When your child hits, pushes, bites, grabs or otherwise acts aggressively, telling him/her to be gentle and to not hurt is only a small part of the information and support that they need to learn to understand and respect other people’s boundaries.
Children can hurt each other accidentally, in which case, we can help them remedy the situation by narrating what you see and asking what might have worked better. It’s not always the case, but mostly when a child acts aggressively, their actions are driven by frustration and frustration can really overwhelm a child who’s still slowly developing impulse control, especially when they lose their sense of connection and safety. As well as learning that it’s not okay to hurt others, they need an answer to the question of; “but what CAN I do with all this frustration?”
Children hurting others is often a cry for help; as well as guidance relating to what you won’t let them do, it’s also generally a call for increased connection, warmth, affection, fun, laughter or perhaps they have some big cries locked inside their body that need an outlet.
Babies around one year to eighteen months often bite, push, grab or hit out of excitement, experimentation or just because they’re oblivious to the other person’s space without being aware that it hurts the person on the receiving end. In telling your child that it hurts, you can be sincere without being critical “ouch that really hurt!” if they hurt you, or “I can’t let you hurt your sister”, as opposed to “don’t you dare do that!” or “that’s not nice”. Your child is learning through seeing the reaction that the receiver didn’t like it (be it another child or parent) and with your patience, they gradually learn to better control the impulse. Treat it as a teachable moment without attributing any negative intentions: “oops Jane it looks like you pushed Michelle, let’s ask her if she’s hurt”.
Your calm consistent patient guidance and support will pay off greatly. Gaining more language and greater understanding of the information they’re receiving also helps children to better communicate what they want or need without becoming physical. The child who can say “stop”, “I don’t like that”, “I’m annoyed” is less likely to become physically hurt another child when frustrated. When you respond by enquiring about their feelings -“Zack it looks like you pushed Sam over when he wouldn’t share his toy, are you sad?” – this helps a child start to identify their feelings.
Be assured that your child’s phase of hitting, biting or pushing is all part of their learning and is symptomatic of them still developing impulse control and healthier ways of expressing their thoughts and feelings. It’s not indicative of them being an “aggressive child” or a “naughty child”. These issues mostly only become an ongoing problem when a child can’t access the calm, level and warm support that they need as they learn.
How else can the need be met? When a child around this age goes through a phase of biting, it can be helpful to tie a teething ring or another object that they can bite onto a ribbon and safety pin it to their top or put it within reach and encourage them to use that when they have the urge to bite.
But most children, especially if older than 18 months, tend to hit, push or bite out of frustration. It can be good to make a note of when it happens and identify any patterns. Reducing the contributing factors may be the way forward. For instance, many children become very out of balance when they eat certain foods like gluten or dairy, processed sugar or food with artificial colours and dyes. A few days of jotting everything down could potentially save you years of frustration.
Children like adults do better when they’re more relaxed than stressed. Think about what you can do to reduce your child’s stress or minimize situations that may be over-stimulating. If your child becomes aggressive every time you go to the supermarket, then it’s fair to assume that being in that environment is the problem rather than the child.
Seeing it as a symptom of stress (rather than judging a child to be “naughty”) helps the parent (or teacher) to think creatively and do all they can to increase the child’s sense of connection, safety and security. Are they finding interactions with certain friends or siblings stressful and if so, do they need more of your calm non-judgmental mediation? Perhaps your child needs for you to slow down the pace and maintain calm respectful communication, especially at vulnerable times like when the child wakes up or is tired or hungry. Quality non-directed time in nature can also do wonders for helping children come back to balance.
Diffusing Aggression through Connection eCourse. This resource kit is just one of many resources for Village members related to helping families with tricky challenges around children fighting, being aggressive, mediating kid’s conflicts and sibling rivalry. Members can access specific support through our General Forum plus learn more through our eCourses and Resource kits with easy cheat sheet printables, videos and audios. Learn more about membership options.
