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Reality Check: Controlling a Preschool Hitter

Q  My 3-year-old turned into a hitter when she started preschool. How do I get her to stop striking out?
A Starting school is a monumental event. Your daughter is now in the company of her peers for hours at a time, and has to get along with many different personalities, share communal toys, follow rules, and get used to new routines. During all of this, she has to try to hold herself together emotionally to keep from missing Mommy and Daddy so much that she falls apart. Working on many new skills at once and being in the midst of lots of stimuli stresses out most adults, so it's not surprising that tired and frustrated 3-year-olds sometimes resort to hitting, the ultimate shorthand for "Get out of my face, I'm overwhelmed."

When our 3 1/2-year-old began preschool, she, too, became a hitter, the only one in her group. One day, according to Ellie's teacher, Suzanne Morse Rilla, the other kids took it upon themselves to stage a sort of intervention. "Toward the end of naptime, they got together and said, 'When Ellie wakes up, we'll stand together under the tree and tell her we really love her but we can't play with her if she keeps hitting us,'" says Rilla, who in 13 years of running her own preschool had never seen this. Ellie woke up, the kids made their statement, and Ellie stopped hitting at preschool.

She has not, however, stopped hitting at home. We've tried telling her that we can't play with her if she keeps whacking us, but it doesn't seem to have any effect. According to friends who are more experienced moms, this hitting thing will probably run its course and soon be over. Lashing out physically tends to subside as children get better at lashing out verbally and at controlling, and containing, their angry feelings. In the meantime, here are a few tactics to help in the heat of the moment:

  • Give the victim, not the hitter, the first dose of attention. "This way," says Rilla, "the hitter sees that my first concern is that someone might have gotten hurt," reinforcing the main reason why you can't go around hitting people. It also ensures that negative behavior is not rewarded by immediate attention.

  • Acknowledge why the child hit, so she knows you understand her reasons. "It looks like you really wanted that toy, but didn't use friendly words to help you get it," Rilla might say. Of course if the hitter continues to strike, she may need to be physically removed from the room so that at least she doesn't keep hurting people.

  • Anticipate situations that are likely to lead to hitting (end-of-day crankiness, not wanting to share the only Teletubbies doll), and try to be there to head off trouble.

  • Credit the reformed hitter when you see her getting along with others by using words, self-control, and patience. Positive feedback from you will be much more powerful than negative.
  • Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.

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