As most parents with more than one child already know, children that come from the same parents can be so different. Wonderfully, shockingly so. Even though we may feel like we’re experienced parents who have been doing this for years, sometimes the youngest child can make us feel like we’re figuring stuff out all over again! This is the case these days with Wells. If you’re interested in hearing, let me tell you what’s been working for me when dealing with his recent bout of hitting.
First off, Hennie never hits. She’s never kicked us or thrown anything or done one thing that could be deemed worthy of ‘discipline’ by conventional norms. She’s no saint of course, her sass level is high even by my own standards, but she’s always been apprehensive and has responded very well to the boundaries we’ve laid out for her. Wells is different. He pushes boundaries and tests us constantly. I’m so glad that he’s the one of our kids who is doing this because as a first-time anxious parent and more importantly, a colic survivor and new mama to a medically-complex child, I’m not sure if I would have been able to react to Hennie from a place of grace and learning like I have been able to react to Wells. Hennie’s first year was wrought with trauma for me and I was still working through those emotions in her second year. The way she responded so well to the few hard rules we introduced to her was a sigh of relief for my spirit, which desperately needed a break by way of an easy second year of motherhood. She was a timidly curious one-year-old and a sweet, complacent two-year-old.
These days Hen is definitely a “threenager” but that’s a story for another post. Lately my main worry has been this hitting problem popping up with Wells (who is almost 17 months old). I know that this is a normal and expected part of development, a testing of boundaries that all kids (except Hen) go through for a short or long period of time before they (hopefully!) grow out of it. My aim is to shorten the length of time that it’s a problem, mostly to preserve his newfound friendship with his timid and now skeptical big sister, but also to ensure that my kids learn to deal with their big emotions in a way that’s healthy.
Unfortunately, because I still have much un-learning to do, I responded to Wells’ first big hit in exactly the way I have now decided that I shouldn’t. I wasn’t expecting it and because I’d never had to deal with it before with Hennie I hadn’t yet decided how I wanted to respond. Surprised that he had done it and indignant on behalf of Hennie, I said “Wells, NO!” much too loudly and then threw out a vague and useless, “we don’t hit!” which I’m sure he found both upsetting and confusing – he was only trying something new, after all. He grew more agitated and immediately escalated to constant, spastic attacks. For a few days afterward it was awful; from that first bum change in the morning he was winding up that arm and Hennie couldn’t go anywhere near him. She would whimper fearfully when he came close (even though his attacks rarely landed and didn’t hurt) and begged me to carry her everywhere in the house (I did not do this).
As all of you know, I’m not a professional child behaviourist, an early childhood educator, or even a veteran mom so I’m just sharing what is working for me and Wells lately. You should do what fits into your worldview and is right for your family.
Rather than trying to ‘fix’ my toddler I’ve been trying to understand him a little better. Since he can’t communicate with words yet I figured hitting must be a way for him to communicate some big emotions he’s navigating. Since he is usually laughing and/or playing when it happens, I don’t think he is trying to communicate anger but some other feeling that he doesn’t know how to process because he’s, well, a one-year-old. Approaching his newfound penchant for hitting from a compassionate standpoint rather than anger or exasperation has worked wonders the past few weeks. Here’s what it looks like for us:
- I EMPATHIZE by treating his behaviour like a series of questions he’s asking. This has helped me to see things from his perspective. Toddlers his age are inquisitive and I imagine him wondering “what will happen if I do this? Is this allowed? What reaction will Mummy and Hennie have? Will I get the same reaction if I do it again? and again? and again? I know I’m not supposed to do this but I want to see if Mummy will still love me if I do it. I’m feeling agitated/ excited/ fearful and I want to see if this is the appropriate way for me to demonstrate these feelings.” Yes I know that he’s not really thinking those exact things but I do believe that his actions are a way for him to explore and ask questions about his environment and to gauge and learn from my response. He’s learning boundaries in a different way than Hennie learned boundaries at his age and that’s completely okay.
- I ACT, staying consistent and recognizing that his behaviour is not “bad” but developmentally appropriate. I meet him where he’s at. I get down on the ground with the kids and stay physically close to Wells so that I can intervene between him and his sister. If his arm comes up, I gently but firmly stop him from hitting.
- I SPEAK in a way that is straightforward and not confusing for him, abandoning the “we” and saying instead “I don’t want you to do that” before redirecting his attention elsewhere. For Hennie’s sake I usually recognize out loud that Wells is “still learning how to act and it’s our job to show him what’s okay and what’s not okay. Let’s tell him how much we love him.”
- I CONNECT and demonstrate calm by controlling my reaction if he continues. In order to show him that emotions are not bad, I allow him to feel however he’s feeling and I don’t shout, scold, or punish him by putting him in forced isolation (aka time-out) which I think would demonstrate to him that emotions are unacceptable and should be dealt with only by himself. I remind myself that a small child’s biggest fear is being separated or isolated from his parents so I offer him connection by making eye contact, keeping my voice calm, and offering hugs and cuddles.
This last part usually results in Wells sinking into my arms and calming right down, which shows me that maybe through his behaviour he’s looking for connection and reassurance all along. Again, this is just one mama’s experience but it’s working for me! I feel like increased connection and being present is probably the antidote to most of the difficulties we face in these early years. Have you dealt with a toddler who hits? What have you found that has worked for you?