Touching and handling your child gently and sensitively. Touching and treating a child gently in your day to day activities of putting on their shoes, picking them up, restraining them in situations of danger, lifting them into their high-chair or car seat helps them learn to be gentle towards others. Even helping a child get dressed can lead to them feeling over-powered and result in them over-powering other children, as children naturally re-enact what they experience. (Also read; My Body Belongs to Me, teaching about consented touch.
Advance warning. It also helps to prepare the child by explaining what you intend to do before and during normal activities; for instance “ok let’s go and change your nappy will we” giving them a minute to adjust, holding arms out and waiting for baby to come to you, this general approach increases their sense of having more power and decreases the fight-flight response that often leads to the instinct to attack.
Prevent the biting, pushing or hitting;
- by shadowing your child if they are going through a phase of being aggressive,
- by intervening physically as swiftly as possible rather than expecting them to respond to verbal instructions; physically hold them as you tell them “I can’t let you hurt, but I’m here to help you with your frustration”,
- if they’ve already lashed out, keep the child who did the hurting close and involve them when caring for and empathizing with the child who has been hurt,
- if the child who did the hurting doesn’t want to stay close, you can tell them “I care about both of you and will come and help you soon”, this can seem counter-intuitive, but I consistently see that aggression fizzles out when children feel understood and helped,
- then showing care and empathy for your child’s feelings of anger and frustration that drove their actions;”you got really frustrated, you hit your brother and now he’s hurting”, “that was a tricky problem for you wasn’t it”, “you got upset when Tom rode on your bike didn’t you”, this invites your child to share their feelings,
- your child knows what they did was wrong, they see the upset it caused, show them that you’re working hard to keep everyone safe, to prevent one child from hurting another and helping them get their frustrations out in non-aggressive ways like having a cry or asking for help,
- as soon as your child learns to really trust that their feelings are always important and deserving compassion, they will get better at seeking support before they reach overwhelm. Children who gain support learn to seek support, to release stress through crying or to talk when they start to become overwhelmed, rather than lashing out.
Children who hurt others when frustrated feel insecure and need to receive messages that they are safe. Quite often the child who did the hurting receives little care for their feelings. But the aggressor wouldn’t have lashed out if they weren’t feeling insecure, frustrated, threatened or possibly even overwhelmed. When children hurt another, they need to know that you’re not just trying to make them stop being angry, they can’t do that on demand and trying to not be angry causes a lot of inner conflict and even more frustration. They need to know we understand and care and can help.
Show him that you can remain calm and confident as you help him with his frustration. Your confidence in helping your child will start to ease any feelings of insecurity or overwhelm they may have. Even when a child doesn’t look afraid or frustrated when they lash out, if you look closely you will see that their body is in a very tight, tense stressed state.
Show her what she *is* allowed to do when frustration builds up. If at all possible, when you intervene and stop your child, hopefully just before they lash out, show that you’re making yourself available to really listen as they cry and complain and get it all out. Quite often the parent’s intervention to stop their child, will provide the outlet they need to let the underlying frustrations push to the surface and gain some release through big cries. You can perhaps suggest that they roar like a lion, stamp their feet, jump up and down, scream into a pillow (which is less overwhelming that screaming into the air), maybe tear some old newspapers, pop bubble wrap, take their hand and do some brisk walking or a little run outside which gives them both an outlet and connection at the same time. Also, doing some slow deep breaths with them can help them regulate. A tight hug sometimes works wonders to dissipate tension if they allow that. There are many ways to dissipate frustration.
Laughter heals and dissipates tension. Another really effective way of helping them get their frustrations out is to invite them to push against your hands as you kneel in front of them, this will bring frustrations to a head and they’ll either growl or laugh, either way, it’ll be a release. Or put a huge cushion in front of you and invite them to push really hard against the cushion. Or sit with your back against the wall also with a big cushion (for added protection for you both) and invite your child to sit on your knee, and push backwards with their bare feet on the ground. These all help the child release that ball of frustration from their belly or chest. For more ideas read The Power of Play.
