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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The preschooler who hits- what do you say?

First, let me assure you that the answer to this question is NOT 'we don't hit our friends.'  That response to preschool fisticuffs makes me crazy!

I need you to come on a short mental road trip with me. This is the only way you'll see this one through the child's eyes. Ready? Put down your preconceptions, fasten your seat belt and off we go.

You're driving along the road minding your own business and thinking happily about the day in front of you.  Suddenly a car in the next lane veers towards you, almost causing a crash.

As you veer sideways yourself, the happy mood totally shattered, you direct a rude gesture and several swear words at the other driver.  'Bloody ******* idiot! Get a brain! Learn to drive, you *******!'

At this point your passenger- let's say it's your mother- leans over, pats your arm and says 'Darling, we don't swear at our friends.'


Preschoolers whose first response to a problem is violence encounter similar scenarios to this every single day in their childcare settings.  Something happens that wrecks their mood or causes inner conflict, they respond from the gut on the spur of the moment, and the teacher comes out with rote psychobabble as though it's a solution.

There is something deeply wrong with that response, 'we don't hit our friends'.  It worries me so much, and so often, that I feel a need to challenge it.

Let's go back to our road trip.  You were last seen looking at your well-meaning mum as though she had two heads.  Analyse that look. It was probably loaded with absolute disbelief.  'We don't swear at our friends'?  Say what?  Number one, what a patronising thing to say! Who's 'we', paleface? And number two, that idiot who just nearly put you in hospital was most certainly not your friend.  That person was just another human being who happened to be using the same road as you and veered into your personal space.

End result: instead of calming down and apologising for swearing in your mother's earshot, you're now bristling at her for talking down to you and spouting feel-good rubbish that fails to recognise what just happened to you.

Now let's look at the journey a preschooler takes from relatively peaceful play to whacking a peer, and beyond.  Like you in your car, they might be having a lovely time in their own little 'bubble' of play, when something unexpected happens to mess with their game- let's say a peer knocks over their block tower (intentionally or not- it doesn't matter). This particular child's go-to response is to whack said peer as hard as they can- it just pops out like our swear words.

The carer comes over, comforts the whacked one and says to the hitter, 'We don't hit our friends.'  The child bristles, refuses to look at the carer (or maybe gives her a whack too) and tries to get away from her as fast as possible.  THAT is not a solution.

Angela Oswalt, MSW, on the MentalHelp.Net site, tells us that 'Young children in the Preoperational stage often identify friends at the park or at daycare; however, "friendship" is still a very concrete, basic relationship. At this stage of social development, friendship usually means sharing toys and having fun playing together. Friendship at this age does not have the associated qualities of empathy and support that older children, adolescents, and adults develop. '

And yet carers continue to use the word 'friend' to describe all of a child's young associates in the playground.  How confusing is that? Right there, you've distracted the violent child from the behaviour rule you wanted him or her to remember.

And 'we' don't hit? Who's 'we'? The child might well think, 'Well, I do!'  Having your play suddenly interrupted by another child is hardly a quality 'belonging' experience.  In that moment, no child wants to be part of the group that wrecked his fun. And if fisticuffs are his first resort at home, or what he has modelled to him by parents or siblings, you've just made him feel he really doesn't belong.

Several times when I've seen this happen, I've gone up to the child and quietly said, 'I know. He's not your friend.' And I've found that from the moment I acknowledge that 'he's not your friend', I have the average 4- or 5-year old's full attention. His 'friend' is the person he's playing with, until the moment they have a disagreement. His friend isn't that other kid who knocked his blocks down. That's just another kid travelling on the same road, just like the driver that veered into your path.

So what do we say instead?  How can we put ourselves inside that kid's head instead of alienating him?

I usually start with 'Billy (or whoever), take three deep breaths!' (See my post on anger management for young kids).  When he's doing that, I comfort the other party- let's call him 'Dan'- and reassure him that Billy did the wrong thing by hitting.  This puts Dan onside, as well as being obviously fair- the most injured kid gets the first comforting. (NB: If Billy is really out of control, I might need to get another carer to comfort Dan!)

I then go on to say to Billy, 'I know you're angry that Dan knocked over your tower'- this almost always puts Billy onside, as you've verbalised and acknowledged his 'injury'- 'but hitting him is a bad idea.'  Then I explain why, in simple child-friendly terms. (NB: This only works if you already have built a positive relationship with Billy!)

'It was an accident, he didn't mean it- and now YOU'RE the one who's in trouble. When there's an accident, you need to take three big breaths and calm down.'

Or if it was on purpose- 'Dan was wrong to knock your blocks down, and you need to use your angry words to say that to him.  If you use your hands to talk, YOU get in trouble, not Dan.'

Then you need to deal with the flack. 'Let's go and tell Dan you're angry, okay? But you need to say sorry for hitting first, or he won't listen. First SORRY, then I'M ANGRY.'

