Few things are more of an embarrassing headache for parents than when your kids go through an aggressive stage. Pandemic-raised babies can have an especially hard time socializing, leaving their parents at a loss for how to respond appropriately as the kid tries to socialize with fists and teeth.
Whether you call it gentle parenting, evidence-based parenting, authoritative style, or just being a responsible parent, there are effective ways to punish a child for hitting without teaching them more bad behavior! The trick is to find natural consequences that help our cute little monsters learn how to be grown-up people while also helping parents keep their sanity. Keep reading below, and good luck!
1. For A Very Young Child, Redirect The Behavior And Give Other Options
Toddlers and children under age 3 love to hit, and they do not love correction. Their motor skills are poor and empathy hasn’t kicked in yet.
These tiny humans might seem like they have more in common with goblins than anything else, but that’s where you come in! You can take a deep breath, redirect tiny hands, and start to teach them why they can’t smack their playmates.
Try to Figure Out Why They’re Hitting
An important part of helping toddlers learn social skills is to remember that they’re much simpler than adults are. They’re too young to really think through multiple steps of aggression or anger. If they hit, there’s a good chance that they were just bored or trying to figure out what happens when they hit something.
Toddlers are struggling to figure out their own strength and where their body is in space. Hitting might have started out as a way to say hello or get attention, and they don’t realize that whacking mom in the eye with a cardboard book could actually hurt. It’s a new experience for them!
Give an Alternative
Redirect your toddler. That really is the best way to reduce hitting. Turn them away, give them a different toy and put away the weaponized blocks, move to a different room, or wrap them up in a little baby blanket burrito for a squish-hug that can regulate their nervous system. If they want to experiment with hitting, redirect them to hit the couch, a bed, or pillows instead. You might want to try it, too! Hitting a couch cushion when you’re calm is pretty great.
Never Spank a Baby
The biggest rule with punishing very small children is that punishment just doesn’t work. They’re too young and they literally cannot make connections yet. Spanking, in particular, is completely ineffective and can actually be dangerous or deadly to babies. All they know is that their parent is hurting them, and that’s what they’ll remember.
2. Stop the Aggression Immediately and Pay Attention to the Victim, Not the Child That was Hitting
Many parents inadvertently reward their children for aggression by giving them attention after their bad behavior. On the other extreme, they can respond by yelling or hitting the child that was aggressive, and that just confuses the child and teaches them that aggression is an appropriate response if you’re old enough to get away with it.
If you’re like most parents, neither of those options sounds like an ideal outcome. You can sidestep these results by focusing on the victim, not the aggressor.
Paying attention to the victim shows the aggressive child an example of empathy, shows that the injured child is going to be the priority and receive attention, lets the aggressor have a chance to calm down, and disrupts whatever was happening. In addition to this, it legitimately helps you comfort and check on the victim to make sure they’re okay and not injured.
Once you’ve finished this step, you can move on to other appropriate punishments on this list.
3. Remove the Child From the Situation
Removing your child from the situation is an excellent, effective, and natural punishment for hitting. It makes them unable to continue harming the person they were hitting, gives them an opportunity to eventually cool down so you can talk with them, removes distractions, and the child has the potential of totally losing the privilege of having a fun activity that day if they hit someone while you were out.
For example, your child may have hit another child at a play group. After you’ve checked on the victim first, you can take your child away from the playgroup to sit in the car or another calm and fairly boring location with you until they’ve cooled down. They can continue throwing a tantrum without injuring anyone else or getting rewarding attention for their behavior.
Removing the child also gives you a chance to cool down and think through appropriate consequences. Why did they hit? Is this time-out enough? Do they need to be taken home? Are they old enough to talk about actions and consequences? Remember, leaving an exciting party because they hit someone is a pretty clear and memorable consequence for hurting another child or adult. When the child has calmed down, talk to them about why they had to leave and what can change next time.
4. Have Them Go to a Cool-Down Space (Better Than Time-Out!) Until They Can Calm Down
Many parents have expressed an aversion to time-outs, remembering how embarrassing, frustrating, and degrading it felt to be in one as a child. For many children, the only thing that it teaches them is how to stew on emotions without any progress.
This is a sharp contrast to a cool-down time. Cool-downs are intended to give the child a space to express and feel emotions, help them cool down enough that you can talk and make some progress, take away the positive reinforcement of getting attention for misbehavior, and to keep them and everyone else safe. While it is still a punishment, it is a productive punishment and a natural consequence of hitting a sibling.
How Does a Cool-Down Space Work?