Power reversal games help a child release frustrations relating to feeling powerless or controlled, any game where the parent takes on the role of being goofy, silly or the less powerful one can be very therapeutic, which can be measured by the intensity of the laughter that the game elicits! It can really help to have a pillow fight with you to give your child an outlet to their need to push and be vigorous or scream into a cushion as you tell her it’s safe to do so and you’re looking after her.
Also important to consider is that the frustration that drives a child to lash out is often the result of them not gaining the opportunities they need to have big releasing cries that are supported by their parent. The biggest need is always acceptance and empathy!
To summarize. To keep everyone safe, keep your limits simple, clear and confident – aim to avoid pleading or being aggressive in saying no. Let him know that you won’t let him lash out, that you’re keeping everyone safe and helping him with those big feelings of frustration. She needs to see that you care about her big feelings, not just her behaviour which is only the outward symptom. A stressed child needs to see that you can care about and empathize with her frustration “I see this is really hard for you, I can help”, “I care about *all* your feelings, I’m going to stay here and care for you until you feel better”, “that’s it, get it all out, have a big growl/cry”.
Avoid isolating, threatening unpleasant consequences or punishing or otherwise giving your child the message that you don’t want to interact with her when she’s angry as this can instil shame. In my work with families, children of all ages often describe to me what they truly feel about themselves and their parents when put in time out, and they are just not the messages that we want any child to embody. It’s not necessary and can lead to long-term feelings of aloneness when they have problems and difficult feelings.
Your child especially needs your loving care and guidance when he’s angry, anger is a tough and often overwhelming emotion and deserves empathy. The child needs your loving support with their feelings of anger (that are allowed) when they act aggressively (which is not allowed). Avoid shaming him when he lashes out, he’s already struggling with difficult feelings and needs help in coming back to peace with himself and his world. Kids act well when they feel well.
You may also like to read the longer and more comprehensive article; Aggression – why children lash out and what to do
I can’t seem to access this article on biting/ hitting/ pushing. Why is that? Is it restricted?
Aislinn, yes there’s a glitch happening with my posts that we haven’t got to the bottom of yet, but I have figured out that you can get around it by copying the link into a new tab, or failing that (which should work), a different browser. So sorry, do persevere, it’s a really useful article.
It’s still not working .. Can you email me the link?
Jullian, we still haven’t got to the bottom of this issue of posts not loading, much to my frustration. What we have discovered is that if you put your cursor in the browser after the address and press enter, it should work.
I can’t pull it up using your mobile site but if I go to the desktop site it is there. I’m using Chrome browser on my Android. Just thought I’d let you know of a workaround.
Thanks Brenda, any insights can only help.
Still not showing 🙁
Cara we still haven’t got to the bottom of this issue of posts not loading, much to my frustration. What we have discovered is that if you put your cursor in the browser after the address and press enter, it should work.
Thank you for this Genevieve! It’s a great reminder for me when my 2.5 year old son sometimes hits his older sister. There’s always something else going on for him that I need to address when he exhibits this behaviour. I try to connect as much as possible!
Hi there, just wanted to mention, I loved this
blog post. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!
I would appreciate some practical tools on how to keep a child from hitting without isolation and timeout. My five year old was upset he lost a game and got really andgry and was hitting his three year old sister. What’s your recondition on a method of physically intervening to keep the other child safe and to set a clear boundary? I tried holding him and keeping calm. He didn’t want to be held when I let him go he lashed out at his sister. I value peaceful parenting but sometimes I feel like I’m unsure of how to navigate some tricky situations when my whole is being unresponsive. Any suggestions?
Yes it can be a real challenge to help our little ones when they are so upset and angry.
Sometimes I put my body between the two children to keep them safe. If needed I do, as gently as possibly, restrain my kids if they are going to hurt someone else. As mentioned communicating to them, “I won’t let you hit. I’ll help you with all this frustration.”
Another idea is to suggest he pushes against your hands while you are facing each other. This can help him release the frustration.
Ideally as we prevent the hitting while staying really warm and empathetic they will eventually move from angry to sad and the tears will come.
Copying across Samm’s comment as some of the comments got lost when we transferred to the new website …..
