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My Child Kicks Me – What Can I Do?
As parents, few situations are more difficult to deal with than having a child who is aggressive. It can be embarrassing as well as frightening when your child bites, hits, scratches or kicks to get their way. It’s not uncommon for younger children to engage in this type of behaviour at various points in their development and in a variety of settings. However, when it becomes very frequent or seems to be their consistent way of reacting to something they don’t like, it’s time to step in and help them change their behaviour.
The first step is understanding the underlying reasons why your child is choosing to act this way. The more you understand what’s happening, the better you’ll be able to help them find other, non-aggressive ways to solve their problems.
We teach them how to use a knife and fork, go to the toilet and brush their teeth so just see it as another thing to teach them – how to control their temper.
I think it helps you to remember that anger comes FEAR.
Initially, between the ages of 18 months to 2 years, children find it difficult to communicate their needs to their parents, caregivers, and other children. Negative behaviours are one way they may choose to get their point across. For older children between the ages of three and six, such behaviours may be the result of never having learned the appropriate, non-aggressive ways of communicating when they were faced with a difficult, challenging or frustrating situation.
There are many reasons for aggressive behaviour and they may be due to any or all of the following:
- Inadequate language development and vocabulary
- Being placed in a stressful situation
- Lack of routine
- Extreme frustration or anger
- Lack of adult supervision
- Copying the aggressive behaviour of other children around them
One place to begin to untangle the underlying messages behind their behaviour is to watch your child for cues to see if any of the situations described above bring about their aggressive behaviour.
Become a detective, open minded and curious, as to why your child may be reacting in this way.
Learn as much as you can about the factors that trigger their bad behaviour so you can pre-empt, prevent, anticipate or alleviate their triggers.
Are they jealous of their brother, hungry, tired, stressed, overwhelmed with their own strong emotions, frustrated, or attention seeking …. because if you can work out what’s underneath their behaviour you can help them manage their emotions in a better way.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Who does my child hit, bite or kick? Do they do it to one person in particular? Do they only do it to me? Or do they tend to be aggressive with whomever they are with? If it’s one person in particular, try to find out if there’s a reason why they’re attacking that person. If it’s another child is it because they get over excited and forget the rules around boundaries?
- Also, what seems to cause your child to act out in an aggressive fashion? Is it triggered by frustration, anger, or excitement? Notice if there are patterns. Do they act this way when toys are involved, and they are frustrated about sharing? Or do they become aggressive when there is too much going on and they are over-stimulated? If you observe the situations carefully, you will likely notice patterns.
- How is their aggressiveness expressed? Is it through angry words or through angry behaviours? Do they become verbally aggressive first and then physically aggressive, or is their first response to strike out and hit or kick?
Download my free Behaviour Diary here to look for patterns in your child’s behaviour.
What Should I Do When My Child Hits Me?
Getting hit, kicked or bitten by your child can be frustrating, embarrassing, disappointing and humiliating. Many parents worry that they’re failing as parents if their child is reacting aggressively toward them. Sometimes, that prevents them from asking for help.
But lots of children lash out at one time or another, but what is crucial, is the way you respond when your child hits you, as this determines how likely it is that your child will hit again.
If your child hits you, you might be tempted to smack them but smacking your child will only send the message that hitting is OK.
Respond to hitting in a firm, yet calm, manner to reduce the likelihood that your child will continue to behave aggressively.
Lower Your Voice—Don’t Raise It
As parents, we need to show self-control and use gentle but firm words if we want our kids to do the same. It’s easy to respond with shouting or anger, but remember, your child is learning how to behave from you and is also looking to you for cues on how to control their impulses and they are struggling to learn what is appropriate behaviour. While it can be terribly embarrassing to have a child that continues to act up towards you in public or infront of their friends, keep in mind that their negative behaviour is most likely happening because they are still exploring and trying to navigate and understand their way through what is socially acceptable.
This can be very difficult for some children , so try not to over-react or personalise it, which is easier said than done.
