Phoebe, 2.5, Jenn and Paige (5)

Q: My 3-year-old is hitting and pinching her sister

Hey Tracy:

I am trying to teach my 3-year-old ways to calm herself down when she’s feeling angry. I usually ask her to take a deep breath or go away from people (namely her 6-month-old sister) if she feels like hitting or pinching. Some days we can turn the mood around. Other days it seems to build up until she’s acting out every few minutes. Any advice is welcome! — L.L.

Dear L.L.:

Hitting is so frustrating. The strikes can seem to come out of nowhere. One thing I’ve found helpful is to set aside time to brainstorm: What might your 3-year-old need that’s missing? What, from her perspective, could be causing this? I remember a phase where my daughter started hitting me, and a phase where she refused to stay in bed at bedtime. In both cases, when my husband and I gave it some thought (at a calmer time), we realized our daughter was trying to get our attention because she needed more quality time with us in that moment. She actually had asked in other ways, once we thought about it. But, she felt, we weren’t hearing her.

Think about: What’s going on when this tends to happen? What do you suspect the underlying reason might be? What are a couple ways you could address that reason to see if that’s it?

At the same time — just as you’re doing — she needs something to replace the behavior. Deep breaths are good. Having her choose the alternative is good. Maybe she’d rather jump up and down three times or stomp around or hit a punching doll or something.

The trick is that kids need to physically do this alternative many times before it becomes a more automatic response. Repeated action by her (not repeated lecturing from you!) is what moves this alternative from the thinking part of her brain to the more automatic part of her brain. So you could role-play to help her practice it. You could have her practice the alternative each time she hits or pinches.

You say there are times when your daughter’s frustration just seems to build up and overload her. Trust your intuition. Where can you provide small but consistent doses of being truly present, to help build up her reservoir of connection? Can you plan one-on-one time with her, even once a week, as something she can look forward to? (She’s sorely missing it with a sibling in the house.) Language of Listening is what I use to stay present, as well as respond to anger or hitting.

Finally: When you’re truly out of patience … maybe just stop what you’re doing, crank some upbeat music, and start a dance party. At least one person will start feeling better!


Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

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