What To Do if Your Child Hits You

Today we are going to talk about something that every parent deals – how to react if your child hits you. Please note that I’m not talking about situations in which teenagers or young adults are violent towards their parents in a dangerous manner – this is a different issue altogether and should be dealt with in a professional therapeutic setting. What we’re going to talk about are instances where your young children – toddlers and little kids – are violent towards you (or other children).

At the time of writing this post, my boy is five and a half years old. He’s a sweet boy and most of the time quite gentle. He’s not aggressive in his demeanor, although he has his moments of anger.

But in the last couple of months, he developed a new feature: boxing. Every now and then he punches us. Sometimes he does it when he’s angry. On other times it looks like it’s coming out of the blue. Have you ever had that with one of your kids?

I started thinking about what I’m supposed to do. How am I supposed to react when he punches or kicks me or his mom? It’s not a thing you can ignore, right? So, what do you do? Do you hit back? (No, you should never hit your children)
Should we scream at him?
Send him to a time out?

Here’s my take, and it might surprise you: I think that the most important thing you can do the moment your child hits you is nothing.

Huh?

Yeah. Nothing. At first.

You see, when someone attacks you, you are instantly thrown into a defensive fight-of-flight mode. It doesn’t matter that it’s a five-year-old kid, your brain sees a punch coming your way and it raises an alarm instantly. You don’t even think about it, you immediately feel an impulse to (1) move away from the punch and (2) push the assailant away.

But the so-called “assailant” is a small kid. Your kid. And I'm sure you’re not in the business of hurting your kids. You’re in the business of parenting, which means leading your children to be their best selves today and in the future.

So, the very first thing you should do is nothing, meaning you should wait before you respond.

The only immediate physical response you should take is meant to prevent someone from getting hurt. So, if your child is punching you, grab his or her hands and prevent them from doing it again.

Then you should take a breath and handle the situation not from the angry, emotional part of your brain, but from your thinking part.

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The Two Parts of The Brain

To understand what’s going on with your child – and with you – in these moments, we need to take a quick dive into our brains. I promise it’s gonna be as simple as possible.

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov

Our brain is an amazing organ. It takes up so much information every given second, processes it and makes tons of decisions that we are mostly unaware of.

Although our brain looks like a uniform organ, it has many systems and subsystems inside of it. We are going to look at two systems, and believe me when I say this is a major over-simplification. But it’s valid and very useful.

One system is The Emotional Brain. This is a part of the brain that is located roughly in the middle. It’s also known as The Limbic System or The Reptilian Brain. For our needs suffice it to say that this part of the brain is responsible for our emotional state. Whether good or bad, our emotions rise in this area.

This area actually “scans” the environment for threats in each and every moment. As soon as it recognizes something – anything – that is labeled as a threat, it raises an alarm. Your heart rate goes up, your muscles tense, your breathing shallows, etc. You're in a fight-or-flight mode.

The other system we’re gonna talk about is The Thinking Brain. This part of the brain is located roughly at the front of your head, above your eyes. And while the emotional brain is something we share with other species such as other mammals and even reptiles – the thinking brain is a trait of more developed mammals such as primates and, well, us humans.

The thinking brain (also known as The Prefrontal Cortex) is responsible for making connections, planning ahead, noticing the context and taking consequences into account. This part of the brain appraises the situation and decides if the threat is a real threat. If it is, you act accordingly. But if the thinking brain decides that there’s no threat, it will inhibit that fight-or-flight reaction.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin
The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin

However, the emotional brain works way faster than the thinking brain. It reacts in milliseconds (which is good, because we wouldn’t have survived otherwise). The thinking brain needs one or two seconds more to get things straight. That gap is the source of many problems.

So let’s get back to our story. Your child hits you. Your emotional brain immediately reacts, as it sees a punch coming your way. You instantly feel tense, maybe even angry, and your body wants to react. Then, your thinking brain kicks in to stop you. Sometimes it’s already too late. Maybe you already hit your child back or pushed her roughly away, or just yelled something you immediately regret. We'll see what to do with that in a moment.

Why Did My Child Hit Me?

If we could zoom into your mind at those moments right after your child hits you, we might find thoughts like “He hit me because he’s a spoiled kid” or “She ALWAYS does that, pushing my buttons like that”. And what about “I bet he enjoys seeing me hurt!”? Ever had those thoughts in your head?

But if you put those thoughts aside (valid as they might be) and keep a curious stance towards our child, we might think of other options.

We might find out that he hit us because he was really nervous and didn’t know how to regulate his inner excitement (that happens a lot with my son). Or, maybe your child slapped you on the back because she wasn’t able to get your attention as you were busy working on the computer?

Ask yourself – or them! – what’s going on inside. Are they hungry and it makes them cranky? Are they just tired? Bored? Maybe they are really angry because of something?

These are all valid questions we should learn to ask ourselves and our kids. They will help us regulate ourselves, and we can use them to teach our kids to know what’s going on inside and how to regulate themselves.

