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Ask Dr. Sears: Little Hitters

Q. How can I get my 3-year-old to stop hitting people?

A. Toddlers and preschoolers often hit because they have a limited vocabulary and use their hands as communication tools. To help nip this bad habit in the bud:

  • Figure out when your child's most likely to hit, then try to head him off. If he tends to become cranky toward the end of the day, make sure he has a midafternoon nap.

  • Supervise him so that if he strikes someone who's playing with a toy he wants, you can intervene immediately with something like "We don't hit. If you want the toy, wait your turn."

  • Offer alternatives. If you have a natural-born aggressor, channel his energy into activities that let him blow off steam, such as climbing jungle gyms and throwing balls.

  • Some of my patients have responded to what I call a "no-hitting chart": Tell your child that each day he doesn't hit, you'll draw a happy face on a chart. After he's earned ten, he'll win a special treat, such as lunch at his favorite restaurant.

  • Encourage your child to apologize. Doing so helps reinforce that hitting another person is wrong.

  • If you think he needs to be reprimanded, choose consequences that relate directly to the activity. Try a time-out or tell your little one that if he can't play nicely with a particular pal, he'll lose the privilege of playing with him. Other punishments  -- for example, taking away dessert for a week  -- typically won't work as well, since the child won't make the cause-effect connection as quickly.

  • Most of all, don't pass off aggressive behavior by saying "Oh, he's just being a boy!" Gender is not an excuse for unkind behavior  -- boys, too, should learn tenderness.
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