Q. My 18 month-old daughter, “Karen” , has started to hit me. It seems to happen whenever I tell her she can’t do something she wants to do. I can’t understand it; my husband and I don’t hit her at all. Why is she doing this and what can I do to get her to stop?
A. You have already made an important step in understanding your daughter’s hitting because you have identified what usually precedes it. It sounds as if Karen hits when she is feeling angry or frustrated. Let’s talk about 18 month-olds and what might lead them to hit.
Children of this age do not have many resources available to them to communicate their needs and feelings. Eighteen month-old are not able to say “NO! I want the stick you just took from me. GIVE IT BACK!” Language skills are just beginning to develop. Most 18 month-olds have only a few words that they know and use regularly. On the other hand, the resources they do have available to them are increasingly coordinated motor skills. Children of this age are quite mobile. Eye-hand coordination is improving. 10 month-olds have learned that pointing, gesturing, grabbing and other hand motions are effective in helping them get what they want. Because infants and toddlers tend to use the most successful resources they have available to them. Karen is likely to use her motor skills to let you know she is feeling angry or frustrated and to communicate what she wants you to do about it. Therefore, she may hit even if she has never seen hitting before.
So the question really is, how can you help her manage her anger or frustration better and express it in different, more acceptable ways. Karen is going to encounter many more situations that make her angry and frustrated with each passing day. It is therefore important to start helping her understand and handle difficult emotions, now. Many child psychologists believe that one of the earliest ways mothers may help with this process is by being “affectively attuned” to their infant or toddler. In plan English, this means being “tuned in” to your child’s emotions and communicating your understanding back to the child. For Karen, this might mean saying, “OH! You WANTED that stick I took away from you,” in a tone that exactly matches the intensity and feeling of her motor action. But this, in itself, is not going to stop the hitting.
To stop the hitting, you need to do three things: 1) Let Karen know that hitting is not acceptable, 2) allow her to express the emotion and let her know you understand, and 3) let Karen know what she can do instead In this case, you might catch her hand before she hits you, say in an empathic tone, “I KNOW, you’re MAD AT ME for taking that stick away.” Then, still holding her hand, explain calmly that she can hit the floor but not you. You might even model hitting the floor for her as you say it. Then redirect her attention to an interesting substitute object or engage her in an activity. In situations that are not immediately dangerous, (like running with a sharp stick or sticking a harmful object in her mouth) you may want to try to get the objectionable object away from her by offering her an interesting alternative object as a substitute. Infants and toddlers will often abandon even a tightly held object if they see you have something that is more enticing. This will help avoid many frustrating incidents.
A final brief comment about Karen’s hitting. You have probably heard of the “terrible twos” This doesn’t abruptly begin on the child’s second birthday. Starting in the second half of the second year of life, i.e. 18 months, negativism begins to emerge. It could be that Karen is one of the early starters in which case, you may be able to stop the hitting, but she will be expressing her wishes much more. Trying to see this stage as an important milestone in which the child develops a better sense of herself and becomes more independent, can help parents get through this challenging time.
Here are some final comments. Children often learn the most about how to handle difficulty emotions by seeing how their parents handle those emotions. Make sure that you and your husband are able to express your emotions productively without flying off the handle.
Note: This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994. The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.