By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Most children go through a period of hitting, kicking and scratching in the second year. Parents are often the first victims.

For a child, parents are the primary source of comfort and sustenance, so when something goes wrong, they’re the first to be blamed.

But when a child is about 7 or 8 months old, parents will find themselves pressed into denying or frustrating his new demands. At that age, he can express his wants more clearly, begin to move around on his own and try to do things he can’t. Be ready for him to take his frustration out on you!

By around 9 months, he has also learned how to test limits. He’ll see whether you always mean what you say. When the answer is ”No!” he’s bound to fall apart and lash out. Suddenly, without thinking, he’ll scratch his fingernails across your face. What a shock!

Make a stern face, and just as sternly say, ”No. Don’t hit. It hurts.” But don’t get too excited, or he’ll think it’s a game and want to try again. Put him down, or turn away from him.

Parents’ first task is to stay in control of themselves. He may make you so angry that you want to smack him. Don’t. He needs you to model for him what he must learn.

Hitting, kicking and scratching are also a last resort for children when the demands of a situation exceed their social skills or their ability to use words to express themselves. They may also hit when they feel belittled, or when they want to assert their dominance in a schoolyard pecking order or with their siblings.

When a child feels frightened and without protection – for example, if the adults around him use physical aggression, or threaten to – he may become physically aggressive himself.

If your child repeatedly fights with peers, talk to his teacher and his pediatrician. If necessary, they can help you find specialists such as a speech pathologist or a psychologist.

Sometimes preschool children just collide, get hurt, lose control, and then flail back in retaliation. They’re still learning to balance, and to plan how they’ll move, but they can’t always anticipate the results. They’ll also attack when they want to play with a toy made more exciting because it’s in another child’s hands; when they want their turn now, not later; or when they’re losing but want to win.

Preschool children hit, kick and scratch because they’re still working on important skills:

  • making friends
  • paying attention to other people’s needs
  • sharing
  • taking turns
  • losing gracefully
  • apologizing, and meaning it
  • negotiating relationships
  • resolving conflicts, solving problems
  • anticipating, understanding, and caring about the feelings of others

The second and third years are the appropriate times for children to begin to learn these social skills. When adults stop to consider how much preschoolers have to learn, it’s easy to see why they still often resort to simpler, blunter tools.

How to respond to hitting, kicking and scratching:

  1. Reestablish safety: ”Stop hitting right now.” If the children don’t respond at once, separate them.
  2. Comfort the victim and the attacker: Strong feelings between them – hurt, fear, guilt, or a longing for revenge – will make it harder for each child to face what has happened and to repair their relationship.
  3. Set limits: ”It’s wrong to hit, and it won’t be allowed.” Say it like you mean it, and make sure you look like you do. Be sure, too, that other adults back you up.
  4. State consequences: ”If you hit someone else like that, you’ll have to stay by yourself until you’re ready to play without hitting. I can’t let anybody get hurt. And I can’t let you hit.” Explain the natural consequences of aggressive behavior: ”If you hurt people, they won’t want to play with you or be your friend.”
  5. Model empathy: When one child grabs a toy from another, help the grabber step into the other child’s shoes: ”Can you imagine how you would feel if someone grabbed a toy away from you? How do you think she felt when you took it from her?” You’ll do better if you ask these important questions with more patience than exasperation.
  6. Resolve the conflict. To the grabber, a parent can say, ”You’ll need to give back the toy. And say you’re sorry. But you could ask her to let you play with it when she’s finished. Or you could ask her to trade it with one of your toys.”

(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger & Aggression: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.