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Question : Whenever my child sees another child he pushes or hits for no reason. We are worried. Please help.
Our Answer : Many toddlers go through a Hitting/Pushing phase. It’s nerve-wrecking and embarrassing for the parents, but it is completely normal and he will certainly outgrow it.Little ones are still learning the rules. They don’t have a well-developed sense of empathy. They are learning how to have an impact on the world, which means they are learning how to use power. So they experiment with physical force, to see what happens.
Add to this a child who is physically larger than his peers, and you get a kid who is likely to experiment with using physical force against others. And then he sees a big reaction. They fall! How cool! He doesn’t know it hurts. Even if they cry, he doesn’t really get it. But he’s excited that he can have such a big impact on the world. What a powerful feeling for such a little person, who so often feels pushed around by the world.
Mirroring Adults who make Force ‘Acceptable’
Discipline makes this all more complicated. Children who are themselves subject to discipline that involves physical force are more likely to act it out on others. That’s because they learn that physical force is okay, since grownups do it. And they learn it’s effective in winning what they want.
As shared , its clear that you don’t use any physical force with him, so he’s not learning that from you. Unfortunately, all of us sometimes have to resort to moving our toddler physically — out of danger, or simply to get him into his car seat when he’s resisting. Sometimes that can’t be avoided, but timeouts are an example of using force to get a child to stay in one place that we can and should avoid, because, again, kids experience this as someone pushing them around, and they are more likely to then push others around. Humans learn both sides of every interaction. That’s how they learn nurturing, as well — by having us nurture them.
Your responses of attending to the other child, saying No, and removing your son from the situation immediately are all great responses. Punishing him won’t help the situation because it just teaches him that bigger people can use force on smaller people, which is exactly what you’re trying to show him is not ok.
Luckily, we don’t really have to know why your son is pushing to prevent his behavior. That’s what our teachers do at school to prevent pushing /hitting .You can do the same at home. Every time your son plays with another child for the next few months, stay right by his side. That connection will help him feel safer, which means he’ll be more relaxed and less threatened, which should when your child lunges, immediately step between him and the “victim.” Both your son and the other child need to know that you will protect the other child.
Immediately pick your son up and remove him from the situation. Maybe he just needs a break. Maybe he needs a little connection with you. Maybe he is over-stimulated, and removing him will make him burst into tears, and he will need some time to cry in your arms. In any case, removing him gives him what he needs and protects the other child. Your son learns that when he has these uncomfortable feelings, his parents help him process them. This builds the neural connections in his brain to manage his feelings rather than act out. He stops using aggression as a way to deflect the feelings.
If the aggression is related to a toy, or the kid being in your son’s way, you can teach social skills and taking turns with the toys. If you don’t know what the aggression is related to, you can say to him “You pushed your friend. Were you upset?” Soon he will learn to say he is upset when he has that feeling, which is the first step in learning to manage the feeling without acting on it.
It will increase the chances of things going smoothly, if before he plays with other kids, you describe what will happen. “When we get to Aaryan’s house, there will be two other boys there. You and the other boys will all play together. Mommy will be right there if you need me. You can splash in the water and it will be a lot of fun, and we will all keep our hands on our own bodies. If you want a toy, you tell me and I will help you talk to whoever has the toy so you can have a turn with it. If you get mad, you tell me, and I will help you, ok? If you forget and push, we will need to stop having fun and leave right away. So let’s remember to keep our hands on our own bodies and have fun with the other boys, ok?” The reminder/warning is helpful, but it is probably most helpful to him to know what to expect, so that he feels safer.
If, despite your best efforts, your son smacks or pushes another child, take a deep breath and stay calm. If you are the only adult, ignore your son and tend to the other child. Once the other child is okay, hold your son while you apologize to the child he pushed. “(My son) is so sorry he hit you. He was mad and he forgot to use his words. We hope you feel better.”
If someone else can tend to the other child, immediately pick your son up and hold him while you do the apology. This both makes your son feel safer and helps him get his emotions back under control, so hopefully he can watch receptively while you role model the apology. Then, tell your son as calmly as you can: ”Pushing hurts. We can’t play with the other children when you push. Now we have to leave.” Then leave, no matter what. Of course he will cry. At that point, you can apologize to the hostess, grab your stuff, take him into the car and hold him while he cries.
Are you punishing him? No. Your child is hitting because he can’t handle the situation. Putting him back in the situation is wishful thinking, and is irresponsible to the other child. You remove him from the situation and help him with what’s upsetting him. Yes, he’ll be upset to leave. Crying will give him an opportunity to work through all those feelings that caused him to hit to begin with. Don’t reprimand him.
He has already suffered the consequences of his aggressiveness. Now he needs your empathy so he can process his anger and sadness about what happened. He also needs to hear that he isn’t bad, just little, and that you have faith in his ability to master this developmental challenge: “You are so sad and mad that we have to leave. But when you push, it hurts, and we can’t play with the other children”.
Make it a constant practice to honor your son’s feelings. This will help him develop the emotional intelligence necessary to manage them. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with him, or that you stop setting limits. It means you acknowledge his feelings and offer empathy. “You wish you could have that candy. It’s almost dinner time, so no candy. I know It’s hard to be so sad and mad. When you’re ready I’ll hold you and give you a big hug.”
Help your son develop empathy
This is something you can do all day every day, just going through your daily life. First, by empathizing with him. Secondly, by demonstrating empathy for others. “Look, that little girl is crying in her stroller. I wonder why she’s so sad?” or “Oh oh, Aaryan fell down and got hurt. Ouch, that must hurt. Do you think it would cheer him up if we offered him a hug?” This developmental phase is hard on the parents, but it’s a perfect opportunity for you to help your son develop empathy and emotional intelligence. So the next time he clobbers someone and you’re holding him while he has a meltdown, remind yourself that the high EQ you’re fostering will be an asset for the rest of his life.
Then take a deep breath, and give yourself a big pat on the back for being such a great mom. We hope this is helpful.