When your child hits you, you jump to the FIGHT response and your child looks like the enemy – obviously respect and obedience are important skills, but in THIS situation, it is more important for your child to be heard, to be understood and to calm down, with you helping him. THEN, he will be teachable. Right now – he is FIGHTING and cannot hear anything you are saying – so stop talking and listen – Reflectively Listen.
To stay calm when your child hits and hurts you feels impossible – but it IS possible, if you see yourself as part of his solution. Your child isn’t the enemy and you cannot be his. He needs you to help calm himself, to regulate and to get back on track to be able to hear reason – right now – he cannot reason – he just went FAR over the line. Your response shouldn’t be screaming, hitting back, or threatening – although most of us are guilty of that, on occasion. So, what SHOULD the response be when your child hits?
- Take no action. Any action that you take when your child has been so hostile and violent with you will have an outcome that is terrible for both of you–resulting in a cycle of more violence. To do this, you need to regulate yourself and your own emotions.
- Keep your limit (no hitting and words with respect).
- Listen. Listen to his BIG feelings – all of them, without judgement. Just listen and help him put to words what is upsetting him. Then, help him figure out acceptable ways to show his feelings.
- Re-do the situation that led to the hitting.
- So, the BIG number one in this list is keeping calm and reasonable when your child just BELTED YOU! How do you regulate yourself? By telling yourself that your child is having a difficult time regulating his emotions and it is YOUR modeling of calm and a rational discussion that is the critical factor in his learning this skill. Count to 10 and Smell the Hot Soup (breath in slowly through your nose – pretending you are smelling soup and then blowing out through your mouth – pretending to cool the soup). Splash cool water on your face and wrists. Tell your child that you need a time out to cool off and take some time to regroup and come back as his mentor.
- To help your child regulate his feelings, use Reflectively Listening. When you listen to his great big scary feelings – even if they don’t make sense and make you angry to hear them stated aloud – you connect in his angry place, letting him know that your love and connection to him isn’t dependent on his behavior or doing something well or right. This kind of connection is especially important for adopted children that come from hard places. Go to your child – keeping yourself out of harm’s way, but close enough to be on his level. Ask lots of questions. Repeat what he says in your own words – even if what you’re saying seems silly – and, please, make sure you are not poking fun or using a sarcastic tone. “I see why you’re so upset! That action figure was your favorite and now it is gone. You wanted to show Brian and now you cannot and I made you lose it by hurrying you along.”
- When he finally calms himself down, repeat the limit. “We don’t hit. We use our words.” Then, have an instant replay with him using words and not actions against you to tell you how angry he is. Don’t leave out this very important step – it creates new neuron pathways telling him how to do it the correct and respectful way, the next time he is so angry (Warning: for more compulsive or sensitive children, this may take many, many times to be able to learn these skills).
Remind yourself of your parenting goal: a child that can respectfully state his needs, with emotional intelligence, without hurting others in the process. Your job, in this horrible moment is to help him sort himself out when he is very upset, not to scare him, threaten him, or force him to comply. It is to lead him to emotional intelligence and back to a healthy place. Please remember, that most aggression comes from fear and even if you don’t know what your child is afraid of, if you answer his fear with your hostility – you will escalate the fear and increase the likelihood of a cycle of future hitting. Be his reasonable place, his love-in-spite-of place – and you will teach him self regulation through L-O-V-E.