Any suggestions for how to address hitting? My daughter (3) is a very sensitive child and we are struggling with her hitting me and her baby brother (7 months old) when the baby cries or if whatever she is playing with is knocked over. She also hits out during tantrums and meltdowns and I don’t know what to do. She has access to noise cancelling headphones during car journeys (when the baby sometimes cries) and during quiet time for an hour each day. We repeatedly teach her that hitting hurts and that "not hitting" is an important rule in our family, but the hitting continues.
Thank you so much for the question. There is so much to unpack here. It is an interesting one because even though the surface level behaviour is the same in each example (hitting), the approach in each instance will not be. Here’s why.
Hitting is the tip of the iceberg. It’s what we see, but to really effect change we want to understand what is beneath the behaviour? What is driving what we are seeing? And it is probable that the driver is different for each example here.
Let’s take the first example, hitting you or the baby when the baby cries. You mention that your daughter is very sensitive, and that she has access to noise cancelling headphones for part of the day. Parents may feel they need to expose their child to the noise to help their older child adjust, but sensory over-responders will always be over-responders, and so empowering your child to make adaptations to their environment to cope with their sensitivities will be more helpful for your child in the longer term than trying to get your child “used to” the sound of the baby crying. Your daughter is overloaded by the sensory input within the environment. And, here’s the thing, sensory over-responders often over-respond emotionally as well, so environmental adaptations can be really helpful in reducing your daughter’s emotional outbursts overall. Firstly, I would recommend talking with your three year old about what she can do when the baby cries, and I would ensure she has access to her headphones as and when she needs them, rather at predetermined times throughout the day. Other things that can help include creating an area in the home where your daughter can retreat to when she is feeling overwhelmed, like a little teepee, or a corner with cushions, soft lighting, and soft blankets. You could consider access to relaxing music as well for this area.
The second example you mentioned is a child who is hitting out when their toy is knocked over. I would imagine the response here is being driven by frustration or disappointment. It can be a really tricky season to navigate when your “new baby brother” becomes mobile and starts bee-lining for whatever it is you are playing with at every opportunity. Of course, its impossible as a parent to prevent the baby from disrupting play on every occasion, but I think the more we can achieve this, the better. Some families find ways to make separate play spaces work, or certain activities are moved to a kitchen table away from crawling arms.
When your daughter’s play is disrupted, when her toy is knocked over, remember it is not our role to judge whether or not she should be upset, but to accept that she is and to empathise with her experience. Try remembering a time when you worked really hard on something and it metaphorically “fell apart”. A piece of work that your forgot to “hit save” on, for example. Maybe as an adult we think “you can rebuild the tower!” but… that’s not the point from your daughter’s perspective. Something she worked hard on has gone, and we can resonate with that feeling.
So how do we shift our child away from hitting out in these scenarios? We support them to access their vulnerable feelings beneath their behaviour. Instead of “attacking” we want them to fold into their sadness, their disappointment, and, ideally, to cry those sad tears. We support this emotional release through our empathy. The more readily a child is able to access their vulnerable tears, the less aggression we will observe moving forward.
Finally, hitting during a meltdown. Well, if you have been here a while you will know that I often speak to a child’s inability to control their behaviour during a meltdown. When a child is in fight/flight/freeze, their behaviour is being driven by their nervous system. It is not willful or intentional. When a child is in fight/flight/freeze our main priority is to ensure safety (for us, them, property, and others) and then to support them to feel safe in order for them to return to the “green zone” neurologically, for them to feel regulated again. Remember this is a child who is vulnerable, some ways we can support them to calm will include us communicating that we are calm through:
- Soft eyes
- Slow and low movements
- Gentle tone of voice
- Open body language
- Limited or no words
The idea is to lovingly guide them from an inner state of chaos to calm, through the process of co-regulation. The way children learn to “behave better” isn’t by being taught endless lessons, it through the development of their ability to regulate their emotions. The way children develop the ability to regulate their emotions is through multiple experiences of being co-regulated by an adult.
So I hope this helps illustrate that tricky behaviours don’t always need “lessons.” And, even though the behaviour we see might be the same (hitting), the response doesn’t have to be.
If you want to dive deeper into this topic, check out my Tantrums, Meltdowns and Aggression Masterclass.
Or, if you want to learn how to support your child to adjust to a new baby in the family, learn more here.
Love, Kimberley xo