. But what is anger all about? Where does it come from?
Why Do Children REALLY Hit?
Anger is a strong and prominent feeling that requires an outlet; children are expected to find this outlet by hitting. Whether they are 2, 3, 4, or 5 years old, raising hands is much faster and easier than picking their brains for the exact words to express whatever it was that angered them.
Lacking the impulse control and the ability to quickly access the needed vocabulary, having one of their needs go unmet will immediately result in a raised and not so gentle hand.
Wait, What? An Unmet Need?
That’s right. Anger is a secondary feeling. Beneath the rage, beneath the anger, vividly lives a tender, fragile need that defines who our little one’s really are. We tend to believe that the snatching of a toy, a refusal to a request, or the lack of something they want is the reason to their anger, when in fact – it isn’t. These are shallow representations of their human needs.
We live in a world that sanctifies fear, guilt and shame, and so we naturally (well, at least automatically) believe that we, or someone else, something that was said, or done, is the reason to our children’s anger. But that simply isn’t the case.
What Do Children Really Need?
Needs are autonomous – they don’t rely on any specific person or action in order for them to be met. If your little one is upset because his sibling snatched his toy, it isn’t really about the toy, but about his autonomy – your little one needs to know that he is able to play with what he wants, when he wants to play with it. He needs to know that he has power over his existence. When a toy is snatched from him – the empowering feeling of autonomy momentarily becomes powerlessness.
Hitting to claim the toy back is a strategy to regain the sense of autonomy.
If your little one is having a blast at the playground and you want to go home, his protests are not necessarily about the actual leaving of the playground, but about freedom and choice – he needs to know that he is free to decide what his world looks like.
Protesting and hitting when leaving the playground is then a strategy to regain the sense of freedom and choice.
If your little one tends to cling on to you or hit you whenever you (try to) engage in an activity that doesn’t have much to do with him, this behavior is his strategy to regain the sense of connection that is lost (or at least threatened) when you look away. Much more about this specific example right here.
Unlike we tend to believe, the toy, the extra play time, that attention is not really what children need – these are representations of much larger needs living within them – needs they are trying to meet with the only thing they (think they) have – force.
The above are just a few examples, and only you can know which of your child’s needs are not being met. But here are a few other needs to consider:
Children Are Expected to Hit When:
- Their need for connection goes unmet (acceptance, affection, appreciation, communication, consistency, empathy, inclusion)
- Their need for safety, security, trust, and support goes unmet
- Their need for choice, freedom, independence, and space goes unmet
- They don’t feel seen, heard, and understood
Whenever children turn to violence – the list above is what we should be looking for.
Repeating “gentle hands” is nice and all, but it doesn’t address the child’s inner need – the one need that wasn’t met and caused the physical incident. Children know they are not allowed to hit, but accessing this knowledge is simply impossible when having close to no impulse control. By repeating this sentence we are not teaching them anything new, we are not meeting or even acknowledging their unmet needs, and we’re not giving them tools for a better, gentle future.
Why Self Expression is the Go-To Technique
Children hit because they don’t know otherwise. Children hit because something very tender is hurting within them. Blinded by that pain, they are looking for ways to make themselves feel better.
However, there is something beautiful about needs – in so many occasions, being seen and heard by us simply acknowledging the unmet need, giving it the space it deserves, and giving our children the time to grief, is enough to put that fire out and bring peace back into our children’s hearts and souls.
As parents, it is not our job to give them what they want, but rather – to give them what they need.
Self expression. The knowledge that they can speak (or cry) their needs out, be accepted and loved even when they are experiencing unpleasant feelings, softens their entire life experience. Authentic self expression of whatever lives in them in that moment.
Grant your child with that – and you’ve given him what he needs. Be there for him without judgment or interpretation, with empathy and curiosity about his feelings – and you’ve given him more than his peers can ever hope for.
How I Taught My Son to Fully Express Himself Without Hitting
Whenever my son hits, I make sure to do and say all the following:
- I disallow loneliness. Take a look at the previous list – having any of these needs go unmet is a deep experience of loneliness, and loneliness creates dangerous gaps in our hearts and minds. I will never (ever) allow my son to handle these emotions on his own. I will never leave, close the door, or order him to go somewhere to calm down. To the contrary – I will come closer.
- I keep the connection. If my son raised his hand against another child, my son is my focus. Not the other child, nor his mother. After everything had calmed down, we will go and make amends. But at the heat of the moment – I am his and he is mine.
- I am curious: I can’t ever know what happened there that made him raise his hand. Even when I think I know – it is my job to explore, let him agree or disagree, rather than stating assumed facts.
- Use my knowledge of him and the situation to ask the relevant questions while naming the needs that might have gone unmet.
- I name and explore: when the unmet need is identified – I talk about it. I let him talk about is. If he lost the connection, if he felt less confident, perhaps fearful, or many ashamed – I want him to talk about it. I want him to learn what exactly was it that made him feel that way.
- I remind him that next time he feels this same feeling – he has another option rather than hitting. But you know what? I remind him this knowing that it will take a while before he really has another option.
- I model ownership of feelings: once everything is settled down, we will approach the other child. We will tell him how my little one felt, without ever placing the blame for my son’s feeling on the other child. We feel, we act, we are responsible. This is what true ownership of feelings is about.
- I work hard, and play hard: after all this emotional work – we will always keep playing 🙂
This little process, that usually takes about five minutes, teaches children what they need, and how they feel when these needs go unmet. It teaches them that they are responsible for the results of their words and actions, as these affect the needs of others.
Learning is never one-sided: a child who is mindful of his needs and feelings will be mindful for the needs and feelings of others.
Does this mean he never hits? No. Does this mean he hits significantly less than other children who are disciplined through fear and disconnection? Most definitely. Does it mean that in the future his inner compass of positive motivations will allow for his healthy reactions to a wide variety of social settings? Indeed.
Can You Teach Your Child to Fully Express Himself Without Hitting?
Yes, you can. This strategy had proved beneficial with children of all ages, regardless to how they have been parented and disciplined prior to its presentation. It is never too late nor is it ever too early to start empowering our children through their feelings and into their behavior.
Want to learn more? Come coach with me 🙂 You’ll set the time and date, and you won’t have to leave your house. And you know what else? If you are serious and dedicated to creating a better family life for yourself and for your loved ones – I want to work with you; your first session is always on me.
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