How I Responded When My Toddler Hit Me

My baby is becoming a toddler right before my eyes. He can climb up onto the couch without help or standing on anything! This means that he is HUGE and that we have a big problem, because we put stuff with cords, like laptops, and hot beverages on the sideboard behind our couch specifically to prevent him from reaching them. Obviously, he is therefore motivated not to just get onto the couch, but to climb over the back of it in order to intentionally give his mama a heart attack explore and express his natural curiosity. Well, we were both pretty frustrated after I put him back on the floor for the fifth time in five minutes, and that’s when he hit the back of my hand. His little face was just so full of toddler angst! Jaw set. Eyes blazing.

In that moment, I was really glad that I had been an infant/toddler teacher before he came along, and that I had just read an article called “When Your Toddler Hits You: A New Perspective” over at Hand in Hand Parenting. This part was SUPER HELPFUL–

If it’s your child’s first or second or third hit, take it easy. The thing to do is to gently, calmly move his arm away from the person he’s hitting, so he can’t hit again. You can let him try. Just keep his arm from landing on you or anyone else. Mild words like, “No, that doesn’t feel good,” or, “I can’t let you do that,” might be helpful. You want to give him information, not a blast of reaction.

I held both his hands in mine, exaggerated a displeased facial expression, and said with as much calm as I could manage (he had just hit me! I was a little mad!) “We do not hit. Hands are for gentle. Can you try gentle with Mama?” Walter knows what gentle means, because he learned pretty quickly that this touch was the only way to get the dog to remain within arm’s reach of him. He did not try gentle touch on Mama; he hit the couch cushion. At that point, I remembered something else from this Hand in Hand article–

Not all children hit when they’re scared–it’s not the only instinctive human reaction to the feeling of fear. But it is one of our innate fear responses. So … you can safely assume that if your child is hitting, it’s because he’s feeling scared. … While your child is upset, it helps her greatly when you can be loving and calm. … She can concentrate on letting all that tension tumble out. … She is expelling bad feelings—fear, in particular. She’s using your calm presence as her signal that she’s free to let go of the feelings that have infected her behavior.

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of the phrases “bad feelings” or “infected her behavior” but the overall sentiment is one that makes perfect sense to me. As an infant/toddler teaching assistant, I always saw better outcomes from calm teachers willing to keep an overwhelmed child close. I’ve heard about a “Time In,” instead of a Time Out, where a parent removes the child from the situation where he is exhibiting the behavior that is unacceptable but remains with him, often holding him close on a lap or in her arms.

So, when Walter hit the couch, I picked him up, and I said “Let’s have a Time In.” I held him close, and he cried. I said softly, “I know it’s scary when the big grown ups take away all the interesting things and put them out of reach.” He might not understand those words, but it was as much for me as for him. I want to respond to his big feelings by engaging with him, while he’s still so little. I want to teach him that big feelings can be scary, because they are so big, but that they won’t scare me away, and therefore don’t need to be hidden. It was my first step in forming the good habit of responding to toddler behaviors that can be shocking. Hitting, biting, throwing toys. It happens, but it’s never easy. It is so easy to hold my crying baby and know that I’m sending a message of love and acceptance. It won’t be so easy when he’s arching his back, trying to get away, full-on tantruming, but that’s why I want to start working on my own reaction early!

Hugging his doll, before The Incident.
Hugging his doll, before The Incident.

4 Comments

  1. Bobbi said:

    Ollie has started the same thing, it is so hard to handle. Hugs mama.

    March 8, 2014
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      It’s hard, but it feels like something I can actively nurture in him something that I never had–comfort with having big feelings and not hiding them.

      March 8, 2014
      Reply
  2. story said:

    You handled it so well. It’s so hard not to take it personally. You are such an excellent model for how to handle strong feelings. Lucky Walt to have you.

    March 10, 2014
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I don’t always feel like that’s true; sometimes, it’s hard, and I wish he had a mommy who could be entertaining all the time and have boundless energy. Thank you for reminding me that he and I have been put together for good reasons.

      March 11, 2014
      Reply

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