Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Discussion Notes on Toddler Hitting, Repressed Emotions, Boundaries

These are some notes from a parenting group that I'm tossing up here to save for future threads and in the hope that they might benefit others. The notes touch on normal hitting stages, setting boundaries instead of evading toddler hitting, repressed negative emotions, reconnecting to release emotions, and the normalcy of experiencing negative emotions and negative behavior even in a non-violent home.

Although some slapping and head butting are fairly normal by about age 1 and most children go through a brief biting phase around age 2, it is age 3 that can present a critical stage of using limbs on other people. The time is filled with slapping, shoving, hitting, pushing, etc. They have learned that their bodies can exert influence on other bodies, but their impulse control and social skills still need development. This slowly continues to age 4 where it tends to turn into an emotional battle instead of physical. (Age 4 is often all about saying "I hate you" and pushing relationship limits to learn about love.)

Saying that a behavior is normally expected or part of a developmental stage is not condoning permissiveness. When it comes to harming others, it's important to understand why the child is doing it and how to best help the child without adding to the hurt, but simply ignoring the situation will deprive the child of necessary life skills to move past the stage successfully. If you can equip your child with skills on processing emotions and on healthy social behavior, you'll pave the way for a happy, self-actualized life where he can interact with himself and others transparently and peacefully. Additionally, using shaming and punishing techniques frequently might add a twist of pathology to the situation that stays with the child for life.

For young children attempting to hurt others, the key is to prevent the hitting when possible (e.g. hold hands, stop the foot, hold the body away) and firmly say, "No _____." Then quickly address whatever the underlying issue is with brief, clear discussion. It's not a long winded lesson, it's a brief, tailored statement.

"When you feel angry, then you can stomp your feet like this. We don't kick people."
"Pushing other people hurts them. If you want him to move, tell him to please move. Let's practice."
"I know you feel upset about leaving the park, but we don't others. Use your words and tell me how you feel. Let's work together on this problem."
"You're super excited, but you can't slap at people. Jump up and down! Show me how excited you are with jumps!"

Encouraging the development of healthy social interactions while discouraging the use of force requires patience and consistency. Some children are able to catch on sooner, especially if their verbal development happens sooner or their personality is calmer. Other children will require many reminders and lots of social work, especially if social anxiety or verbal delays are present. If you the parent feel frustrated, acknowledge that with other parents, but work on keeping it safe and calm when it comes to guiding your child, over and over and over and over.

If you feel yourself losing control, take a parent time out as long as your child isn't in any danger. Step away, calm down. Get a drink. Eat a piece of chocolate. Walk to the mailbox and get the mail. Just a little change can help you regain emotional clarity and patience.

That's not to be confused with the evasive behaviors parents sometimes fall into when their young children are hitting, kicking, biting, spitting at them, etc. Trying to ignore it or somewhat feebly flapping your arm in their direction or letting it go on blurs boundaries and expectations. Walking away and ignoring the child (outside of times when you must have a parent time out) also deprives the child of discipline. Remember, although people tend to use the word discipline to describe punishment, discipline is about self-mastery and learning and is a practice that needs to be in the gentle parenting method.

If someone is hurting you, it's good to stop them if possible, and I want to communicate this concept to my kids. So, if one of my kids hits/kicks/bites/slaps, whatever at me, I try to stop the behavior immediately. Restrain them firmly but gently, get down to their level, make eye contact and talk to them in a brief, clear way. "No. That hurts me. I don't like it when you hit me. Please stop now. I will not let you hurt me. What is wrong? What do you need? Use your words." This is a good option for siblings hurting each other, too. "No, I will not let you hurt your brother. I know he took your toy, but we don't hit people to get back toys. Look him in the eyes and ask for your toy back." Getting the confidence, boundaries, and assertion skills right at this age will help your children to succeed through later milestones.

The process of restraining is not for intimidation or punishment, nor is it intended to harm the child. Just as you would hold the hand or stop the foot of another person trying to attack you, convey this to your children as well. It's not okay to hurt others and people have a right to stop force. It provides a point of physical contact that can often bring children out of the moment so they are ready to listen. And it gets you near them, down to their level, making eye contact and working in the situation as opposed to "armchair parenting."

Sometimes the child will laugh and resist your guidance or try to ignore that you are changing the tune of the interaction by starting over again. Laughing and continuing could mean a few things so you have to discern what your child needs in that moment to resolve it.

One important thing to note is that laughter is often mistaken for defiance when it is more likely to indicate embarrassment, insecurity, and negative self-feelings. I see a lot of laughter in toddlers who are developed enough to understand they are hurting someone but not developed enough to control impulse.

