A reader’s question reminded me that there are some typical childhood behaviors that need to be revisited every now and then for successive generations of parents. This parent was concerned about her 14-month-old’s habit of slapping her hand at her parents when she was frustrated, occasionally managing to hit them directly on the face.
While certainly annoying to the parents, their biggest concern was that the child would think it is okay to hit people if she were not corrected. First, let’s consider the probable cause of this behavior. Imagine, if you will, the powerful frustration of a little one who is beginning to get big ideas about what to do in this world–but she has only a handful of words with which to express them.
Such profound disappointment could only be expressed physically, hence the hitting. But the parent is absolutely correct This behavior must be decisively stopped. It is never okay for anyone to hit another person, be that person big or small. Knowing that frustration is the trigger for the hitting behavior, parents need to stay close at that point, close enough to be able to firmly grab the small, flailing hands, saying clearly: “No hitting. Hitting hurts. I can’t let you hit me.” Keep holding the hands until the frustration has passed, or even enveloping the toddler in an all-encompassing bear hug is appropriate. When adults are so clearly in control of their emotions and the situation, it helps children regain some of their control. Then the adult is able to redirect the child’s behavior and feelings toward something else, knowing the toddlers have short attention spans and really don’t want to stay upset long.
If the toddler is a child who seems to need strong physical outlets, providing a toy to pound on or punch may be helpful. If the toddler benefits from soothing activities, some sensory play, such as water or play dough, may change the mood. Note the adult responses I did not suggest. A first incorrect reaction would be to ignore the hitting behavior -children should always receive a firm limit on not hurting others, no matter how strong the emotion. A second mistake would be to hit the child back, “so she can see how it feels.” Little ones just don’t have the cognitive capacity to make such connections,· let alone understand why it is okay for a big person to hit, while trying to teach little ones a lesson not to hit.
Another inappropriate response would be to laugh at the admittedly comical sight of a little one hitting out in frustration: such laughter only shames and demeans the child’s very real emotions. As the toddler acquires more language and understanding, parents can say things like, “I see you’re upset, but no hitting. Hitting hurts. Let’s see what we can do (… say, etc.).” Slowly we help children learn that emotions can be expressed in ways other than striking out.
This is an important question, the answer to which is inextricably tied to the big ideas about guiding young children, ideas such as firm limits, respect of the child’s developmental abilities, and teaching life-long lessons. Thoughtful responses will move parents toward the goal of healthy, self-controlled children.