>Dear Dr. Hackney,
I attended your Positive Discipline class. Every time Sean (22 months) goes to hit someone, I say, “Hands down: hitting hurts” while holding his hands down. He seems to find this funny and just laughs every time I do it. Once his hands are free; he hits again. I don’t feel like I am getting anywhere.
No matter how much I practice the “I” messages and empathy, he seems to overlook all that and go for the jugular. For example, he is transitioning to the two’s class at daycare. Today, he was very upset about this, and as soon as we got to the class room, he starting trying to hit a little girl that came over to play with him. I practiced the positive discipline technique described above to no avail. I am realizing that Sean is a very willful child, but I need to be able to rein in this aggressive behavior. Any other ideas would be appreciated.
Mother of one, 22 months
The I messages and empathy at this little age are to build emotion language and to calm the caregiver. They don’t tend to have a big impact on behavior until a bit later (3s) when children better understand their impact on others and reflect a bit on behavior. With that said, keep using the language because eventually you want him to use the language rather than the hitting, so he benefits from the continued modeling.
Right now, it is curbing such as “hands down” in a firm tone. If you can get in front of the behavior so to curb before it happens each time all the better; this means, expect it rather than be surprised. You could be coaching him as he approaches another to “be gentle.”
The idea is also to coach and practice the better behaviors out of the moment when no one is hurting. So, tonight when you tuck him in, you might say, “I am touching you in a gentle way. Be gentle,” while you touch his arm softly. Then say, “Can you touch mommy gentle?” (Hopefully) “Yes, that’s gentle! I like when you are gentle.” You are actively teaching a gentle touch. Do this every few days with similar language, and then start to incorporate that language as you coach in the moment; as he approaches a new friend, you might say, “Be gentle, gentle touches,” and, hopefully, you are ready to say, “Hands down,” and curb before it actually occurs. But you can’t really start that and expect it to be effective until he gets the basic concept.
You might also add a bit of a consequence, such as when the hitting does happen to immediately move away from the activity at hand. Your language of consequence may be lost on him at that moment, but the actual follow through if it happens consistently may help to lessen the behavior. This means, if he hits someone in the block center, he is moved out and away from that center, sending the message “if you hit you must move to a different activity.”
Rene Hackney, PhD.