Q: When my 6-year-old does something inappropriate and I call him out on it, he will sometimes hit himself. I wouldn’t necessarily say that he’s hurting himself, but he says he does it because he feels bad about his actions. It happened when he threw something at — and hit — his baby brother. We admonished him (we never hit), and then he started punching his leg. I asked him why, and he said he felt bad about what he had done. I told him that it’s okay to regret his actions but that he doesn’t need to punish himself. I told him, “Just don’t hit your brother in the future.” It’s hard to say whether he’s playing me or genuinely feels bad about the situation. Either way, I don’t want my son hurting (or pretending to hurt) himself. Do you think this is a red flag? Do you have any suggestions on how to redirect his negative behavior?
A: Many parents have children who hit themselves. You are not alone. Let’s unpack what self-aggression means and why children do it, and then we can find a way to help your son.
Aggression, in its many forms, comes from frustration. And where does frustration come from? It occurs when something doesn’t work. For instance, you might become frustrated if you are trying to read but a bird keeps tapping on a window. You will do one of two things: Either change what frustrates you (shoo away the bird) or adapt by feeling sad about your inability to change it (get used to the tapping if the bird won’t go away).
Most children explode with frustration before they adapt. They hit, they yell, they scream, they throw fits. Their brains are immature, and it would require a highly regulated prefrontal cortex to say: “I am so frustrated right now! This stinks! Hmm, what are my other options? Nothing. This makes me sad.” Think about it: Do you know many adults who can be this mature? I don’t. I see adults exploding with frustration all the time. Whether it’s a verbal tirade, horn honking or violence, adults struggle with controlling their frustration. It stands to reason that many children will, too.
What is frustrating your son? Well, we know that there is a baby brother in the house, and that creates a world of frustration for a child. I don’t know whether your 6-year-old has been an only child during the five years before the baby was born, but we all know how much time a new baby requires. And remember, children need to feel connected to their parents or primary caregiver. The baby is taking up a lot of attention (a source of frustration for your son), the baby is not able to play like a 6-year-old (a second source of frustration), and now every time the 6-year-old hits the baby, he gets Mom’s attention (which he wants), but it is bad attention (more frustration), and we end with the final source of frustration that leads to hitting himself: shame.
Everyone runs in fear of the word “shame,” but in this case, it is a sign of maturity. Your son feels remorse for hitting his brother and disappointing you, so rather than exploding in outward frustration, it is directed inward, at himself. One side of his brain is filled with frustration that needs to come out, but the other side doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
We don’t want your child to resort to self-harm or violence when he feels shame; we want him to express it verbally. So how can you help him?
1. First, create conditions where he is less frustrated. Of course there will always be frustrating incidents for a 6-year-old; we are not trying to create a perfect and problem-free environment. Instead, look for patterns and find where you can reduce the frustration. For instance, is he left alone with his brother too often?
2. When you tell him “Just don’t hit your brother in the future,” that’s not a reasonable request, and it invites more failure and shame. Siblings hit each other; they just do. So my advice? Stop saying that.
3. Have your son make amends when there is an injury. As soon as Joe hits Tristan, say: “Tristan is hurt. Let’s get an ice pack for his arm.” Take your 6-year-old by the hand and have him help you fetch the ice. I know you’ll be dealing with a screaming baby and a worried 6-year-old, but these moments are worth it. It helps your older son see that he can “make it better” and that “Mom isn’t mad.”
4. Spend some quality time with your older son, stat. This doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, but increase eye contact, smile and relax. Another strategy I love is telling and retelling baby stories. Watch your son’s eyes light up as you talk about him as a baby. If it helps, get out the photos, point to all the special memories and tell him how he was the first baby in the house. As you fill his connection cup, your son will feel safer. As he feels safer, he will feel more relaxed. As he feels more relaxed, he will not feel the impulse to hurt himself as result of shame.
5. No matter how bad the day has been, when you tuck in your 6-year-old, remind him that you know he loves his brother, that you know he doesn’t want to hurt anyone and that you believe in him. As parents, it is our job to believe in our children when they cannot believe in themselves. It is not our job to pile on shame or shove the child’s face into a mistake. As you keep working to help your eldest during the day, you will reassure him at night. This may sound contradictory to the “teaching a lesson” mantras parents hear all the time, but our hearts know that this is right.
6. Finally, any added discipline or punishment will increase his self-aggression, so stay away from timeouts and sending him away from you. You will feel tempted to do that (you are human), but do your best to stay near him during the tough times.