Three Things Children Need Us to Know When They Hit or Bite
By Catherine Fischer, M.A., C.P.D.
1. Children Who Hit or Bite Are Afraid
After young children pass through the stage of hitting experimentally, which is a stage that passes early on, if they show aggressive behavior, they need your help. It might not be obvious from the outside, but when children hit or bite others, they are feeling scared. This might make more sense when you consider the “fight or flight” response, which most of us are familiar with.
2. Words and Reasoning Don’t Work Once A Child Gets To That Point
We know from brain research that the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain, needs to perceive a connection to someone caring in order for the prefrontal cortex (the reasoning, language- processing part of the brain) to function well. In short, when a child feels scared and alone, it becomes harder for her to reason, process language, to make good decisions and to learn.
If a child is ready to hit or has already acted aggressively, then they can’t respond to lectures, anger or isolation — common ways in which we adults react to aggressive behavior. What they need is to feel connection to a caring adult — eye contact, gentle touch, and a warm tone of voice — nonverbal signals that will reassure them that they are connected and not alone. Later, when the prefrontal cortex is functioning better, we may be able to have a conversation about alternatives.
3. Children Don’t Want to Hurt Anyone
Whenever possible, we want to be there to intervene before the blows land. If we can catch the hand before it hits, then there is less damage control to do. We can say, “I can’t let you hit.” This may be enough for the child to off-load the fears that have led her to be disconnected and aggressive. She may sweat, squirm in our arms, and cry. We don’t need to stop this, or even say much, just reassure the child that we are there with them, and that we will listen while they have these feelings.
When we get there after a child has been hit or bitten, we need to find a way to take care of both children. The one who was aggressive will be feeling badly about having hurt someone, on top of whatever feelings were there at the start. It might sound odd, but it can be very helpful to tell the children, “I’m sorry I wasn't here to help.” Again, this may allow the scared child to regain his sense of connection and begin to off-load the feelings that drove the aggressive behavior.
Catherine Fischer teaches “Where the Rubber Meets the Road: Strategies for the Emotional Challenges of Parenting,” a four-week class for parents of young children. On May 17, she will offer a seminar on the topic of helping young children with aggression. She is also a birth and postpartum doula. You can find out more about her services, including free teleseminars at www.SupportForGrowingFamilies.com.