I have had a lot of interest in my first blog post on “What to say if you don’t say “no?”. Parents have tried my suggestion, and sometimes their child responds by following the directions. And sometimes their child smiles and hits them. What do you do next? Most parents would try out my first suggestion again. They could also be offended or angry. But they might have more luck with some kind ignoring and then some time-ins.
“Kind ignoring” is Dr. Karp’s term for choosing your battles and deciding to verbally, visually and physically remove yourself from the situation. After all, it is very common for a young toddler to gently hit to get attention, once they have noticed the strong reaction it gets from you. Most toddlers do not have the language or social skills to engage you easily, but they want your focused attention. The smart ones quickly learn that they become the center of your attention once they hit you. Try teaching them that the opposite is true.
Just turn away, walk away, or put them down. As in off your lap, out of your arms. But no drama. Be as calm as a millpond. That alone should get their attention. They are expecting a big to-do. Don’t go there. Hint: one of your most powerful tools in the parenting toolbox is your tone. Quieter-than-normal tones really get their attention, in a way that yelling never will.
Should you say something? My guess is usually yes, and it should be developmentally appropriate. A short: “We don’t hit. Hitting hurts” can be more than enough for most toddlers. The older ones might hear: “In this family we don’t hit. I go away from people who hit me” but that is too much information for an 18-month old. The big message, like all HTOTB techniques, is in your actions.
For a young child or a milder temperament, they may have forgotten what they were doing, and come back and engage you warmly. Receive them lovingly and start playing with something you know they like. You are rewarding their better choice of behavior with your attention and conversation. If they haven’t come over, you can smile and indicate openness, but having the child seek you out appropriately affords more learning for them. Their new strategy worked. For an older child, you may decide to mention the hitting, but maybe not. I know that is controversial, but you cannot make a federal case out of every misdeed. You can compliment the new strategy, maybe saying “I really like it when you ask me to play LEGOS with you”. Pick your battles.
What do you do if he escalates the situation, and goes to hit the cat or throw the lamp? It is time for a fine, some consequence that he can relate to. That may mean moving him to another room, a brief time-out, removal of the toy that was thrown. You will know what sends home the message to your child that he has gone too far. Then you have to think about his day, and why things escalated. Is he hungry, tired, ill, under or over-stimulated? Cabin fever from the winter that seems never to end (at least here in NY)? Follow up by using your time-ins like gossiping (an earlier blog post ) and patience-stretching to build your child’s self-esteem and self-control skills.