David Coleman: My three-year-old son is going through a phase of hitting and kicking. What can I do to help him?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q: I have four children under seven. Our house is chaotic but mostly happy.However my three-year-old son is going through a phase of hitting and kicking on an almost constant basis. In general his behaviour is great once he is on his own with us, but as soon as a sibling appears he immediately will hit them or throw their drawing or toy away etc. Recently he has started hitting me as soon as he doesn't get his way. He is relatively good with the baby and doesn't hit her. Please, please give me some advice, I simply don't know what to do with him.
David replies: If your son has increased the amount of hitting or kicking, or the intensity of the hitting or kicking then it is quite likely that this is, in fact, associated with some change, or perceived change, in his world.
You mention about his relationship with "the baby", his little sister, and so, given that he is only three, I am guessing she is still either a toddler or younger. Perhaps he found the transition from being the baby of the family himself, to being one of the middle of four children hard.
It may be that this is why his relationship with his older siblings has become so disruptive. I could imagine that when his little sister was born he may not have paid much heed to her, but as she has gotten older perhaps she is more in his way, so to speak.
If she is mobile, for example, then she may become involved in his play, perhaps disrupting him. Maybe he then displaces his frustrations onto his older siblings, seeing them as more robust, less "protected" than the baby, and more accessible in terms of venting his annoyance or jealousy.
It is great to hear that, when he is alone with you, his behaviour is so good. That, also, is reassuring, as it reminds you that his core nature is good-hearted and loving. I could imagine it is hard to feel this about him when his behaviour is really challenging.
Responding to his behaviour requires a twin-track approach in my opinion. I think you need to apply a very firm and unambiguous discipline on him that lets him know, clearly, that hitting is not tolerated in your home. This is not to say that you need to increase punishment levels, far from it. I suggest that you focus on correcting his aggressive behaviour rather than punishing it.
Correcting it means saying, sternly, "no hitting" and then removing him from the location where he was hurting one of his siblings. As you bring him into another room, you tell him "when you can play without hitting you can go back and play with your brother/sister".
This is not a punishment "time-out". It is simply to give him a chance to calm down.
While your tone needs to be stern and firm, it is okay to also be understanding about the fact that he seems upset enough to warrant hitting out. So along with the swift removal from the person he has hit, you can also acknowledge that he seems upset, or angry.
The message he needs to get, consistently, is that even though he may feel angry it is not okay to hit, and that you won't let him continue to hit. Tell him that if he feels cross he needs to come and tell you so that you can help to sort out the problem.
The fact that he seems so cross maybe, as discussed, to do with his sense of his place in the family. He may feel displaced by his baby sister.
So, along with the acknowledgement of his feelings it might be worth trying to guess the source of that frustration. When he is calm, later, you might empathise with him that it is hard to be a big brother, or that he might be annoyed that others, like his older siblings, have a new baby to possibly dote on.
I think that the mix of clear and firm responses to hitting, along with warmth and understanding about the new complexities of his place in the family, may help him to move on from this phase of hitting out.
If you have any parenting queries for David Coleman, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that David cannot enter into individual correspondence
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