I clearly remember the first time my child really hit me. And when I tried to control him, I not only failed but also saw aggression I had never witnessed before. He was red in the face, yelling, moving his arms and legs in all directions trying to get me off. That day, I felt I had failed at parenting. My husband was taken aback when I confided my feelings in him. He was upset that how could I, who read so extensively about the subject and child psychology, could think say something like that.
Truth is, it hurts when your child hits you. It evokes an array of emotions. Your are appalled, furious, embarrassed and lost all at the same time. It is painful to imagine a child, whom you gave birth and devoted every ounce of love in your body, hitting you. But then almost all parents go through it. What is essential is to understand why it happened. Certainly, not because you have failed at parenting.
Why Do Children Hit Others?
Let’s begin by understanding that your child does not want to hit you or anyone else. Children are very much aware that hitting is bad and they certainly do not want to be ‘Bad’. So, when they hit they are not in control of themselves. There are forces, beyond their control, at play – Emotional forces. This pile of emotions is actually the one driving that behavior. Humans are innately wired for ‘Fight or Flee’ response when faced with adverse situations. With little children, fleeing is not really an option for they have no idea of a safer place than be with their parents. That leaves them with ‘fight’ response, turning them into children who hit.
Children, unlike we think, are very receptive to emotions and the environment around them. They pick up our emotions really fast. So when we are upset, it increments their list of ‘Upsets’. Add to this, their own emotional experiences of sadness, disappointment, failure, fear and not being in control. As parents we don’t even realize how many times we send out wrong emotional signals to our children. When we shout at them for spilling milk or not getting something done, it all adds to their bucket.
Research suggests that we send out at least 8-10 such signals everyday to our children. These emotions keep piling on until children cannot take it any longer. That’s when they burst and get really aggressive. This aggression in most cases in manifested by hitting others and sometimes themselves. I would like to use the analogy of pressure cooker here which keeps building up steam and only when it cannot hold any more, it lets out a whistle. Children (humans) are similar. The only difference is we, grown ups, have little tolerance towards their venting out.
What Should Parents Do?
The simplest answer is not to let the steam build up. Provide plenty, regular emotional outlets to your children. And just like you do not try to build the steam in the pressure cooker but rather let it escape, allow your children to manifest their feelings with gentle guidance.
I am not saying let them hit. What I am suggesting is that allow the emotions to escape while keeping physical force at bay. Shouting or trying to control their behavior when they are on a loose, will only add more to their existing pile of emotions. So, offer a pillow to hit on that time. Stay close to them maintaining a safe distance. Acknowledging their feelings and giving them words to express what they feel can really help in calming kids down. Try saying:
I know you are mad. So mad that you want to hit. Have this pillow and let it out.
I love you and I know you don’t want to hit me. You are just really angry.
Don’t worry…you will always be my darling. I know you feel bad.
I am with you till you calm down. Nobody is going to shout or hurt you.
Post the melt down, reflect on the reasons that led to hitting and aggression. Refrain from commenting on the behavior rather try to work out a plan to help your child navigate through this feelings. Ask her what would she like to do to calm herself next time she feels overwhelmed and how would she like you to help. While you contemplate on ways to deal with aggression, you will observe that not one time will your child mention hitting you or anyone else as one of the alternatives. That’s never their plan.
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Remember, children are not bad. The last thing they want is to upset their parents and people they love. They just do not have the coping mechanism in place, yet.