One technique that works very well for some children is to change the tone and volume of your voice. Take deep breaths and deliberately slow everything down and get grounded, centred and relaxed yourself first. You can help your child stay calm by immediately lowering your voice when attending to the victim of the outburst as well as to your child. If your child is unable to calm down, before helping the victim, turn to them and say quietly, “I need you to calm down now. I am going to help Sam and when I am finished I want you to stop shouting.” For some children this will work, and when your child has calmed down quietly praise them by saying, “Thank you for calming yourself down. We don’t bite/kick/hit or punch. It hurt Sam and he is sad.” Repeat the phrase “We don’t bite/kick/punch” and inform your child that if it happens again, the consequence is that you will leave.
If this doesn’t work for your child and they simply can’t calm down, leave them where they are ( at an age-appropriate distance) and ignore the tantrum or outburst. Imagine you are the anchor at the bottom of the sea while imagining your child is the little boat bobbing about out of control on the surface. They need you to be the grounded, centred and in control. Most young children will not continue to play up if they no longer have an audience.
Reasons Kids Hit, Kick, Punch or Bite.
There are several common reasons why kids hit parents. Sometimes it is out of anger. Children who don’t know how to regulate their emotions, or how to handle their anger appropriately often resort to hitting.
Other children hit because they lack self control. They automatically resort to hitting when they’re upset. Even if they have some skills to deal with uncomfortable feelings, they react before they have a chance to use any of those skills.
Teach them to press an imaginary ‘Pause’ Button – let them practice pausing your real remote control zapper and make it a game of pretending to pause it in real life when they feel the bubbles of anger rising. It’s teaching them self awareness and self control at the same time.
Hitting can also be used as a manipulation tool. Sometimes kids hit in an attempt to get their way. A child who hits his mother when she says no, may be hoping his aggression will change her mind.
Give opportunities for your child to learn to make better choices about what to do with their anger or frustration. Help them display power constructively so that they learn to feel competent, in control and capable.
Name the emotion as a child who feels heard, feels understood & ask them a better question – ‘I can see that your feeling very cross /angry about what’s happened but what can you choose to do now?’
Establish Rules About Hitting
Instead of focusing solely on the negative ‘Dont’s’ create household rules that address respect.
Make it clear that hitting, kicking, biting, or acts of physical aggression are not allowed in your home.
Frame your rules in a positive way whenever possible. Instead of saying, “Don’t hit,” say, “Use your hands, or legs kindly.” Talk and teach your child about the rules to ensure that they understand the consequences for breaking them.
Children are either motivated towards something like an extra story, a sticker, or 10 more minutes watching their favourite TV programme, or away from something – taking away their technology time, or not playing with their Lego etc.
In my experience, consequences are imperative to ending aggressive behaviour in young children. They teach your child that all behaviours have a consequence, whether good or bad, and will help them make better choices in the future when they are with friends, siblings or at school or nursery.
Once you’ve narrowed down the reasons why your child is behaving aggressively, it’s time to intervene.
Step in and Stop it Immediately
At the first sign that your child is about to become aggressive, immediately step in and remove him from the situation. Be careful not to give too much attention to your child so that you don’t give any negative reinforcement for the bad behaviour. Too much attention can include trying to “talk through” the problem. Young children are not able to hear long explanations of why their behaviour was offensive or unacceptable. A simple yet firm statement such as, “We don’t kick” should suffice. Other examples of too much attention include shouting at your child, forcing your child to apologise immediately or continuing to talk to the other parents around you about how embarrassed or angry you are.
Make a point of consoling the victim and ignoring the aggressor. If your child can’t calm down, remove him or her from the situation without getting angry yourself. When they are calm and ready to talk, you can discuss what happened. If it’s physically impossible to remove your child, you will have to remove yourself and the victim from the situation. By walking an age-appropriate distance away from your child after they have acted up, you are sending the message that you will attend to them when they calm down. In doing so, you are teaching your child that it is their responsibility to learn to calm themselves down and to act appropriately.
Practice Ways to De-fuse your Child’s Anger
For younger children, help them recognise their anger by stating, “I know you’re angry, but we don’t hit. No hitting!”
