“My Son Hits Instead of Using His Words”

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Hi january,

I’ve got my hands full once again here, as if I ever didn’t. Joe’s really stirring up the stuff the past two weeks. Physical stuff, all out tantrums. He’s not able to get through conflicts with his peers without getting physical, and it’s a constant. At least once a day there’s a conflict where he finds the need to use his body to settle the issue. On a rough day it’s several episodes. Like today he picked a two year old to take issue with at the library over a block toy! He didn’t hit her but started pushing her hands a way and began to yell. He looked like he was heading towards pushing but I intervened quickly. We tried to work it out with all the tools I’ve learned thus far but he was having none of that two year old taking control of the block toy. I ended up removing him and having a talk with him in the car about it, and that’s just one very small example. Other times at school it’s been a bit more ugly. Lots of hitting and yelling. I’ve been shadowing him each day for a week. I did leave him at school for about an hour and a half monday. That went fine. I’m not thrilled with the way the parents deal with him or for that matter the entire participation level at the school. The teacher is “okay” but could be a lot better. She tends to allow way to much parental influence into the classroom. Hence my feeling the need to shadow Joe even more so. His unwanted behavior is outside of school also–at ball parks, stores, home it really seems to hit hard anytime there is competition or sharing opportunities or power struggles. That’s kind of an idea of it, it’s getting hard to keep my patience. I always think of the story you tell of the parent (mom) that called you crying for help locked in the bathroom afraid she’s gonna hit her kid. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to walk out the door and meditate, breathing with only the thoughts of how much I love my son–then returning right back into the thick of it. Wow, tuff stuff!
A very frustrated at- home dad

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Dear frustrated at- home Dad,

Sorry its so rough with Joe right now. I hope you congratulate yourself on your enduring commitment to being the best parent you can be–which does mean imperfect, at times out of patience or exasperated. Yet you care enough to seek support!

My first response is “what is going on in Joe’s (you and your significant other’s) life? It “feels” by your words that he is seeking control/power OR your undivided attention. He, of course doesn’t know that is what he is seeking- he is on the lovely (well, not always lovely) “auto-develop” design of a preschooler. Which does mean you and your partner were wise in seeking another year of development for him before he enters formal schooling- he is exhibiting signs of emotional development more in line with preschoolers, though physical impulsiveness, especially for boys, continues long into the elementary (adult?) years. At any rate, I think you and I have discussed before that children are limbically connected with their parents (especially their primary care-taker) and act as little barometers to what is going on- often acting like the catalyst to “push things over the edge” when emotions are running high in the household. So check in with your self, your current situation and see if any of that rings true.

If it is power/control that he is seeking- your job is to find places and times he can control (sometimes it is still within the narrow confines of 2 choices, but 2 are better than none!), notice and acknowledge when he seeks these human (normal) needs in appropriate ways (offer some leadership opportunities, like “What is a good, fair plan for this?”) If his need is to feel some control, try not to force the sharing issue unless someone else’s rights must be guarded- in other words, you continue to model the joy of sharing, and noticing out loud the pleasant impact it has on yourself and others. AND let Joe keep his turn going as long as he needs to- or, out of conflict (always the best time to work at resolving issues, and usually the time we are ignoring “good” behavior because we are either finally getting some peace, or getting something done) tell Joe what you need “I need to know that everyone is safe, and that you are learning how to be with other people, that is my job as a parent” and truly listen to Joe’s needs, which if he could articulate them might be something like ” I need to feel I have some control over what happens to me and my stuff/interests and that you won’t force me to do things that take away my power.” Then work on an “agreement”: How about when you really want a turn you give me a signal (hand squeeze, etc.) and I will make sure it happens, not always that minute, but soon, and I will help you with the words that will make it happen.”

On the other hand, if it is attention he is seeking, he is succeeding in getting it in ways that are in the end NOT serving him “I am only worthy of attention when I am mis-behaving” which may mean for you, checking in with the teacher on a plan, leaving him to her support during class, and lavishing attention on him in an undivided way at a predictable time each day. Think this through, so it will be something you can actually accomplish in real life, we are surprisingly divided in our attention, more than we know. When a child can truly count on our attention (say each day after class for a half hour) they often relax in their needs. My concern here, if that is what he is trying to tell us he needs, is that from my past communications with you, Joe does get lots of loving attention, and he is having to adjust to a world where he is not everyone’s “apple of the eye”  and it takes some getting used to- not being the center of the universe. Most of us struggle with that one life-long. You, too have a right to your needs and to stating what those are, and modeling taking care of yourself while considering others.

You can, again, out of conflict at a calm time, explain what YOU will do WHEN…in other words “Joe, I need to know everyone is safe, that means you and any kids you are near or playing with, so if I feel that people are not safe because there is grabbing, hitting, pushing or any other unsafe actions, we will leave and go home, and you can try again the next day.” It is critical here that you don’t get punitive- that it becomes a consequence of someone needing to take responsibility. If Joe is wiling to take responsibility and resolve things peacefully, then he gets to stay and play. If you take responsibility, you will remove him because he is unable to keep people safe that day/time. It is also vital that he is reassured lovingly that he will get to try again sometime soon. Help him, gently, understand that he makes choices, and his power/control is in the choices he makes- “Joe, you can let me help you work out whose turn it is with our words, or we can leave- I see you’ve made the choice to leave.”

Because the boy is smart, too much yackity-yack and not enough follow through sets you up for lots of boundary struggles. Once you are clear that he understands the agreements- follow through each time, as calmly as possible.

Even if you don’t feel like it, pat yourself on the back- these are trying times in his development, and you are bound to lose it once in a while- that just gives you an opportunity to model apologies and plans for the future- “I am sorry I yelled, I was very frustrated that you weren’t listening to my words. I wish I had stayed calm. Next time I will make sure you are safe, and walk away to take deep breaths so I can use my words without yelling.”

Hang in there!
Love January




4 Comments on "“My Son Hits Instead of Using His Words”"

  1. EMILE says:

    My son is acting similar except he acts out only with his brothers and me dad. He is the middle child and has no interest most days in being a big brother. His little brother ususally gets the brunt of his anger, but is no big enough to hold his own. Recently ive noticed he gets so angry when hes teased, loses, or is hit by his brothers he looks like hes going to explode. He grunts and kicks and punch walls. Tonight we were playing wii and he just went ballistic when he lost. He cried and screamed, im not sure why he wont express himself verbally. He is a peace maker at school but at home just the opposite. Need some help here!!

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