When a child hits, bites, or is aggressive with someone or something, you can have them go cool down in a dedicated location for a little while until they’re ready to process. Children who have some experience with this and who are a little older will often initiate the conversation, noting what went wrong and talking through what they can personally do next time.
One nanny discovered how effective this was when the boy she’d been caring for thanked her for sending him to cool down! At the age of seven, he was old enough to realize that he felt calmer and less angry after going into a separate space. He began asking to go to the cool-down room instead of becoming aggressive with his friends. This punishment actually teaches kids good habits for adult life.
5. Have the Child Help and Do Chores for Whoever They Hit
Making amends goes beyond apologies!
Teaching children not to hit includes teaching them empathy and compassion. If they hurt somebody, they can’t just say sorry and go back to playing. While you can’t just teach them how to be genuinely sorry, you can at least teach them about the nature of natural consequences.
As a nanny, I had a rule for several kids that they had to do three above-and-beyond good things for any harm they did to somebody. If the little boy hit his little brother, he had to work with me to find three chores or extra acts of service to help his brother feel better. He could let his brother use his favorite toys for a day, clean his brother’s room, push him on the swings, or share some of a special treat, among other things.
The goal of this punishment is to help the victim feel better while also giving a consequence to the child that hit. With some long-term effort, this helps your children develop compassion and learn to think from another person’s perspective.
Some things that a child can do to make amends include:
- Doing a sibling’s chores, with the number depending on the severity of the incident
- Talk with the injured person about how they feel, and ask how they can help
- Share favorite toys with whoever they hit
- Do an activity of the injured person’s choice to help them feel better
Whatever the child does, it should be for the benefit of the person they injured and the parent should help the child understand that. Doing something that makes the aggressor feel better and doesn’t help the victim, like making the victim say they forgive the aggressor after a forced apology, isn’t really a punishment or a help for anyone.
6. Reduce Future Fun Activities Where They Could Hurt People
This is a simple, natural, and easy-to-understand consequence for most kids if parents are willing to enforce it and help them understand. If a kid can’t stop hitting their friends and other children, they can and should lose the opportunities to keep hitting all of those people. Even a younger child can understand that they can’t go to the park if they’re hitting people, or that they can’t play with their playmate if they can’t be trusted to be gentle.
Help Them Understand Why!
Parents who are embarrassed by their child’s behavior will often just stop attending playgroups or other events without ever talking to the child about their behavior or how it could change in the future. As a consequence, the child can end up becoming even more agitated and impulsive at future events they do attend, and they continue to miss out on important social skills.
Instead of just isolating your child, help them understand why they’re missing activities. For example, “Kelly, you hit James at the park today. Even when we’re mad or frustrated, it is not okay to hit people. We will not go to the park again for two weeks because I cannot trust you not to hurt your friends. We need to practice calming down in other ways.”
This conversation can be changed based on the child and the age of the child, with the simplest version being “no, we can’t go to the park today because you’ve been hurting your friends when we go to the park,” and then having a conversation with the child according to what they can understand.
The focus of the conversation should always be on helping them understand why they can’t do the fun activity where they could hurt people. When they understand that you’re not just being mean, but that they need to learn to control their tempers and hands, children can be more open to learning from parents and older siblings.
How a Parent Can Apply This for Kids Who Hit Family Members
Parents whose kids hit family members can have a harder time applying this, but it still works. For example, if an older child hits their younger sibling and you had plans to go to a museum or something later that day, it is a natural consequence that you would not be able to trust the child at the museum when you can’t watch them closely.
If you apply the punishment that you cannot go to the planned activity at the planned time, it is definitely going to upset the kid. Using a cool-down space for both of you will help with a conversation later where you can tell them why you can’t go to the museum that day, since you as a parent cannot let anyone get hurt when you can’t watch them closely, but that there could be another chance later.
Move the fun event to another day if possible, and give the kid another chance that day while explaining that it is another chance. Adjust this as necessary for your family so that you can encourage better behavior while discouraging hitting.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Give a Punishment You Won’t Follow Through on
This bonus advice is simple. Don’t give a punishment you won’t follow through on! This is another major perk of the cool-down space for both parent and child.
Cooling down helps you get ahead of your mouth. Kids need to learn to trust their parent to give fair consequences, and saying things you don’t mean will just get you both in trouble. If you tell the child they’re losing the privilege of going to the park for two weeks, you need to commit to two weeks. If they can’t play video games for a week because they used a KO move on their sister, they can’t play for a week.
If you do change a punishment, make it intentional and talk to the child about it. Parents are allowed to change their minds, and allowed to apologize for excessive punishment! However, parents need to use that change to teach their children about accountability, especially when children are learning to control aggression. You can be gentle, too.