My son (2.5yrs) and I went to pick up my brother (8yrs) and my sister (6yrs) from school. I used to squeeze and hold and rough play with both my younger siblings because they were oh so cute as babies. So it’s no surprise that my sister feels the same when she’s around my son. It may just be in my head but *I* strongly feel that my sister thinks of herself as the boss of him and she tells him no’s and yes’ s and stop’ s and go’s. So yesterday as my sister and son were playing something happened and he bit her upper arm and bruised her; he did not break any skin. I turned around looking at his mouth on her arm and quickly pushed his face away as she began crying. I pushed him away and also hit his mouth at the same time. I was so full of rage and I told him to stop crying and when he didn’t I couldn’t be next to him. How could he do this to me I tell him in a calm voice all the time “don’t hit, don’t bite, don’t yell, look she’s crying, go give her a kiss”. But something was different yesterday I was so beside myself I didn’t even want to look at him. I try so hard to be the calm parent who tries to talk him out of doing wrong or bad and somehow I feel like it’s not working or I’m failing. How can I teach him what’s right and what’s wrong at home and when everyone around him dont do what I do or care to learn how I parent/discipline him.
Samm, this sounds so very stressful. Your son is still developing impulse control, and clearly in that moment he lost control and lashed out. Of course this was very upsetting for you and your sister, and it would have also been very very stressful for him. what’s really important is that he doesn’t start to see himself as a naughty or aggressive kid because it can be very difficult for children to do better when they start to feel like this about themselves. Have you thought about how (from the sound of it) you responded from a very primal instinctive place and were aggressive to him. Sometimes a parent can miss seeing the irony of this because we’re trained to believe that being aggressive is warranted when somebody else is violent, yet he’s so very very young and still learning. The message that he shouldn’t lash out (presumably when he becomes frustrated) is undermined when a parent themselves lashes out, so it would be so good to address what happened and express regret and tell him how you wish you’d responded. This is great modelling, showing him how to repair after a conflict.
The steps in the article will really start to help him respond better, it won’t happen immediately but slowly he’ll get it. I’ve just responded to some parents in the Aggression – why children lash out and what to do article comments, reading my responses to them might be equally helpful to you.
Samm, it would be really interesting to reflect on what you thought and felt in that moment. Often parents become very triggered at times when their child is aggressive and it can evoke strong feelings at a subconscious level from when we were young. How would you have been responded to as a child if you did the same? Were there times when one of your parents were aggressive (physically or verbally) and you felt powerless? Might there be some of those feelings still being carried inside of you. The first track of my stress relief for parents cd guides a parent through the process of exploring their triggers, another track explains the concept of triggers and how they play out, another is a body relaxation allowing parent’s to release some of the built up frustrations and stresses that can lead to overwhelm. And the 4th one is for those moments when a parent has become overwhelmed and needs help regulating themselves back to a calm and patient state again.
Also, if you’re on the village membership, I would recommend going to the audio section and listening to “why we explode and how to prevent it” which has lots of tips for parents on developing practices that bring them back to calm and patience when stress is high. Also “Parenting when overwhelmed” and in the video section, there are a few relevant articles but maybe start with Meeting Aggression with Connection.
Thanks for explaining why it’s best to physically intervene instead of just telling them to stop. My sister’s two-year-old daughter has started biting when she becomes angry. I want to get her a book about how to stop children from biting, but your tips will be really helpful in the meantime!
Eileen, I’m so glad you’ve come across my article, sounds like exactly what your sister needs at the moment. It really is so hard for parents to know what to do. Mostly adults had the modelling of the authoritarian approach and so it can be hard to know how to intervene in a way that’s actually overall caring and supportive to both the child who was bit and the child who did the biting! And yes when a child is in a phase of biting, they ideally really need to be shadowed to avoid it happening. They’re still largely in the oral stage of development and can hold a lot of tension in their jaws, working with the little one to give them other outlets for their frustraton that’s real and tangible for them really helps and definitely recommend getting her a teething ring that she can bite in to. But also power reversal games and any and all games that are feelings games, that allow the little one to get their frustrations out of their body. The power of play article here on my website also has some good ideas.