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Teaching a Preschooler to Stop Hitting

What to do when your child behaves aggressively


Brother and Sister Playing with Plasticine
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Question: How do I get my preschooler to stop hitting?

My three-year-old daughter hits whenever she doesn't get her way. I'm not defending her, she needs to stop hitting, but she's a sweet kid and I know a lot of her behavior stems from her not having enough words in her vocabulary to express what she needs. She starts preschool in the fall and I'm afraid this will be an issue. How can I get her to stop behaving so aggressively?

Answer: It isn't always easy being a preschooler. There are so many things in life that are out of their control -- when they go to school, when they go to bed, what they eat -- that they can get easily frustrated. As a child gets older and matures, they are able to develop a vocabulary that helps them express through words how they are feeling. Until then however, you may often see not-so-terrific, aggressive behaviors such as biting and an increase in temper tantrums. Another popular way for young children to express their emotions is to hit. While common for children in the three to five age group, hitting is in no way acceptable and the sooner your little one learns that, the better off they will be. How to stop your preschooler from hitting before they hurt someone.

Respond when she acts. While there are many long-term solutions to get a child to stop hitting, it is important to make sure you respond appropriately if you catch her in the act hitting someone else or if she hits you. Say, "No! We don't hit!" in a firm, calm voice. Pull her aside and talk about what just happened. Point out that she hurt the other child involved and she wouldn't like it if someone hit her. Even if the other child did something to provoke your little one, let her know that her behavior is not acceptable. Discipline her, whether it is using a time out or some other method. Do not, however, hit your child back as this sends a mixed message.

Try to find the root of the problem. For many young children, a lack of appropriate vocabulary is the number one reason they hit. Whether a playmate has yanked a toy out of their hands or mommy isn't giving them the snack they want, rather than try to find the right words to express how they feel, it is much easier to simply use their hands. For other children, there could be other factors at work. Does the child have any stress going on in her life, knowing that for little kids, stress can come in many forms, including the birth of a new sibling or moving to a new home. When a child doesn't feel in control of their life, they are more likely to act out and behave aggressively.

If your child hits constantly, you may also want to consider if this is a behavior she engages in around the same people. Not that the other children are at fault, but if she is constantly hitting her two older cousins, it could be that those children are acting in a way that is causing your child stress. Try to be a casual observer, or, if this is happening at school or daycare, enlist the help of the teacher or provider.

Work on basic problem-solving skills. The big lesson you want your child to learn is that physical violence is never acceptable in any form. Certainly telling your child "no" when they hit someone is important, but you also need to tell them what they should do instead of using their hands. This can be tricky with a young child who is still very impulsive, but it can be done. The next time you are role-playing with your preschooler -- house, school, doctor, etc. -- come up with some trigger scenarios that usually cause her to hit. If she moves to hit you, stop her and ask her what she could do instead. Help her work through the issue, giving her assistance and ideas on what her next step should be.

Give her words. If your preschooler can express herself verbally, she may be less likely to physically act out. So start building her vocabulary. When she gets mad at her brother for taking a book out of her hands, teach her to say, "That makes me mad!" When she is upset because she has to stop playing and take a nap, it's OK for her to express, "That makes me sad!" By giving a name to the emotions that your child is feeling, you are helping validate them. And by giving her words, you are letting her express herself in a positive, healthy, peaceful way.

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