Now that we talked about taking a moment before we react, and asking ourselves why did our child hit us, let’s talk about what to do, and what not to do.

Don’t Do #1: The Problematic Time-Outs

One common response to any misbehaving child is a time-out. Basically, a time-out means you’re putting your child in a separate room for a period of time. You may expect the child to “think about what he did” or may not. Usually, you just expect him or her to “get out when you’re calmer”.

I believe that time-outs are a big no-no. Why? Because when you put your child on a time-out you are basically telling him that you cannot stand to be around him when he’s misbehaving. This is a message that says “I will only connect with you when you’re a goody two shoes”.

While it is true that it feels better to be with your child when she’s behaving well, as parents you must learn to accept and have your child around when they’re not.

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Think about your child when he or she was a baby. Have you ever put them aside in a “time-out” and left the room when they were crying unstoppably? I hope not.

Children will do anything they can to restore their connection with their caregivers. Putting them in time-out will only teach them to suppress their feelings so you won’t put them in a time-out again.

It may be a good outcome for you in the moment – a calmer child – but you’re missing out on teaching your kids a valuable lesson about managing feelings. This is a bad outcome in the long run, as your child will find it hard to manage his anger as an adult.

Don’t Do #2: Hitting Back

No matter what you do. You should never, ever ever, hit your child back. Teaching your children by using physical punishment is just wrong, and unhelpful. I have covered this recently in another post about corporal punishment. By hitting your child you are basing your parenting on fear and this will just serve to hurt your relationship in the short and long run. Also, by physically punishing your child you are teaching him or her that violence is the way to solve problem… so don’t expect them to stop hitting after that.

So, those where to Don’t. Let’s move on to the Do’s.

Do #1: Establish Clear Boundaries About Hitting

When I suggest you should not react in a harsh way, I don’t mean that you should do nothing. Not at all. I have discussed the problems with too permissive parenting before. You definitely should put a clear boundary about hitting. For example, I tell my son that in this family we never ever hit each other. “It’s perfectly OK to be angry at me or your mom”, I say, “But we don’t show this anger by hitting, we show it by talking”.

And I mean it. I totally expect my child to learn to express his anger at me by telling me that I angered him and not by hitting me. I know it will take time, but I know he will get it.

Do #2: Offer Alternatives to Hitting

It’s important to set clear boundaries and teach your child that hitting is not acceptable. But that’s not enough. You need to offer your child alternatives, teach her or him what they can do when angry, instead of taking arms.

As an example – I taught my child that when he feels so angry that he just MUST hit something, he can take his pillow and either hug it as hard as he can or just punch it a couple of times until he feels the energy lowering.

Another option is to run in the place for a minute. This too can help your child get some of the energy out and feel tired.

And of course, you can teach your child how to belly breathe. Belly breathing is a relaxation method that helps people deal with stress, anxiety, and anger. Remember that when your child is angry, his emotional brain does somersaults, and you need to help the thinking brain to get things back in order. This is where belly breathing enters the game.

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How to teach your child to belly breathe

This is something you should teach your child beforehand, not when he’s angry and kicking. When the anger comes, remind him to breath. And even better – do it together.

  1. Sit up straight or lie on your back.
  2. Put a hand on your tummy.
  3. Take a long breath through your nose while to the count of 4 seconds.
  4. As you breath in, feel your tummy getting filled with air, like a balloon. You can feel it by watching your hand move with your tummy.
  5. Release the air through your mouth. Do it slowly, to the count of 6. Remember to do it slowly. Imagine that you are trying to blow a candle that is right in front of you.
  6. Repeat for a couple of minutes until you feel yourself relax.

Do #3: Talk to Your Child About Emotions

Children usually have a hard time talking about their emotions. Mostly because they lack the language. A huge part of our job as parents is teaching kids about emotions, what they mean and how they are felt.

So, again this is something to do after the waves are calmer. Talk with your child about feelings. Teach them that emotions and feelings our the way our brain and body knows how we feel about the world and where we want to go, kind of like a compass.

Teach them that every emotion is legitimate. They are allowed to have any emotion, even anger against you. However, they are not allowed to act on every emotion, because it may hurt other people.

So, when they feel angry they should learn how to recognize the feeling (heat in the face, gushing heart, an impulse to scream or punch something) and tell you that they’re angry, instead of just lashing out at you.

A Word about Consequences

Children need to learn that their actions have consequences, and you totally use these moments to teach them. But keep in mind that the point is not to just punish your child. We are not revenging anything. We want them to learn about their behavior.

What you can do is find an appropriate consequence. One that doesn’t hurt your relationship, and makes you stay connected to your child. You can give your child an extra chore, for example, or cutting back on something he or she really likes, like screen time. Recently, we told our child that if he keeps punching us like that, we’ll take a little bit of his allowance money. It’s working pretty well, for the time being.

Be creative and think about what can help your child learn to control his anger better without losing the precious connection you two have with each other.

What about you? How do you react when your child hits you? What kind of consequences are working in your family? Share with us in the comments below so we can learn from each other!

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