Sunday 20 October 2019

Dear David Coleman: Our three-year-old son hits us. How do we handle it?

Young children like to flex their
Young children like to flex their "independence muscles", but this can lead to upset
David Coleman

David Coleman

Q My three-year-old son has started to hit myself and his mother, and even his grandmother, when he is angry - usually when he is told to do something that he doesn't want to do, or isn't getting his way. During these episodes, he'll also verbalise his anger, by calling us 'stupid' or something similar. How do we handle these situations? Is it just a phase that he'll grow out of?

David replies: It isn't necessarily a phase he'll grow out of, unless you intervene. Three-year-olds like to flex their "independence muscles", as they now identify themselves as psychologically separate from their primary caregiver. They have learned the power of the word "no", or "I'll do it myself".

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Pre-schoolers also live very much in the here and now, not holding on to the past, nor, particularly being able to focus on the future. The concept of delaying gratification is somewhat alien to them, and so if they want something, they generally want it immediately and will struggle to wait, getting frustrated or upset. Similarly, they can struggle with being prevented from carrying through their momentary heart's desire (ie whatever task or activity they are currently having fun engaging in).

These sound like the kinds of situations that are causing anger for your son. Your response to him, at these times is, therefore, really important. We need to remember the twin goals of parenting: setting expectations for our children while also remaining responsive to their emotional world. When we can achieve both together, we will have most success in parenting. Another way to consider these two factors is to think about being firm and kind.

So, when you need to check his behaviour, or get him to do something that you, rather than he, wants, you have to do so firmly and kindly. In practice, that means that you need to stop him from doing certain things, while empathising with the fact that stopping might be difficult or frustrating. We have to recognise that it can be hard to be three and to not have power! You will also find that distraction is your best friend in dealing with three-year-olds, since they can often be tempted by the promise of something more fun.

It is never enough to simply tell a three-year-old to stop behaving in a certain way. We have to back up the request (or demand) to stop, with some action that actually prevents them carrying out the behaviour. So, with the hitting for example, you do need to tell him "no hitting", but you must also remove yourself from range, or gently hold his hands so he can't actually strike you. You might want to add something to the statement that shows some recognition of his feelings, such as "No hitting. You seem very upset, but you may not hit."

A lot of the time, with three-year-olds, our focus needs to be as much on managing their environment as on managing their direct behaviour. So, by planning, making sure we are available to them, we can often foresee an issue and head it off at the pass (so to speak), before it becomes a problem. If we know that the time is coming when something fun is ending, we need to give plenty of warning, and have something else ready to divert or distract them.

If we remember that their world can be a frustrating place (since there is lots of things they can't do, can't reach, or aren't allowed to do) we can also allow that to inform our planning such that we have greater patience and understanding if they do get cross. Again, our warmth and acknowledgement of their feelings will go a long way to dissipating the intensity of those feelings, leaving them better able to cope.

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