Marguerite Kelly
Family Almanac

Marguerite Kelly: What’s a mother to do with a young son who hits her?

Illustration by Hadley Hooper for the Washington Post

Hadley Hooper for the Washington Post - What’s a mother to do with a young son who hits her?

Q: Our 3½-year-old son — an only child — is a fairly well-adjusted, loving little boy who eats a balanced diet, gets lots of playtime outside, is reaching his mental and physical milestones on time and is also very bright.

But although he never hits or kicks his father or his grandparents, he has hit me and kicked me a lot in the last few months. I have given him timeouts when he acts this way — which haven’t worked — and a couple of spankings, but then I realized how silly it was to say, “We don’t hit in our family” at the same time that I swatted his bottom.

Contrails from jet planes passing overhead intersect the National Museum of Art in Washington, Thursday morning, April 17, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Photos of the day

Scenes from Holy Week events, South Korean ferry search efforts, macaw conservation and more.

When I’ve talked to him about his hitting and his kicking, he told me that he was angry and that he didn’t know why. Perhaps he was acting out because he was anxious about preschool, which he recently started, or because I was going through chemo all summer and he knew that I was ill. At the time, however, I thought he was handling the situation pretty well.

My husband and I want to get our son into judo when he is old enough, but how can we channel his energy in a more positive manner right now? Or is this hitting and kicking just a phase that we will have to work through?

A: Like it or not, you and your child will have to work through this phase, but it will be easier if you can figure out why he’s acting this way.

First of all, you need to know that your son’s behavior follows a fairly predictable path in the early years and that it generally coincides with his age.

Most young children are amazingly good for four to five months each year — usually around the time of their birthdays — but then their behavior gets bad or even abysmal and they feel quite fragile and sometimes amazingly grumpy. This behavior lasts for another few months and then they begin to put themselves together again in a better, stronger way: a pattern of equilibrium and disequilibrium discovered by the venerable Gesell Institute, which has been studying children for almost 100 years.

Your son may also hit you and kick you because he feels safer with you than with anyone else or because he wants you to notice him a little more. Whatever the cause, you have to stop the behavior. And fortunately, you can, as long as you’re willing to ignore your child when he’s naughty and give him plenty of attention when he’s nice. This treatment nearly always works because children want attention above all else and they will do whatever it takes to get it.

Your son probably doesn’t like to discuss the hitting, the kicking and especially the anger, however, because talking is a pretty new skill for a 3-year-old. If you find it hard to express a complicated idea or even figure out what you’re trying to say, imagine how hard it is for him. He may be more forthcoming, however, if you do your talking in the dark. A child hates to look at someone he loves if the conversation is going to be embarrassing or make him feel uncomfortable.

Even if your son wants to talk about his anger, he may not realize how much your illness is affecting him now and in the past. You probably didn’t have as much energy as you did before you went on chemo, and he may be afraid that this could happen again. This is not because he’s worried about you but because he’s worried about himself. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that, however; it’s just the way your son looks at life.

Children are remarkably self-focused, especially if they’re younger than 7 or they’re going through puberty. These are the ages when they are absolutely, positively sure that the world revolves around them, and they get quite cross when it doesn’t. One 14-year-old I knew was so outraged by her mother’s illness that she had to stamp her foot and shout, “Do you know how much this cancer of yours is stressing me out?”

8 Send questions about parenting

Also at Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.

Read what others are saying