I’ve written before about our struggles with Sammy’s hitting. It’s still a work in progress, but I thought it deserved an update because I think we’ve achieved a great deal of success. And by “we,” I mean all 3 of us.
I don’t think Sammy hits more than any other child. She seems to go through phases where she starts hitting again, and then goes back to her normal, non-violent self. I don’t think she has ever hit at a person with the intent to hurt. As a matter of fact, she’s never hit me hard – she uses an open hand and kind of swipes in a downward motion along my arm or leg. A lot of the time she doesn’t even make contact. It’s like she just wants to show me that she wants to hit me. Hitting is a defensive behavior for her, or an expression of frustration.
When Adam and I forget to respect her person and physically manipulate her when we should use words, she might swat our hands away as a defense. For example, (when she was wearing diapers) I might smell something and, without asking, just say, “I need to check your diaper,” and immediately pull on the back of her diaper to look inside. If she swatted at me in that situation, I would tell her I was sorry for manipulating her without asking (or at least giving her a moment to prepare) and then I would ask her to use her words next time to remind me not to do that. She also might swat at my hand if, while walking somewhere, I put my hand on her back to indicate that she needs to move along. She doesn’t mind if I do it very gently, but the moment I put pressure on her back, like pushing, she will react, and rightfully so. I handle this swatting the same way. I acknowledge my error and apologize, and then remind her of how she could have handled it better. And then, most importantly, when she does use her words to tell me things like, DON’T TOUCH ME, MOMMY or I’LL DO IT MYSELF! I make sure that I apologize and acknowledge her use of words: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. Thank you for telling me with words that you didn’t like it.”
The other hitting situation comes from pure frustration. Usually this happens when she is emotional and can’t find words to use. We used to give her time-outs for this behavior, but I discovered that there was a better way. We started using Positive Discipline techniques like catching her arm before it could reach us (this only works when she is hitting over and over which pretty much never happens anymore) and telling her that hitting hurts our feelings as well as potentially hurting us physically. We walk away. We tell her to walk away. We suggest she go to her room to calm down (she calms down best when left alone). We remind her to take deep breaths. We offer to hold her until she feels better (she rarely takes us up on that). We stopped punishing, assumed positive intent from her, and started focusing on helping her get past the emotion so that she could express herself properly.
Still, we hold her accountable. We ask her to apologize. (She learned quickly what this meant with all of the apologies we’ve made to her.) While she is in the emotional state we never give into to whatever her demand was that caused the outburst. But as soon as she expresses her desire with calm words, we try to give her what she wants. This part can be tricky. If her frustration comes from the fact that we’ve already said “no” to something, like eating dessert before dinner, we have to stick to our guns even after she calms down. But we try to find alternatives or express our “no” as a “yes.” “Yes, you can have dessert, as soon as you finish your dinner.” Or, “No, you can’t have dessert before dinner but if you’re hungry now you can have some milk to tide you over.” There is rarely a second outburst over the same issue, which indicates to me that we’re doing a pretty good job remaining consistent. She knows that the outbursts don’t get her what she wants.
We aren’t perfect at any of this, but the switch from punishment to guidance (with the critical assumption of positive intent) was a huge success. She still goes through hitting phases. This means that, over a bad week or two, she might swat or hit at us 4-5 times. In my old view, this would have been a failure. Hitting was absolutely wrong, I thought, and she needed to learn to never, ever do it. Well, it’s true that hitting is wrong, but she can’t really learn that all at once. This seems like every other developmental pattern: a child will learn a certain behavior, but then they grow and learn in other ways, and they have to re-learn the behavior for their new context. A child can’t learn that hitting is always wrong out of context. She needs to experience those new contexts over and over, and learn the lesson over and over. The only alternative is obedience, which is a lesson I definitely do not want to teach. All of this applies to so many things other than hitting.
Another technique that I’ve used when Sammy hits me is to express my hurt feelings directly. This is easy, because, now that hitting is so rare, when she does it, it is a shock and it does indeed hurt my feelings. I usually respond naturally with a shocked intake of breath and the words, “Samantha! You hit me.” I don’t yell or even raise my voice, but I know my hurt is there in my tone. This is all I’ve needed to do for a long time now. If Sammy forgets and strikes at me, sometimes I can just look at her with that shock on my face and she immediately says SORRY, MOMMY and comes to me and kisses the place she hit, and repeats, SORRY FOR HITTING, MOMMY. I always forgive her immediately when she does this, and ask her if she can use her words to tell me what is wrong.
The best part is that I’ve observed Sammy stopping herself from hitting. I’ve seen her get frustrated and take a step towards me, raising her arm, and then stop. Then she might scream or cry, but she doesn’t hit. When I’ve seen her do this, I always note it: “I saw that you wanted to hit me and you stopped yourself. That was good self-control. Can you tell me now what you want or do you need more time to calm down?”
Seeing my daughter exercise real self-control that results in the fullfillment of her needs, instead of repressing a behavior because she might get punished, is a great joy.