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For any parent or teacher, a child hitting or lashing out can be a difficult thing to manage. This is especially true because, as humans, we’re designed to respond to violence in kind.

So restraining yourself from responding when you’re hurt can be twice as difficult. For some parents or teacher, being hit can even be a trigger; making it even more challenging to respond correctly to violent behavior from a child or student.

For children who show aggression, the cause of violence or hitting is often a result of frustration, anger, or even pushing back on limits that have been placed on them.

Especially with very small, pre-kindergarten children, these reactions are common – but there’s a big difference between a two-year-old lashing out or an older, school-age child reacting in the same manner.

According to The Parenting Junkie, it’s especially common for children between the ages of 3-4 to act out in aggressive ways, in part thanks to their lack of understanding about social norms in addition to their frustration at lack of decision-making and choice in their lives.

What can you do?

When a child does become violent and hits you, how should you react, and what’s the best way to handle that situation to prevent it from repeating in the future?

The first thing to note is children often don’t reach the stage of becoming angry enough to lash out in one bound. It’s very often small steps and warning signs that lead up to that level of frustration, that parents and teachers may want to keep an eye out for to prevent incidents before they happen.

Examples of this might be:
  • A child that is hungry
  • A child that is overly tired
  • A child that is overwhelmed
  • A child that is overstimulated

All of these distinct emotions and feeling often come with warning signs, and over time, parents can quickly spot when their child is reaching certain levels of frustration. By working to de-escalate that behavior, it’s possible to prevent hitting incidents before they even occur, especially if you have seen that certain situations have led to that level of anger in the past.

What about if you’re unable to meet their needs?

But what happens when aggression happens in a situation where those needs or emotions can’t be met immediately?

For example, if you’re in a position where you can’t leave somewhere, or where you’re in the car or on public transport. If you’re able to notice your child building up towards hitting yourself, or someone else, choosing to stop or block them effectively, gently and calmly can help to prevent that situation from becoming worse.

The clear message when it comes to hitting others should always be that:
  • Their emotions connected to their frustration are accepted and validated
  • Their behavior surrounding those emotions is not accepted and should be limited

By acknowledging this messaging, parents and teachers can have a clearer idea that, while a child feeling frustrated, angry or mad is acceptable, acting on that emotion in specific ways is okay, but acting on it in other ways is not. For example, crying, shouting, or even stamping their feet are acceptable ways to let out that emotion. Biting, throwing, and hitting people are all not acceptable. This clear line between what is acceptable and what is not provides that child with boundaries, while also offering them alternative, healthy ways to release themselves of those painful emotions.

Regulate your own reaction and emotions

For parents and teachers, the real difficulty when a child is violent towards yourself or someone else, whether it’s their siblings, classmates, or even other adults, is regulating your own reaction and emotions. It can be tempting to shout or yell at a child that has done something wrong, but by also showing a negative reaction to your own emotions, you are further escalating the situation. Dr. Laura Markham recommends that should your child hit you, your reaction should be non-existent.

By doing nothing, and allowing yourself to be removed from the situation, it’s possible to prevent a situation from spiraling out of control.

When children hit, it can be tempting to think of it as a serious incident, but not one that causes harm. But actually, even being struck by a child can hurt – and can also trigger a reaction in parents or others if not properly managed. This is especially true when a child hits someone other than a parent, where they are putting themselves at risk of being harmed back — as such, making it clear that behavior is unacceptable is vital.

Summary

By remaining calm, addressing the child’s emotions once they are calm and establishing what behaviors are unacceptable, managing violent behavior can be a far easier process. Providing valuable lessons to your child on their conduct and attitude in the future, that can set them up to be more responsible adults later in life.

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