When your kid hits another kid (what to say in the moment)

It’s the worst feeling: your kid hits another kid (or bites or embeds fingernails in or otherwise mauls another kid) during a play date. You make sure the other kid is OK, and now you turn to yours. The pressure’s on: the kid’s parent is looking at you, or pretending not to look at you. You want to prove that you’re handling it.

What do you say?

  • “Hey! We don’t hit!”
  • “Say you’re sorry.”
  • “Time-out. Right. Now.”
  • “I don’t know what’s going on … he didn’t nap today …”
  • All of the above.

None of them seem very satisfying, do they? The lecture feels a bit helpless, given how many times you’ve said it before. The apology isn’t exactly empathetic if it isn’t the kid’s idea. The time-out isn’t effective discipline, at least not as it’s usually done. The excuses feel lame.

(Bonus download at the end: The secret to time-outs that work).

You could end the play date, and that might be necessary if your kid is truly tired or out of control. (“Playing with friends isn’t working for you right now. We’ll try again another day.”) But what about when it’s kind of a minor infraction? I’ve been using Sandy Blackard’s Language of Listening, my favorite positive-parenting framework.

The first step: Say what you see.  

  • “You hit your friend. You were upset.”
  • “You’re feeling mad. You really want that toy.”
  • “You were angry because he wanted to be alone, and you wanted to play. You hit him, and now he really doesn’t want to play. Rats!”

The hard part is to say your observation without judgment. But it’s important because the point here is to connect before you correct, so you don’t get into a power struggle.

The second step: Give a boundary + can-do.

  • “People are not for hitting. Must be something you can hit to get that frustration out. Pillows are OK.” (You might get the kids to rewind and replay the scene, this time helping your child hit a pillow. Actions speak louder than words, especially for a kid. Then, Blackard says, guide them to resolve the original problem peacefully.)
  • “Hitting is not OK. Your friend has the toy and you want the toy. Wonder what you could do…” (Let the kids, age 3+, come up with an answer.)
  • “Hitting isn’t getting you what you want! Hmm, you want to play and he wants to be alone. Must be something you can do that would work for both of you.”

As things settle: Name a strength.

  • “You know how to calm down.”
  • “You’re taking turns.”
  • “You found a compromise.”

My post ‘I’m gonna hit him’ was about a revealing attempt at positive discipline with my 3-year-old. Blackard helped me see where things went awry. But that situation happened a day or two after the hitting, so I wanted to circle back and talk about what to say in the moment.

If this way of parenting is new to you, you might be thinking: Where’s the swift punishment? Why go to all of this effort? Positive discipline is more effective for a few reasons:

You’re acknowledging your child’s feelings. That validation literally relaxes the vagus nerve. When you model naming emotions, that helps your child recognize and name emotions. Naming our emotions also helps get our brains out of fight-or-flight mode. (See “Label intense emotions” and “Emotion first, problem second” in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.) We can’t learn when we’re in fight-or-flight. Finally, problem-solving and pointing out strengths helps teach your child what to do, tunes the internal moral compass, and builds skills for the long-term (see “Teach instead of punish”).

What about making amends? The real lesson, after all, is not that we should get in trouble when we hurt someone but that we need to make it right and seek a solution. Let your child know: “When we hurt someone, we ask, ‘Are you all right?’ We try to make them feel better.” You might model it yourself by giving a hug or saying, “I’m so sorry that happened.” Sometimes our child will try it out for themselves right then. But it’s much harder to get to that frame of mind if we don’t first address our child’s emotions.

Bonus download: The secret to time-outs that work

Get a sneak peek of my book, Zero to Five, here.

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.

10 thoughts on “When your kid hits another kid (what to say in the moment)

  1. the problem I have with this approach is that nowhere in here is the child OWNING their bad behavior. Yes, I get the idea that you need to find the root of the action and explain that it doesn’t work to get what you want. But at some point a child who hits should feel bad about that behavior and should own their bad behavior. Where in the conversation above does the child who got hit get to feel consoled or acknolwedged? Having the parent of the hitter do the consolation doesn’t really seem fair to me.

    1. I agree with you there . It’s sort of like your telling the child who did the hitting that it’s okay to hit ( or bite in some cases cuz really it’s all boils down to being physically aggressive towards another person wether it be spitting or hitting or biting . Wether it be a child or an adult . Like our court systems label it all the same regardless of the act . It’s all considered to be physically Aggressive.) simply becuase your upset or feeling like you need to . That’s like telling a d.v ( domestic violence) perpetrator that they didn’t do anything wrong and thus telling the survivor that what happened to them is allowed simply because the perpetrator was upset or something.

      If I had a child ,that got hit , this I would be making a major complaint to both the parents of the child who hit and if it happened in a day care setting to the director . Kids will soon learn as they grow up to be in the mid teen and adults that our actions have consequences and that you have the right to “feel” upset or such but you don’t have the right to respond to those feelings at the expense of someone else

  2. I hear what you’re saying, Elis. Thanks for bringing this up. One reason we don’t need to do anything to make sure our child feels bad is that he is already registering everybody’s reaction. He can see that his friend is crying or doesn’t want to play with him for a bit, and that the adults have come running over with concern and disappointment.

    I agree, we all want our child to understand the concept of making it right. It’s OK for us to help. When we model an apology or consolation, our child is seeing how to repair relationships. By our actions, we’re guiding him to do it, too. He might do it right then, or later in the day, or next time.

    As you wrote, they will own their behavior “at some point.” Beyond age 5, kids are more capable of this. There will be many chances for our child to observe, practice, and eventually get it. It’s such a process! You made an important distinction there.

  3. Hi, Marge! Consider which of these philosophies will best achieve your goal:
    “I will teach my child that we don’t hit others by hitting others (him).”
    “I will teach my child that we don’t hit others by showing him alternatives.”

  4. Kudos for responding the way you did, Tracy. A wooden spoon, Marge? Tracy is trying to help us be BETTER parents, to raise happy, healthy, resilient kiddos. Spoons belong in the kitchen, and that’s really it. Come on.

  5. My daughter (4yrs) hits her older brother (7yrs) on a regular basis – every time my 4 yr old wants him to play her. She will grab his things by force and hit/spit/scratch if there’s any resistance. It gets worse when my son react angrily (even if it’s an angry expression – my oldest is very gentle!). I always intervene and get smacked as well and it hurst (my youngest is getting better at aiming and stronger!! i try to protect myself and my son but does always work). My youngest is otherwise gentle and loving but struggles with anger (which i actually think is due to being really sensitive to ‘rejection’). I’ve tried the loving/connecting approach, i’ve tried the punishing, the disappointed look, the sad look, the distraction method, everything, but the hitting is just getting stronger and more automatic! Please give me a step-by-step guide so (a) i know what my default/quick response to her should be when she hits (i try not to get angry or shame but its my automatic response) (b) how can i comfort my oldest in the moment without belittling his pain/frustration. Im actually more worried about my oldest getting more and more frustrated with being hit/scratched so badly and so often!

    1. Zahra, happy to help if you can describe one particular scene, being specific about what happened (what kids said/did, what you said/did) at each point in the interaction.

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