DS2 (age 2) is in this stage right now. He has developed a way of indicating his impulse by saying, "It was an accident." He will also become sad in these cases. For example, he might hit someone and then cry because he did not WANT to hit the person, but hasn't developed enough skills yet to control it and to choose something else in the heat of the moment.

Some kids turn this stage completely inwardly, hitting themselves, pulling their hair, head banging, biting their arms, or hiding. These behaviors can and most likely will happen in any household, including non-violent homes. They are not exclusive indicators of fear of punishment, but typically a sign of frustration, disappointment, shame, or any other mix of normal emotions that all people feel at some time.

When you hear laughter, it is a sign that physical re-connection is necessary. Let's use an example. Say your 3 year old walks up behind you and just silently kicks you in the legs. You turn around, get down to her level, make eye contact and say, "We don't kick people. Please use your words and tell me what you need." She laughs, backs up to get away from your connecting cues and then darts in to kick or hit you again. She refuses to make eye contact or ducks her head as if she's about to cry, but to others it looks like she's being stubborn, "bratty" or defiant.

Each person is different when it comes to handling failure, embarrassment, or mistakes. Some people will make facial expressions more classic to this situation, that most of us recognize as "embarrassed." Some people hide their faces or leave the situation quickly. Others pretend nothing happened, or outright deny events. Some people cry. Some people get belligerent. And, if you think about it, there are people who laugh, whether for acceptance or deflection. This is true for little people, too.

Also, I want to emphasize that just as kids can hit even in a non-violent home, they can and will experience the full spectrum of human emotions, including the negative and uncomfortable ones. In a household without shaming or punishing, children will still experience these normal human emotions and they still need parental guidance and boundaries to learn normal social interactions.

So when you see this conflicting behavior of laughing and attacking, prioritize these interactions. It means the child has something underlying that she cannot handle. Perhaps she doesn't understand it. Perhaps it feels new, big, or scary. Perhaps she has no verbal definition for it or doesn't know the accepted social cues for it. And ultimately, she might feel you don't know what's happening or don't understand her.

Stop everything. Sit down with your child and have a "time-in" where you spend several minutes re-connecting. Don't keep going on and on about the altercation. This isn't a longwinded lesson. Make sure you don't fall into the temptation to hold your child hostage for a verbal punishment. Just hold your child close and provide whatever gesture you know he appreciates. Stroking hair. Singing a silly song. Holding hands. Breastfeeding. Whatever is most comforting, do that for a minute or two.

As the child stops the violent behavior, begin asking simple questions to start to pinpoint what caused the altercation. If you do this method regularly, it is easier to figure it out as the child is more likely to begin stating needs. "I'm hungry." "I need you to hold me."

If you haven't done this pattern before, you will probably go through some stages and might need to do this several times throughout your daily routine. Resistance, anger, and then the true, hidden emotion will finally come out. You might hear something frightening or depressing. "You hate me!" "No one loves me!" "I'm so angry I want to kill my friend!" Whatever it is...this is all about finally getting to the real emotion, so let him get it out, acknowledge it, and be there to prove that you are a safe place for sharing. Once things die down to a sniffle, you can then reiterate no hitting and quickly put your resolution in place. "Hitting hurts my heart and my body. Next time, please tap me like this. Give it a try."

Things will not change quickly if the child has been habitually using force to communicate. My general rule of thumb is an equal time of healing for the time it was used. So, for example, if your daughter was used to smacking you when she was unhappy and that has continued for 2 months, expect constant practice of the new methods for at least 2 months before seeing improvement. I say this not to sound discouraging but merely to provide a realistic timeline and to emphasize how important it is to spend time consistently creating new habits.

Habits are hard at any stage of life, so for a child new to the world with a limited vocabulary and rudimentary social skills, habits become a foundation. As with any habit, it's all about stopping the hurtful one and replacing it really consistently with a healthier option. This is especially vital for little kids because they are using habits as life skills. An unpleasant behavior *to the best of their knowledge and ability* is meeting a need, communicating, interacting, getting them something. To our adult eyes, it might seem fruitless or counterproductive, but to them, it might be the only thing they know how to do and they might view it on par with survival.

Figuring out what's going on underneath the surface is what will give you the key to resolving conflicts with your children. Everyone tends to act poorly when they feel poorly. Be that physically or emotionally. If you can see what's happening internally, you can acknowledge it, help resolve it and guide them on skill building to handle those emotions, leading to successful situations as they get older.

Related on the blog:

Seeing your child in a positive light

Spanking Resources

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