Hitting, Kicking, Biting, and Hair Pulling

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republished from April 11, 2013


An interview with Elizabeth Pantley

The other day, my boy was in a stand-off with another little boy. Man, 3.5 year olds can be fierce. The one steely-eyed shrimp walloped my son on the arm, and when I explained it wasn’t okay to hit, he chose to spit instead! Alright, so what now? Time-outs? Separate the kids? Spit back? 😉 I turned to Elizabeth Pantley, (did you read her book on the No Cry Sleep Solution?) mother of four and parent educator, on how to handle those wordless forms of aggression. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

Why are certain kids more prone to hitting, kicking, biting, and/or hair pulling?
Many young children resort to a physical act to express anger or frustration. They don’t always have the words to describe their emotions and don’t quite know how to control their feelings. When they get frustrated or angry and can’t cope with the situation they might react with a bite, hit, kick or scratch.

If you anticipate your child is about to act-out, should parents remove the child from the other child before any actions take place?
As you watch your child’s actions, you may be able to prevent an aggressive act before it occurs. Most children show warning signs beforehand; they yell, cry, grab or push. If you see that your child is getting frustrated or angry – perhaps in the middle of a scrimmage over a toy – step in. Separate the children, help the emotional child to calm down and deal with her feelings properly. Then coach her on how to properly deal with the situation.

Which child is that?
I was talking about the child who hit – but you point out something important. You should actually talk with BOTH children and help them each learn from the situation. The child who was angry and aggressive can be taught how to recognize feelings of anger and how to control these and use words or space (move away) instead of aggressive acts.
It is, of course, always important to talk with the other child – first to be sure he or she is not hurt. Then to discuss briefly what happened. How you can sometimes talk to an angry person to make them stop being mad. Or how you can go to an adult for help if you feel someone is acting out in a bad way.

Could you give some examples of exact language parents should use when guiding their child away from their impulse to act-out?
If you happen to see the incident, step in quickly. Look your daughter in the eye and tell her in a few short sentences what you want her to know, such as, “Biting hurts. We don’t bite people. Give Jake a hug and say I’m sorry. That will make him feel better.” Then, give your child a few hints on how she should handle her frustration next time: “If you want a toy back, you can ask for it nicely, or come to Mommy or Miss Danielle for help.”

What if the aggressor is too upset to say “I’m sorry?”

If a child is angry and emotional or upset and crying it may be helpful to give him a few minutes to calm down before addressing the situation. Ask him to sit down for a few minutes away from the play area. This is similar to a Time Out – except that the purpose is not punishment, but to allow the child to gain control of his emotions before coming back to the play area to make amends and start anew.

How much attention should we give the “aggressor” compared to the “aggressed?”
Typically parents put all their energy into correcting the biter’s actions and don’t give the child who was bitten enough consolation. Soothing the child who was bitten can show “the biter” that her actions caused another child fear or pain. You can even encourage “the biter” to help comfort her friend.

Is there any credibility to the “biter” seeking negative attention?

Sometimes a child may be seeking attention, though I believe most often it’s about a child who is unable to handle his own extreme emotions, or unable to be patient to wait for a turn, or angry because he wants something and doesn’t know how to get it. Young kids can sometimes be “emotion in motion” – they aren’t acting with forethought, but reacting in order to release emotions or get what they want without thought to other people.

Could you please list alternative ways we can help our child channel their frustration — especially if words are too tough for him/her to use?
Keep the lines of communication open. Encourage him to come to you for help when he has a problem or a question. Be thoughtful with responses – don’t shut him down if you don’t have an easy answer, or if his question/s surprise you. Let him share his feelings and then gently guide him through the thought process and on to the best answers.

Could you also expand on what you mean by “if you don’t have an easy answer or if the questions surprise you?”

Once you open up the lines of communication a child may release pent-up feelings without a filter. He may tell you he “hates” his friend, or that he’s not sorry he hit her. This is where your mature ability to understand and reason through a situation is most helpful. It may take more than one discussion to sort through these angry feelings, but it’s an important life lesson. You might start by telling him that everyone gets mad, and sometimes it’s hard when we don’t get our way. Point out that it’s not really the other person we hate, but what is happening. Parents need to separate the situation the child is mad about from the person he cares about.

Do you feel “punishment” is a successful mode of changing the behavior of the child that aggresses?
Many parents respond emotionally when their child uses his teeth or fist on another human being; their immediate response is anger, followed by punishment. This is because we view the act from an adult perspective. However, if we can understand that a young child’s hit or bite is most likely a responsive reflex, we can avoid responding in the following typical, yet unnecessary and ineffective ways:

  • Don’t hit a child who is being taught not to hit, and don’t bite your child back to “show her how it feels.”
  • Don’t resort to yelling or punishing, as the important lesson you are trying to teach will be lost. She isn’t purposefully hurting her playmate. By responding with the same action you may be confusing her, or even reinforcing that this is an acceptable behavior. You are frustrated or angry with her – show her how you want her to deal with those emotions when she has them.

Any kind of behavior or words parents should avoid doing/using in order to change their child’s behavior?

You can give your child some words to use if he cannot come up with something herself. You can even have her parrot you. “I think you should say ‘Evan, I’m sorry I hit you. Next time let’s take turns, okay?”
When you understand that your child’s actions are normal, and aren’t intentional aggression, you’ll be able to take the right steps to teach her how to communicate her feelings of frustration. This takes time, consistency, and she’ll need more than one lesson.

Elizabeth Pantley, parenting educator, is president of Better Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company. Author of the bestselling No Cry Sleep Solution series of books, her roster includes, The No Cry Discipline Solution. She is a regular radio show guest and frequently quoted as a parenting expert in newspapers and magazines such as Parents, Parenting, American Baby, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook and on hundreds of parent-directed Web sites. Authoring twelve popular parenting books, available in 28 languages, she was also a contributing author to The Successful Child with Dr. William and Martha Sears.

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Discipline