For children aged 3-7, talk about anger as an important feeling. You can practice ways to de-fuse your child’s anger during calmer moments. You can say, “Sometimes I get angry too. When that happens, I say ‘I’m angry’ and I leave the room.” You can also teach your child how to count to ten, jump up and down to let the anger out or how to do deep breathing in order to calm down, or how to use his words by making statements such as “I am really, really angry right now!”
All of these methods help take the immediate focus off of your child’s anger and teaches them to recognise this important emotion.
Acknowledge that it’s OK to feel angry but it’s what he CHOOSES to do with his anger that’s important.
Before you enter into a potentially difficult social situation, go over the consequences with your child about what will happen if he can’t control his anger. Tell your child, “I feel you can handle your anger, but if you can’t, we will have to leave the park and not come back until next week. Do you understand?” Make certain that you follow through with whatever consequences you have set up with your child.
Teach Your Child that Aggression is Wrong
It’s also important to talk to your children about aggression during a calm moment.
I have a poster in my office that says ‘Strike when the iron is cold’ to help parents remember to ‘Talk & Teach’ children during a calm and relaxed time. In a steady voice, explain to your child that hitting, biting, kicking, and other aggressive behaviours are wrong. For younger children, those between 18 months and 2 years, keep it simple. Hold them and explain, “No hitting. It’s wrong.” Remember that you may have to repeat this rule numerous times, using the same words, until your child gets it. Be firm and consistent each time your child becomes aggressive. Have a plan in place for consequences if aggressive behaviour starts. At home, this can include a time-out place away from the rest of the family where your child can stay until he can calm down. If you are away from home, pick a safe place, such as a time-out in a car seat or another place where your child is removed from the fun. This reinforces that you are not tolerating aggression in any form.
Young children don’t understand the concept of time so use an egg timer to give your child an idea of how long they have to wait there before rushing back.
For older children, between 3 and 7, remember that they may be experimenting with cause and effect. In other words, they want to see what you will do when they act out. It’s your job to provide the consequences for the “effect” to work. Since older children are more verbal, you can use a variety of phrases when they misbehave. Examples include, “Biting is not OK,” or “Hitting hurts others. You need to stop.” It is okay to tell your little biter/hitter/kicker that once he misbehaves, he’s lost a privilege for the day. Consequences can include leaving a play date immediately or losing technology time.
‘KISS’ it – Keep It Short & Simple – keep your words short and to the point. No long rambling explanations or appealing to their reason. They’re not mature enough.
Talk and Teach Your Child to “Use Words”
Many times, children who display aggressive behaviours simply lack the communication skills necessary to help them through a stressful situation.
For a young child, biting or hitting someone is a whole lot easier! Plus, aggressive behaviours often give children a false sense of power over their peers or you. It’s up to you to work thoroughly with your child so that they can practice the art of negotiation in a challenging situation. Help your child find their voice when they feel like lashing out. By explaining and then practicing using their words, you are helping them to trade off aggressive behaviour in favour of more socially acceptable behaviour.
Some examples are:
- Teach your child to say “No!” to their peers instead of acting aggressively. Too often a child reacts negatively to a friend or sibling instead of asserting themselves. By using the simple word “no,” you are helping your child to get his point across verbally, not aggressively.
- Give your child a series of phrases to use with their friends or brothers or sisters when they are feeling angry or frustrated. Some examples are, “No, that’s mine,” “I don’t like that!” or “Stop! That hurts.” This helps your child substitute words instead of lashing out.
Before you enter a situation that you know may cause your child to act aggressively (e.g. a play date or childcare) remind your child to “Use your words.” Repeat this to your child throughout the course of the week when you feel they are getting frustrated.
Get your child to draw pictures and to make a poster to illustrate “Use your words” and pop it up in the kitchen or play room to visually remind them.
Recognise Your Child’s Limitations
This means knowing when to leave a potentially volatile situation or choosing to engage your child in a different activity to avoid aggressive confrontations. If you know that your child targets a particular child at your toddler group, you may have to stop going for a week or two until he learns to control himself. Or, if certain videos, games, or activities frustrate, wind your child up or overstimulate them, remove them from your daily routine to see if this has a placating effect on your child’s behaviour.
