How to Teach a Preschooler to Stop Hitting

preschool age boy pointing at brother who is covering his eyes

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There are so many things in life that are out of a preschooler's control—when they go to school, when they go to bed, what they eat—that they easily can get frustrated. As children mature, they are able to develop a vocabulary that helps them express through words how they are feeling. Until then, however, you may often see aggressive behaviors such as biting and temper tantrums.

Another popular way for young children to express their emotions is to hit. While common for children in the 3 to 5 age group, hitting is not acceptable and the sooner your little one learns that the better off they will be.

How to Respond When a Preschooler Hits

While there are many long-term solutions to get a child to stop hitting, it is important to make sure you respond appropriately if you catch them in the act of hitting someone else, or if they hit you. Say, "No! We don't hit!" in a firm, calm voice.

Then, talk about what just happened. Point out that your child hit someone else and they wouldn't like it if someone hit them. Even if another child did something to provoke your little one, let them know that their behavior is not acceptable. Discipline them, whether it is using a timeout or some other method. Do not, however, hit your child back as this sends a mixed message.

Try to Find the Root of the Problem

For many young children, a lack of appropriate vocabulary is the number one reason they hit. Whether a playmate has yanked a toy out of their hands or mommy isn't giving them the snack they want, rather than try to find the right words to express how they feel, it is much easier to simply use their hands.

There could also be other factors at work. Does the child have any stress going on in their life, such as the birth of a new sibling or moving to a new home? When a child doesn't feel in control of their life, they are more likely to act out and behave aggressively.

If your child hits constantly, you also might want to consider if this is a behavior they tend to engage in around the same people. Not that the other children are at fault, but if your child is constantly hitting their older cousins, it could be that those children are acting in a way that is causing your child stress.

Try to be a casual observer or, if this is happening at school or daycare, enlist the help of the teacher or provider.

Work on Basic Problem-Solving Skills

The big lesson you want your child to learn is that physical violence is never acceptable in any form. Certainly telling your child "no" when they hit someone is important, but you also need to tell them what they should do instead of using their hands.

This can be tricky with a young child who is still very impulsive, but it can be done. The next time you are role-playing with your preschooler—house, school, doctor, etc.—come up with some trigger scenarios that usually cause them to hit. If they move to hit you, stop them, and ask what they could do instead. Help them work through the issue, giving assistance and ideas on what the next step should be.

Teach Words Instead of Fists

If preschoolers can express themselves verbally, they may be less likely to physically act out. So start building their vocabulary. When they get mad at their brother for taking a book out of their hands, teach them to say, "I am mad!" When they are upset because they have to stop playing and take a nap, it's OK for them to express, "I am sad!" 

By giving a name to the emotions that kids are feeling, you are helping validate them. And by giving them words, you are letting them express themselves in a positive, healthy, peaceful way.

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