David (3.5) and Meg

The best thing to do when your kid hits you

Sunday was one of those days. Everybody was off their rhythm. Everybody was short on sleep. Everybody was cranky. If you have a 3-year-old, you know what that means: violence. By them. Toward you.

I set us up for this mess Saturday night by lingering at a party and getting our toddler to bed late, then running out of diapers. My brilliant solution: “OK, I’m going to put your potty in your room. If you need to go, then climb out of bed and sit on your potty.” I said it so optimistically, too! We even had a fun, silly moment role-playing how it would go.

Cue the midnight wakeup with a wet bed.

That was about the time my husband got home from a concert. No amount of optimism would get our toddler to sleep in past 6:30 a.m.; we knew that. So, less than six hours later, we were all awake again. “I’m HUNGRY!” she said. We tried to get her to cuddle with us in our bed. Falling asleep together sounds so lovely. But it never works. So my husband and I spent the next half-hour being kicked, stepped on, jumped on, ridden like horsies, and so on until he got up to make her breakfast.

But, since it was one of those days, she didn’t want to eat. At least not while my husband tried to go back to sleep on the couch.

Instead, she got violent.

“Hey, don’t hit me!” I heard my husband say. It was the first time she’d tried it on him. “Hey! No! You hurt me!” He sounded partly bewildered and partly angry. “Say you’re sorry right now! Promise you won’t do that again.” At his upset tone, she burst into tears. “I need a hug,” she cried. I’m sure he was thinking, You hit me and now you need a hug?

It’s one of the most trying situations I think parents of toddlers encounter:

  • to look past our feelings of disrespect, anger, and hurt after being hit or bitten or scratched by our own child
  • to understand that their emotions have overwhelmed them and they’ve flipped their lid (lost the ability to self-regulate) — which happens much more easily when they’re tired or hungry
  • to see that what they really need is for us to move toward them with love, not away from them in anger
  • and then to help them deal with their big feelings until they calm down.

There’s one opening line I’ve found helpful in this situation. (And it’s not “Promise you won’t do that again.” Even the most optimistic among us knows that’s not gonna work.) It’s a calm, matter-of-fact “I won’t let you hurt me.” This is a signal to your child — and a reminder to you — that you are still the adult and able to keep both of you safe.

It’s a line from parenting coach Dr. Laura Markham, a proponent of positive discipline. She offers a rundown of the reasons kids hit parents, along with the blog post “What to do when your child gets angry.”

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You might say some combination of the following:

“I won’t let you hurt me.” (I’m still the adult here.)

“I’m not going to play blocks with you if you throw them at me. I will be over here.” (I will not allow you to hurt me, but I won’t entirely leave you alone to deal with your feelings. I’m still in sight. I’m not punishing you — like putting you in time-out or yelling at you or getting physical — for having scary feelings and not knowing how to cope with them.)

“You must be so tired to hit me like that. Let’s get you to bed for your nap.” (I empathize with you, I realize there’s an underlying issue here, and I’m going to redirect us to take care of that now.)

“I’m going to hold you tight to keep both of us safe, and I’m going to help you let out your feelings.” (I’m here to support you through tough emotions.) In this case, Markham suggests holding your child tight with her back to you and letting her kick and push against you or a pillow until her anger and fear subsides into tears.

Which combination of these makes sense depends on the situation and your child. I tried holding my toddler tight during an epic upset at bedtime. She said, “Just put me in my bed. I want you to leave.” So I told her I loved her and left! In other situations when something sparks a violent reaction, I’ve left the room (rather than just moving out of harm’s way but staying in sight), and I can tell she’s more scared, more upset by that.

As always, this takes some experimenting. And, afterward, a glass of wine … or two.

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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