Being slapped across the face by a screaming toddler is a true test of parenting. Unfortunately for us, James has chosen to test us in this regard quite a bit recently. It’s basically his new thing when he doesn’t get his way and it’s beyond frustrating. Not only does it often hurt and shock (and honestly, does anyone enjoy getting slapped across the face?), but it’s also scary — it makes me worry our child will be violent with other kids or caregivers as well. And James has slapped Dakota before too — in fact, he’s started hitting her a lot recently when she does something like eat the food he’s “cooking”, which is probably a good lesson for her to learn, but I don’t want him hitting period. And if he ever does it to a less sweet dog than Dakota, he could get bit. Bottom line though: I don’t want him hitting anyone or anything.
The trouble is time-outs are really working to stop our toddler from hitting. He’s so frustrated and angry that he needs to let it out, and because he often catches me by surprise, he knows that a slap will get a reaction. I know this behavior needs to be nipped in the bud, but how do you stop a toddler from hitting? I’ve basically spent the last few weeks researching and experimenting and here are the best solutions I’ve found, though full-disclosure: we are still not totally there with James. BUT we have seen the frequency of his hitting diminish and he’ll even stop himself like make the gesture to hit and then stop, so I know we’re making progress (though poor Dakota still gets wailed on when she steals his food).
Figure out the triggers. James gets really angry when he doesn’t get his way and he’s not sure how to let out his emotions. Some of that is my fault. I will abruptly turn off Moana (his favorite show) or he’ll be playing and not coming to the bath so I’ll just pick him up and bring him to the bathroom after a few failed attempts at coaxing him over. It’s this total loss of control and forcing him to do something that drives him nuts. I’m trying to learn to be more patient (although sometimes that doesn’t work) and to ease transitions so they’re not so abrupt and he feels a better sense of control. Giving him one and five minute warnings helps since he gets those at school. Also, not letting him get roped into a video or movie before I know we need him to bathe or get ready to leave even if I could really use those 20 minutes to get ready myself. I’m also trying to get him excited about the transitions like offering to let him bring something in the bath or go in myself so we can take one together.
Stop them before they swing. Now that I’m getting better at identifying triggers, I’ve gotten better at figuring out when James is about to hit, and in those cases, I try to say “no hitting” before he swings and to grab his arms if he starts swinging. This doesn’t always work, but I think often, his hitting is almost an instinct and this helps him stop and regroup for a second. Sometimes he’ll still decide to hit but at least it makes it more of a conscious decision.
Label their emotions and show you understand why they’re mad. While this doesn’t always stop the tantrum and hitting, I like to let James know that I understand that he’s angry and frustrated. I’ll say something like “James wants to watch Elmo” or “James no dress” to show in concise language that I understand what he wants and why he’s upset. It doesn’t mean that it changes what will happen, but it helps him to stop and know I’m not ignoring him and that he does have some control. Then I’ll say something like I know it’s frustrating or it makes him angry and then say but you can’t hit.
Explain that hitting hurts and demonstrate how to touch gently. Sometimes James gets really excited and might hit out of excitement or wanting attention, so if it feels more like an attention grab or out of excitement, I’ll tell him that hitting hurts and demonstrate how to touch gently instead.
Grab their arms. Sometimes he’s so angry and frustrated that he gets physical. The words don’t come easily and he has no control over what is happening or in getting what he wants. When he’s started hitting and tantruming, I’ll pick him up and hold him tight, holding his arms so he can’t slap. Sometimes I get slapped in the process of all this, but this helps calm his body and often it’s clear he really just needs a hug and cuddle.
Put them on time out. Usually after I pick him up, I’ll put him on a time out so he can calm down, which he’ll usually do in 5-10 seconds. HIs attention span is short and he quickly forgets what he was upset about. It’s also a good break for me after getting clocked in the face. Often I’ll put him on timeout in his crib rather than his usual chair because at this point he’s so upset, he’ll get up from the chair and come over and hit me so it’s the only way that really works. I’ll also shut the door partially, not to scare him but so he can just regroup and not start throwing things out of the crib because he knows I can see him. I only leave him in there for 10-15 seconds. Afterward, I always ask him to apologize. I’m not sure that it registers with him yet why he’s apologizing etc. but I still think it’s important and I always remind him we don’t hitting, hitting hurts.
That’s all I’ve found to work so far, but to be honest, it doesn’t always work out that well and he’s still hitting, so would love to hear any advice you’ve tried that has worked as well, because man, this is hard!