I haven't yet met a child who won't pick up on this opportunity to continue to vent his feelings with carer support.  I usually have to remind 'Billy' to say the other child's name first, to make sure he's listening, and wait for eye contact.  Sometimes I help Dan to listen- 'Dan, Billy has something to say to you'. Sometimes I use cue questions- 'Billy, how do you feel?' 'Tell Dan why you feel like that.'

I would then cue Dan as well to use his words to express his feelings about being hit and to say sorry for knocking the blocks down, if he hadn't already done so.

Yes, all this is a lot more time-consuming than rattling off the usual 'we don't hit our friends'.  But in a child's view, it's a lot more meaningful.

I had a very similar situation a few days ago with a little 3-year-old who is a ball of compressed violence- heaven only knows what happens in his home! His preferred method of getting a turn on the trampoline was to king-hit whoever was on it.  I probably spent half an hour standing at that trampoline getting him to use words instead of fists to say what he wanted and making sure that other kids treated him with respect and used their words too.

His response was wonderful- the poor kid simply hasn't been taught any other way of getting what he wants. As soon as he realised that saying 'please (name), can I have a turn' worked AND meant he wasn't in trouble with the teacher, AND as soon as he realised that I intended to protect his rights as well as protecting the other kids from his fists- same rules for everyone!- he lined up and waited like a lamb.

And this is a child who usually punches a teacher who intervenes in fights and says to him 'we don't hit our friends'.

(Postscript: I've just found a really good post about conflict resolution on another blog- this includes a script for those I-want-it-he-wants-it-BIFF! moments. conflict resolution mommy fun fact)


  1. Sometimes it's hard to think in the moment of conflict - the aggressor always seems to get the attention first, while the victim crys off to the side. I have made an effort to ensure that I don't do this; comforting a child should be priority.

  2. Oh yes, Leeanne- I agree- we tend to run around putting out fires and it's easy to lose sight of the victim when another child is completely out of control. Teamwork amongst the staff can be really important so that we get the priorities right- no use comforting 'Dan' while 'Billy' decides to run off and hit someone else, so you really need support.

  3. I'm trying hard to make this post apply to my "almost-4-yr-old brother pushing/hitting/pinching his almost-1-yr-old sister" scenario ... I can tell you that the phrase "People are not for hitting" doesn't work either, as his response today was, "Yes they are! Yes they are! If you tell me again, I'm going to tell you ... to be dead!"

    Certainly tending to the hurtee first, and then calmly speaking to him, seems to work to a point, though. I've had good results from saying, "I understand you do not want your sister to touch your toys, but I notice that hitting her only makes her cry. What else could you do to keep her from touching them?" The issue then becomes keeping her away from him/his toys without upsetting her, because being around him/his toys is all she wants in life. Jeesh.

    Anyhow, yes. The "friend" thing bothers me, too. In all preschool-teacher contexts, not just a reprimand. It feels phony, similar to employees being called "associates."

  4. Have you thought of investing in a playpen, and letting the 4-yr-old put his toys in there to play with so his sister can't get at them? He is probably happy playing in a small private space, whereas the 1-yr-old needs to roam. She could still see him through the bars!

    I would also be acknowledging how frustrating it is for him to have someone messing with his stuff all the time. Brothers and sisters don't automatically love each other, you know... and he obviously has a huge 'rage bank' happening.

    Have you spent regular one-on-one time with him? Growing a positive relationship with him will work much better than discipline. Spending time with him is more important than the chores while baby sleeps- or get a sitter and take him to the park, even for an hour. Try to see his point of view; he didn't ask for a sister, and he certainly didn't ask to share YOU with her, and now she gets to wreck his toys as well?!

    When he hits, hold his hands and do as Janet Lansbury suggests- calmly say 'I won't let you do that. I know you are angry. That's okay. But I won't let you hit.' Then pick up your baby and pay attention to her only for some time, in his presence.

    But do try to provide him some safe space away from the baby- prevention is so much better than cure! If he can have a safe place when he needs one, there's some hope that he'll get to the stage where he starts to take some pleasure in his sister instead of resenting her all the time.

    I do feel for you. Sibling rivalry is so difficult, for you as well as for the children.

  5. Terrific post -- so much to remember and to stay calm myself. I have been having these fits and tantrums with my three year old - very new to me - he's always been very well behaved - but lately its growing out of control and I find it very hard to stay calm and act as the adult. I need to treat the two of us as two kids in a conflict like this (and include the steps that Jill from A Mom with a Lesson Plan guest posted about on my site) -- I would be in terrific shape. Now to only implement them and make them second nature - it I'm sure will take time to get into the swing of things, but I need to make the honest effort.

    Thank you for linking to Jill's post - it really is incredible.

  6. Thanks for popping in, Jamie! and glad you enjoyed the post. Staying calm IS hard. It's all very well when we're sitting here at the computer thinking about it, but when you've had the kids pressing your buttons all day it can be extremely difficult to be the 'CEO' of your family 'company'. Keep trying- that's all we can do really!