Finally, if your child is exhausted, hungry, or over-stimulated, respect that and engage in low-key, slow-paced activities that will make aggression less likely. With your older, more verbal child, talk openly about situations that make him angry and work together to come up with solutions to help him through the problem next time.
Be Appreciative of their Efforts
You can get very used to expecting your child to play up and that actually tenses you, and them, up which makes the situation worse. So deliberately relax, get grounded and centred.
Also, start to notice when your child gets it right, plays nicely, controls their temper or self regulates.
Catch your child being good, & be sure to praise their hard work and efforts. For instance, if you observe your child in a power struggle over a toy with their brother that ends in them working it out peacefully, tell them how proud you are that they chose to use their words instead of resorting to aggression to get their way. Look for and continue to praise good behaviour as a way to motivate your children to do better next time.
Teach them ways to handle their anger and frustration healthily and praise them when they do. Let them overhear you talking to your partner, or their Grandma, about how proud you are of their new ways of handling their anger.
What Not to Do
- Never bite or hit back. It can be tempting to want to teach your child a lesson in how it feels to be the victim of aggression, but when you succumb to a childlike form of communication, you are teaching your child that aggression is the answer to resolving a conflict. Even though it’s difficult, try your best to maintain your composure. Walk your talk!
- Don’t expose your child to violent television or video games. Too often TV and videos portray the most violent character as the hero, which sends the message that violence is a means to an end for problem-solving. This message can easily be avoided if you are on top of and in control of their viewing habits. Remember you are there to be their parent, NOT their friend. While TV or video violence may not affect some kids, it may greatly influence others who have a tendency to act aggressively with their friends. By knowing your child’s temperament and what they can tolerate, you are helping them on their way towards good behaviour. Don’t let the media raise your child. Teach them your values.
- Try not to personalise your child’s bad behaviour. All too often parents get frustrated and angry at their child when they are aggressive, because many times they feel that their child’s poor behaviour is a reflection of their parenting skills. If you have an aggressive child, switch your focus towards helping them express themselves in a more appropriate way and follow through when an incident occurs.
When Aggression is Getting Serious
While aggression can be normal in many children, you need to be aware of when your child’s behaviour has gone beyond the scope of what is considered within the normal boundaries for their developmental age and level.
Look for the following signs in your child:
- A pattern of defiant, disobedient, or hostile behaviour towards you or other authority figures such as teachers or day care providers. A pattern means behaviour that is not fleeting, but is chronic and does not respond to the above interventions.
- Loses their temper easily
- Constantly argues with adults
- Deliberately engages in activities that knowingly annoy others
- Blames others
- Acts annoyed or is chronically touchy
- Exhibits ongoing anger
- Acts spiteful or vindictive
It is important to recognise that all young children may exhibit any or all of the above problems at some point during their development. However, if your child persistently displays these behaviours and it affects their daily functioning, such as their ability to behave at school or maintain friendships, contact your doctor, as it may indicate that they have other psychological problems that need attention. In this case, you will need to have your child evaluated by a mental health professional.
Parenting an aggressive child can be one of the greatest challenges you will face as you navigate your way through the choppy waters of their development. Even though it may seem like an uphill mountain to climb at times, it’s not impossible to teach your child new and appropriate ways to interact with other children and the adults around them.
The key is developing a clear, uncomplicated, consistent plan and following it through in a composed, calm, relaxed manner.
Make sure you and your partner are singing from the same song sheet too. No mixed messages as it will confuse your child even further.
Remember: the best example of appropriate behaviour is you, and your young child is watching, listening, observing and noticing everything you do and say.
Take the long term view – it may be hard work now but long term your family life will be so much easier and enjoyable.
Make sure you get ‘Me Time’ regularly, particularly if you have more than one child or twins, as you need to take time out to rest, recuperate, recharge and relax.
Raising children is hard work, challenging and exhausting as well as a privilege and a joy. Look after yourself first so that you’re not running on empty.