Dear Mother Wit, I have a 3-year-old son who hits me, scratches me, pulls my hair, throws things at me, punches and spits at me. Before my son was born I didn’t believe in spanking. I was never spanked. However, I was also a well-mannered child, the complete opposite of my son. I have tried every tactic to tame my son’s behavior such as reasoning with him and explaining why his behavior is unacceptable and the consequences for them, I’ve restrained him when necessary and I also use the time out method, I have been consistent with discipline, but nothing seems to work. Most times, my son tends to really hurt me. He has pulled hair out of my scalp, he has scratched the cornea of my eye and has caused me to lose most vision in that eye for a week. I just don’t know what else to do. Spanking seems to be the only option. What do you suggest?
Bruised & Confused
Dear Bruised & Confused:
Pinching, biting, scratching, and pulling hair is all normal behavior for toddlers because they haven’t learned how to control their emotions yet, they act out of a natural instinct, and children LOVE attention whether they get a positive or negative reaction.
You have a complicated situation. And you didn’t say, but I have to wonder: is your son witnessing or experiencing any kind of violence in your home or anyplace else? What I mean by that is, children who are around physical violence—especially those who see their parents or other adults fighting—grow up learning that this is normal and acceptable. I hope you’re not in any kind of abusive situation and that if you are, you get help right away.
Now let’s focus on your son. Your son is still a toddler at three years old. So when he feels angry or frustrated or even scared, he might hit, pull hair, and all that. And the worst thing you can do is spank or hit him (or do any of the things he’s doing to you) to punish him or to “show him how it feels.” Even though I know it can be tempting. You don’t want to hit and yell because you’ll be modeling for your son that this is an acceptable response to situations that make you angry.
You need stay calm and in control, and stop his behavior by removing him from the situation. If you have to, restrain his hands to protect yourself.
Some children hit their parent to get their attention and then we reward the behavior by teaching them that hitting is a good way to get it. But to get them stop this negative behavior you have to be consistent in your body language and tone. At a young age they don’t really understand a lot of talking so you have to firmly use simple words like “NO!” “We don’t hit!” “Hands are not for hitting.” Try doing this while holding their hands and counting backward slowly from 10. After doing this enough times your child will not like being confined and the message will catch on.
I noticed that you didn’t say when your son acts violently with you—are there things that make him angry, or is he doing these things randomly?
Acknowledge your child’s feelings and let him know that it is okay to feel mad but hitting hurts and it is not okay. Show your child what to do instead of hitting. Show him how to touch people gently and to use appropriate words to express his frustration. (Use the helpful feelings chart below) Give him positive reinforcement when he is gentle and kind.
I want you to notice when your son acts like this. Write it down—take some notes with details to see if there might be a pattern. Also take him to the pediatrician and ask your doctor if there is anything going on medically or with your son’s health that could be causing this violence.
Next, think about what your son likes to do—toys or games he likes to play with, TV shows he likes to watch, things he likes to eat, etc. Explain to your son—calmly and gently—that hitting, spitting, punching, pulling hair—those are not acceptable ways to let you know if he’s feeling angry, tired, hungry, frustrated or scared. Teach him the words for those feelings, and encourage him to use them. At his age, you might also want to try a feelings chart that the two of you can use to see how he’s feeling, and then you can talk to him about better ways to handle those feelings.
Right now, your son doesn’t have healthy or safe ways to let you know what’s he’s feeling. Talk with the doctor, and if you feel helpless, ask for help. Ask if there are books you can read, videos you can watch, even classes you can take (parenting classes can really help in tough situations). The good news is that you’re not the first mother to experience this and it doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. You just need to take control of the situation before it gets even worse.
Your son might need more gentle, affectionate, soothing touch. Find out what calms him. Hold him, rock him, and make sure he’s getting plenty of love. And he might be a child who uses his hands to express himself. Look for fun, safe ways to help him express his feelings without hurting others (or himself).
Good luck! Be sure to check back and let me know how it’s going, okay? You might learn some things that can help other parents, and that’s what this is really all about.