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5 Tips to Stop the 'Strike out Tantrums:' Hitting, Biting, Kicking and Name-calling


What do you do when your child hits you?  Not a swipe mind you, but a fisted punch?  Even if he’s only fifteen months old, it hurts.  Accompanying that slap may be a bite that leaves teeth marks, a karate kick to your shin, or a truck thrown in the direction of your head.  Perhaps instead of blows and objects, words are “thrown.” “I hate you.”  You are the meanest parent in the world.”  Declarations so fierce, they pierce your heart as sharply as a dagger.   The gut puncher is, “You are not my friend!”  Or, “I am not going to invite you to my birthday party!”  Threats so common to four-year-olds that they are included in developmental guides.

Whether your child strikes out physically or emotionally the pain is real.  How we respond is crucial.   Behavior is a language – even hurtful behavior.  You have to figure out what your child is really trying to tell you in order to stop it.  Here are five steps you can take to curtail “strike out tantrums.” 

1.       When behavior is unsafe, hurtful or disrespectful to self, others or the environment – it has to be stopped.

If your child hits, kicks or bites you, physically stop him.  This may require firmly holding a hand or foot. 

If that is not adequate, sit down, hold your child on your lap with both of you facing the same direction, your arms and legs wrapped around him to stop the thrashing.  Say to him.  “I’m going to hold you until you are calm, your voice is quiet, your body is still and I can count to two.”  Of course this is when he screams, “Let me go!”  Repeat yourself, “As soon as you are calm, your voice is quiet, your body is still and I can count to two I will let you go.”  This lets him know exactly when you will let go.

The moment your child is still begin counting, “One.”  If she starts thrashing or shouting repeat once more.  Do not add more time counting.  As soon as his body is quiet let go. 

When you have caught your child early and he is not quite so upset, you may realize that holding him is actually calming him.  Listen to his breathing and for him you might say, “I’ll let you go when your body is still, your voice quiet and I can count to twenty-five or one hundred. 

2.       Vow not to get hijacked by the nasty language. Stay focused on the issue in front of you. 

If your child is yelling at you or saying mean words, the most helpful response is a tough one to implement when you are hurting and angry.  This is where you have to be the adult.  Take a deep breath.  Remind yourself your child is upset and does not have another way to communicate it right now.  This is not the teachable moment – that will come.  Now you are trying to understand what he was feeling or needing.  You will deal with the inappropriate language later.  

You can say, “I’m listening.  Let’s try that again.  Say it in a way that makes me want to listen.”  If however, your child is too upset to work with you at all, be empathetic.  State what you see or hear.  “I know you do not want to go to bed."  Or, “It seems like you don’t want to stop playing.”  Or, “You don’t want to do your homework.”  Then add, “Tell me what you were thinking.”

If the blow-up has been between siblings or peers, state, “I saw you hit, what do you want to tell him?”  Or, “I saw you throw the book at him – or grab the toy.  I think you had something important to say.  What are you trying to say? 

3.       Stop talking and start listening. 

Continuing to talk, explain, reason or chastise at this point will only send your child further into the red zone.  If your child is too upset to work with you, even though you are trying to understand, take him to a place where he can calm.  If he is too big for you to move him, invite him to do something you know soothes him.  This is NOT rewarding the behavior it’s simply calming him enough so that he can hear you. 

4.        Teach your child what to do or say. 

Once your child is calm, address the behaviors – not the words – we will deal with words in step five.  If the issue was between peers say to your child, “Let’s go tell Abe you wanted a turn.”  Help your child return to the situation and say to the other child, “I’d like a turn.  When will you be finished?”  Or, I’m not ready to share right now.  I’ll be finished in 15 minutes.” Or, “I want to play alone.”  Or, “Mom, help!”  Bottom line is teach your child the words to express those strong feelings. 

If your child is a toddler, who hits and bites say to him, “No biting/hitting."  Then teach him to say, “Space please.”  Or, “No like.”  "Help." Or, "My turn.” Or, “Mine.” 

5.       Address the poor choice of words by teaching your child respectful words to use instead.   

Later, (for preschoolers and older children this can be several hours) when everyone is calm a conversation can occur about the name calling.  Begin with a comment such as, “Remember when you said, ‘You are the meanest mom in the world,’ let’s make a plan that next time you are angry at mom you can say, ‘I am angry.’  Or, ‘I am so mad.’ Or,  ‘I don’t want to do that. May I please have a choice?’  Those words will feel much better to both of us and make me want to listen.” 

During a calm conversation your child can hear you and remember what you told him.  The next time he is upset those words will come back to him to use instead of striking out.

Take Preventive Actions

After a strike out tantrum it is important to reflect on what happened.  What preventive measures could you take in the future?  Be honest with yourself. 

How much sleep is your child getting?  If your child has stopped napping, a preschooler is getting less than 12 hours of sleep, or a toddler less than 13-14 it’s highly likely that he is short on sleep.  If he’s dropped his nap reinstate it. If he’s not a napper then move bedtime earlier.  Adequate sleep is the BEST preventive measure for strike out tantrums.

Finally, what role did your actions have in fueling this behavior?  Often strike out tantrums occur because we have been rushing, not listening or intrusive. Promise yourself to slow down.  Doing so will stop the hitting, biting, kicking and name calling before they start. 

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