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My 2-year-old hits me. How can I respond better?

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Q: I have an almost-3-year-old who sometimes, when very mad or frustrated, will hit me. I've tried timeouts, walking away, talking to him and scolding him, but he returns to the hitting when he doesn't get his way. I'm the primary one it happens with. On occasion, it will happen with his grandparents, whom we're living with, or he will push, but it doesn't happen anywhere else. How can I help us both improve our responses? What do you suggest I do when he hits me? He understands that it's wrong (I think, anyway) and will eventually apologize, but that's usually after an epic tantrum and me walking away to get myself together.

A: If I had a penny for every question I’ve received about 2-year-olds who hit their parents, I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but let’s say this: I could take myself on a very nice vacation.

There are a couple of points that jump out at me here, the first being your reactions to the hitting. You mention the common techniques of timeouts, walking away and scolding him, and trust me, I get it. I rarely meet a parent (myself included) who doesn’t cycle through these strategies before finding them unsatisfactory. Why don’t they work? When a young child hits, that means there has been an explosion of frustration energy. The child cannot handle his big emotions, and because he is immature, the energy comes out of his body physically. So, if we grab the child and send him to a step or a seat and expect him to sit still and “learn,” we are adding to his frustration. He is too young to sit and is definitely too young to learn, so this technique won’t work. Scolding him, similar to the timeout, will bring out shame in your young child and result in more frustration and, hence, violence. Walking away and talking to him are better options, but how you do these things — the tone you set — is important.

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This brings me to the next point I noticed in your letter. Everything you have tried falls into the category of “reaction, reaction, reaction.” Don’t get me wrong, living with preschoolers mandates that we react to them, and often. But there is so much we can do other than react to your son’s big emotions and hitting.

To begin, make a list of what is setting your son off. Clarifying the patterns will guide you in where to step in before the tantrums and hitting begin. For instance, maybe your son doesn’t recognize his own hunger cues. Or maybe you notice that when you give too many commands, demands and choices, he becomes overwhelmed, leading to a buildup of frustration. In either case, you can feed your son before he becomes overwhelmed or you can slow down your commands, so he becomes less frustrated. Prevention, rather than reaction, is a more peaceful way to parent, and most importantly, our parental role isn’t simply to stop violence. We want to have a deeper understanding of the “why” behind the behaviors, so we can compassionately support our children. As the saying goes: Your son isn’t giving you a hard time, he’s having a hard time.

If he is whaling on you, you are absolutely allowed to walk away. It is a far better option than scolding or timeouts. Yes, he will cry and follow you, but you are not necessarily making the situation worse, which is good. If you can catch his frustration before it brings violence, you can drop to his level and say what you see: “Henry, I see you are really frustrated! Did the Legos fall again? That is so hard!” By using descriptive language, you may be able to connect with him before he becomes more frustrated. This connection could help him feel seen and heard, as well as compassionately supported, thus preventing the hitting.

Try not to ask too many questions or use too much logic, because these techniques will add to his annoyance and — boom — violence.

If you have worked on these parenting techniques and have received support for yourself, but you still see an uptick in his aggression, please speak to your pediatrician to rule out food sensitivities, allergies, etc. Also, pick up the book by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, “No-Drama Discipline” or my book, “Parenting Outside the Lines,” for help in understanding your young man. Good luck.

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