My Child Won’t Stop Hitting People

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

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Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

Hi Annie,

My child won’t stop hitting people. My son turned three a few weeks ago. The one thing we are struggling with is anger. When he gets hurt physically, if he bumps his head or falls down, or emotionally, if another child pushes him or screams at him, he will start to cry and come and find me, his dad, or any adult and start to hit us. This is something we never display, so I’m not sure why he does this and how do we stop it?

The other day at play school, he bumped his head on another child’s knee, and I was across the gym in the bathroom. I had asked the instructor to watch him as I was in the washroom, and when I came out, I saw the instructor holding him as he was crying and hitting her. I’m afraid to leave him at all because I would rather he hit me than someone else. He will also get upset if he sees another child crying. He will start to cry and hit. He is an emotional child, and both my husband and I were emotional children too. I just don’t understand why he’s hitting. There are also trigger words too.  If someone says, “Are you ok?” or “Sorry,” if they bump into him or see him get mildly hurt, that’s his cue to get upset.

When this happens, we take him away to calm him down by usually not saying anything and just consoling him, as we know he won’t understand anything when he is in a rage. Then, after a half hour or so, when he is calm, we try to talk to him about what happened, identify how he is feeling, and then suggest other options instead of hitting, such as stomping his feet. He is receptive to the questions, and he identifies his feelings. He even repeats different venting options. However, it doesn’t seem to work. Any ideas? Thanks, Kira

Hi  Kira,

My child won't stop hitting people“My child won’t stop hitting people” is a common refrain—far more common than you might think.    I do have some ideas, but first let me say that I understand how frustrating this must be for you. Luckily, the answer is actually quite simple. The only trouble with a simple answer is that people think that it can’t possibly work because it’s, well, so simple. But I digress.

Ok, what we have here is a little guy who gets cross when he’s hurt and can’t seem to deal with that emotion. You’ve mentioned that you were an emotional child, as was your husband. That’s all well and good, but I don’t think we can put this simply in the court of genetics. The main thing about his “hurt” response is that he’s hitting people.  That is obviously a problem, as you have pointed out, but it concerns me that you would rather have him hit you than someone else, as if it’s okay for him to use you as a punching bag while he learns to deal with his emotions. Hitting you is not a way for him to express his feelings, something that my behaviour intervention services addresses.

My child won’t stop hitting people: First, look where the attention is going

Let’s look at what happens when he gets upset. Getting a bump hurts, and as parents, we should be sympathetic. However, hurting someone else in response to that bump is not on. Children want your attention, so it makes sense when you’re trying to figure out what’s going on that you understand at what period and in response to what stimuli you are offering that attention.

Right now, you are offering attention to both of his responses. You are consoling him (giving attention) when he’s hurt, followed by also giving him attention when he hits someone else. In order to stop the behaviour you need to separate the two.

Explain to him beforehand in very simple terms that when he’s hurt, it’s ok and good to come to mom or dad for a hug but that hitting is not allowed. If he hits you, he will be in time out, hurt or not. Nobody likes being ignored, and it will be particularly galling if he’s got a bump on the head to cope with as well. However, he has to realize that hitting someone else for any reason is not okay.

You can explain your position and that of any of his victims until the cows come home, but children need to experience consequences in order for concepts to sink in. All you are doing is letting that consequence happen. Hitting people will upset them, and they will not want him near them, so it’s much better that he learns that now, while the lesson is easily absorbed, rather than later, when it has become an entrenched habit.

At the same time, try to notice every occasion where he controls his temper and frustrations and offer him encouragement. “Well done…. I liked the way you… “It’s so nice to see you doing…..”

My child won’t stop hitting people:  Don’t treat him like an adult because he isn’t

I appreciate that you’re trying in your own way to deal with the problem, but many parents believe small children to have the same reasoning powers that adults do. You learned what you could and couldn’t do by experiencing the world. Your child must do the same. You cannot explain that experience. Learning through consequence is what makes life rich. I don’t know about you, but it’s my mistakes and the consequences of them that, in retrospect, have been my best learning experiences.

I would also look at other venting options because foot stamping will drive you crazy at some point too. Anything physical will help, but try and keep it positive physical, whether jumping jacks or whatever, recognizing that there’s a time and place to be physical and that as he gets older, it isn’t appropriate to act out his frustration unless he can do it in the privacy of his bedroom. My grandmother got around that one by sweeping the floor every time she got mad.  The plus was that she had very clean floors! Teaching deep breathing would be a good idea, as would using counting or a rhyme to calm down.

For more help with your parenting, please visit my parenting services page.

Hope this helps,

All the best,


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