  7. Thank you! I will be a better teacher in the morning.

  8. Some great insight! Our 3 yr old daughter has always been pretty well-behaved until she started preschool two months ago. She's been acting out and today at pick-up I was informed that she hit another kid on the playground. Timeouts have always worked well for us, but lately she has been acting up in public where a timeout isn't possible. For example, we were grocery shopping yesterday and she was mad at me for not letting her place an item (glass bottle) in the shopping cart. She's tiny for 3 and still rides in the shopping cart facing me. She immediately lashed out, swatting at me and kicking me in the abdomen as hard as she could from the cart in the middle of the store. Any advice on how to handle this? I want to curb this type of behavior ASAP!

    1. The first thing I'd do here is to choose a quiet moment and start acknowledging her feelings about the change in her life- that move to preschool. Talk to her about how hard it must be for her to be in a new place without you, with new people and so many other children. Tell her why she needs to go there. She will understand more than you would believe. Be sympathetic. Give lots of cuddles and love.

      The second thing I'd do would be to get some of her dolls and teddies and act out some situations where one doll hits another. Make up some dialogue- you know the sort of thing- "OUCH! That hurt me!" "Well I'm ANGRY!" "But it hurts when you hit people. Why don't you hit this pillow instead?" "Okay!" "Why are you angry?" "I don't want to go to preschool!" ... and so on. Sometimes, let her speak for the doll or teddy, or ask her how teddy feels... confront this situation head on, at the root cause, and your daughter will feel that you've heard her.

      Lastly, if she hits and kicks you from a shopping cart CALMLY take her straight out of the cart so she can't kick, hold her wrists firmly and say "I won't let you hit me and kick me." Physically prevent her from doing this and hold her until she calms down, saying "I am going to keep you safe until you feel better. I hear that you're angry. It's not okay to hurt people when you're angry. You can stamp your feet if you like."

      If she melts down and has a tantrum in a public place, scoop her up, put her in the car and take her home. You need to show that you are the one who is in control, but CALMLY. Try not to get angry! This phase is upsetting, not to mention terribly inconvenient if you have a busy life, but it WILL pass! Avoid taking her out when she's tired, hungry or upset. Shop for a small amount at a time for a few months- it means more trips but the trips will be shorter. Give her choices about what goes in the cart as far as possible, and offer her little helping tasks (like putting some potatoes in the plastic bag), so she doesn't just have to endure the trip without any agency. Make it a joint venture instead of your project which she's caught up in.

      I hope these ideas will help!

    2. Thank you! We've had lots of talks about pre-school and the changes it brings, but I never thought of having her act out scenarios with her stuffed animals to get to the root of what happened at school or to make her see that hitting, etc. is wrong. I will certainly try this approach with her.

  9. This is great :) I have been working in childcare for only about 10 months and the whole time I have been working all I hear from a teacher to a child that hits is "we don't hit our friends". It drives me crazy as well when I hear this but I was not taught any other way to deal with children who hit. So thanks for the advice and I will be putting it into practice!

  10. My three year old seems to be hitting at random. He is in a soccer class with 3 -5 year olds and yesterday was randomly hitting the older children. (I wasn't there as it's an unparented class). I think he may be frustrated because he is smaller and less skilled than the bigger kids. In any event, an hour after the class, while my husband was picking up our 1 year old from daycare (and he literally looked away for one minute), my son punched another little girl in the face. They were not playing together or anything. I think he is trying to get our attention. He is borderline speech delayed (which I have read can aggrevate the situation) but talks all the time so he could use his words.

    I need some guidance. He is generally a very good natured, affectionate little boy. But he does love to wrestle.


    1. My first instinct is that this is not an appropriate class for him, and he's telling you that. Is it really necessary for him to go to soccer class with 5-yr-olds? Is there a class for younger kids, or can you wait a few years? If he's already struggling with other big challenges in his speech, he certainly doesn't need to feel inadequate in the physical domain as well. At 3 and with a speech delay on top, he has no way of saying to you clearly 'I feel miserable and angry about that class' and so he is expressing his feelings inappropriately. The frustration must be huge.

      Instead of soccer, I'd be taking him to an adventure playground outdoors where he can challenge himself instead of being required to follow instructions about physical skills. He needs to find his own competency levels and gradually work on them. The love of wrestling tells me he's craving physical activity- the hitting tells me that soccer class at 3 is not the answer.

      I hope that helps! :)

    2. (Note that expressing feelings that seem to contravene what mum and dad want, ie soccer, is a very sophisticated skill, no matter how much he talks!)

  11. This is really an interesting topic. I had a great time surfing and found some important tips and information from your blog. Keep it up.

  12. This is a great thread, I am struggling with similar issues with my daughter and found this post to be one of the most helpful. I wish I could send a link to her preschool teachers!

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