Stop Hitting Me! What to Do When Kids Hit Parents

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Image via Katie Hurley

When kids confront feelings of anger and frustration, which is all in a day's work when it comes to the under-five crowd, they handle those feelings in a variety of ways. Some yell. Some go boneless and scream on the floor, no matter where in the world they are. Some collapse into a sobbing heap and struggle to get the words out. And some hit. Some hit siblings or other kids, and some hit their parents.

My kids are of the sobbing heap variety when it comes to coping with overwhelming feelings, which is a good thing for me. Quite honestly, I think I would be broken hearted if they ever lashed out physically. Clearly, it happens, and some kids do this more than others, and it's all within normal behavioral expectations, but I'm pretty sure that kind of thing would break my heart because physical aggression is so not my thing. And maybe I'm just a little bit sensitive.

Still, it happens. Kids hitting parents can trigger big feelings in parents. The frustration grows exponentially when nothing seems to be working and a child lashes out in a physical manner. So what can emotionally exhausted and possibly bruised parents do to stop the cycle of hitting out of frustration? They can begin by uncovering the source of the frustration.

Look for clues

Little kids have big feelings, and any number of factors can exacerbate those feelings. My son does not do well when over-tired. Not only does lack of sleep lead to night terrors for my little one, but it also triggers feelings of frustration, tears, and impatience. If we have a late night for one reason or another, I know that I have to adjust the following day to make sure that he gets enough downtime. That reduces the moments of frustration.

Keep calm and use your words. We can't expect kids to choose adaptive coping strategies if we scream and throw parent-sized tantrums every time they have a tantrum.

Keeping a list of triggers of frustration is always a good idea, as it helps you establish a pattern. If loud noise and bright lights send your little one into a fit of frustration, you might want to reconsider time spent at overwhelming parties and indoor play spaces. If hunger causes your toddler to blow, don't leave home without snacks and water. Does sharing result in a scream-fest during every play date? Perhaps your kid isn’t play date ready just yet.

It can be hard to assess the triggers and environmental factors in the moment (ice cream can be iffy, you know), but it does help make sense of the behavior. Consider time of day, location, sleep patterns, eating patterns, people, and circumstances. Finding the pattern will help you establish a plan that works. 

Use your words

Believe me, I know that feeling. I know how frustrating it can be when kids seem to lose it over nothing. But nothing to us can mean something to them, and we have to be the role models in the situation.

Keep calm and use your words. We can't expect kids to choose adaptive coping strategies if we scream and throw parent-sized tantrums every time they have a tantrum. Empathize with your child. Show your child that you understand. Help your child calm down in the moment.

{ MORE: Parents, Just Be Kind }

State the limit. Repeat the limit. Provide an alternative.

Little kids are not generally known for being rational under frustrating situations. You might think your child is overly dramatic at times, but your child probably thinks he's just being a child. Either way, you have to set the limit.

State it. Repeat it. Provide an alternative.

In the case of the little one who hits when angry, you want to use a calm and clear voice tone with simple language. “We don't hit in this family. Hitting isn't nice. You can't hit others in this family. I can see that you are angry and you want to use your hands. Try ripping up this paper, instead.”

Paper tearing, stomping feet, clapping hands super hard, jumping up and down, scribbling in red pen, squeezing a stress ball, and throwing a ball against a wall are all great alternatives to hitting. Help your child try out a few alternatives when calm, and provide calm reminders during moments of frustration. Your child will be better for it. 

{ MORE: Talking About Feelings? Bad Parenting Method! }

Please share your tips on how you handle a frustrated child who hits.

What do you think?

Stop Hitting Me! What to Do When Kids Hit Parents

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about helping parents enjoy the ride, she provides parent education and simple strategies to take t ... More

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3 comments

  1. Profile photo of Anika Anika says:

    There are a lot of issues I have with this article. But the main issues are in the advice at the very end. Instead of having red pen, why not try blue to “cool down” (not that I actually think this is super helpful). Throwing small things will eventually lead to bigger and more dangerous things, possibly even at people. Lastly, I think clapping hands hard is at first a good thought…that is until they start doing harm to themselves in other ways because they are frustrated. If things are built up and not taken care of, this could be a serious issue. How about role playing a situation in how to act if they are angry. Parent could be the “angry” one and the child can help problem solve. Another idea, respond with how you can see they are feeling awful/sad/mad/hurt and say that you are sorry you feel that way, would you like a hug, how can I help you? These are simple enough questions that can be used with a toddler even (I know, I’ve used them with my 17 month old!).

  2. Profile photo of Kim Kim says:

    IMO giving the option to throw something, even though it starts out with a simple ball, could lead to bad habit in the future. As they grow up, in a fit of anger, they could grab anything no telling what and injure someone. Doesn’t seem like a good habit to start. I mean how would you stop that later on or tell them it’s no longer acceptable to do that as they get older or in public? There are other good points in the article. This option just struck me as not logical for the long term.

  3. Profile photo of Amanda Amanda says:

    I confronted the same problem with my oldest daughter. The more entense the fits would get the more I would have to calm myself to help her take deep breaths to calm down. Tell her it’s ok and explain it the best she can. Give her feelings chart with faces to help. Also have her write in a journal to express what she can’t say. When she is ready to talk to me I stop everything to listen and help sort thru the feelings

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