How can I stop my preschooler from hitting and kicking?
There’s nothing like watching your preschooler deliver a wildly antisocial wallop to make you cringe. And worry: Who IS this wild thing—and what is he or she turning into?
Whether your child is mostly mild-mannered or lively, hitting or kicking happens. And when it does, it’s important to your child’s developing self-control (and future likability) to draw firm boundaries to put a stop to aggressive behaviors.
WHY it happens:
Little kids often resort to their fists for the same reasons that grown-ups often feel like punching someone out. They’re acting out feelings they can’t put into words: I feel threatened. I’m sick. I’m having a bad day.
Sometimes they’re just being impulsive or tired. Threes are still young enough to lash out in a bid for attention too. And don’t overlook this possibility: An “aggressor” might actually be a victim—a child who’s been picked on or bitten and is just lashing back in frustration.
Kid-on-kid kicking and hitting isn’t the only way our kids release bottled-up emotions. We parents often bear the brunt of aggressive behavior at the end of our child’s exhausting day of holding it together socially at preschool. (Consider it a compliment. They feel safe with us; they can let it all hang out and know we’ll still love them.) Add to this a natural inclination to act defiant just to show they’re their own person, separate from us BossMamas and BossPapas!
The kicker (no pun intended): Whatever the cause, they have trouble exercising self-control.
- Instead of punishing, focus on what your child needs most. At this age, it’s best to make clear the behavior is unacceptable, separate your child from the action, and help him or her regain a sense of control.
- Intervene quickly. If you’re distracted or mild in your response, that’s like a permission slip to your child that the behavior is okay. Step in at the first aggressive act and take your child aside. If the “victim” is crying or hurt, tend to that child first.
- Whatever the reason for the behavior, matter-of-factly state the rule: No hitting. No kicking. Place aggressive behaviors on the no-way end of your tolerance spectrum. Otherwise they can become fallback-mode for your child.
- Explain what will happen if the aggressive behavior keeps up: “I can’t let you hit. I’m going to hold you until you calm down.” Key for you: Not acting angry or hurt, just staying firm.
- Skip the third degree and lecturing. A young preschooler can’t get inside his own head to explain why he did it. And a child of any age isn’t ready to absorb “better way” explanations while still upset.
- Do try to figure out what made it happen. If he’s getting worked up during a playdate, it may be time to go home. New-baby jealousy? Try 1:1 time reading a book together. Overtired? Maybe a back rub and nap.
- After your child is calm, it helps to name the emotion and show a better way: “You hit me because you were mad that I said no more cookies. When you’re mad you can punch your pillow to feel better, but you can’t hit people.”
- Next time, in a similar situation: “Remember the rule: We don’t hit. If you have trouble with a friend or get mad, come to me—or go to your teacher.”
- Work on the really big picture too. Two other approaches, although they may seem disconnected to an emotional outburst, help build self-control: building self-regulation with games like Simon Says and helping your child get comfortable with difficult emotions instead of rushing in to fix them
With consistency and practice—and a little help from us—their fists and feet will stay sweet too.
—Content chief Paula Spencer Scott is a mom of 4 and step-mom of 2—and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books about parenting, health, and eldercare, including Bright From the Start; The Happiest Toddler on the Block; Like Mother, Like Daughter; and Surviving Alzheimer’s.