When Your Child Hits Your Other Child

Tougher than lion taming: Taming your own emotions in order to help your child

Posted Jun 10, 2013

“So just to clarify: 3-year-old girl kicks 1-year-old, there's a blood-curdling scream, and I am to hold my 3-year-old (after making sure the crying 1-year-old is fine, got that) and just sit with her until she feels better? No time-out, just hold her and tell her that I love her and that I know she is hurting too....So, no discipline, just love, i.e. more attention....more attention for kicking the baby?!"


I know exactly what this mom means. Someone kicks my baby? The lion-mama in me roars. The last thing I would feel like doing is lavishing love on the perpetrator.

Except that the perp is my three year old, who is also my baby. And who is clearly in a state of emotional dysregulation, or she wouldn't have done such a thing. She's sending me a clear signal that she needs my help, desperately.

So what's the best response? I think we can agree that our goal is to prevent future violence toward the baby, whether we're in the room or not.

 At our best, we'd also want our response to help our three year old in her development toward becoming a compassionate, responsible person, but we can be forgiven if we'd settle for no more violence. Who cares about emotional intelligence when we're trying to keep blood from being spilled?

 Luckily, we don't have to choose. The best way to prevent a recurrence is to get to the root of our child's aggression -- which helps both kids. (And ultimately makes our lives so much easier and more peaceful!)

Let's take this a step at a time.

1. Prevention. Hopefully, most of the time our kids get along. if not, we know we have work to do. But all siblings get irritated at each other from time to time, and all kids sometimes feel overwhelmed by their jealousy of each other. Luckily, we can usually see the storm brewing, and step in to prevent it -- if we aren't too stressed out and distracted to notice the warning signs. When children are tired, hungry, or cranky, their prefrontal cortex has a hard time controlling their emotions. Separate your kids. Gather the cranky child onto your lap for a pre-emptive Time-In and refill her empty cup.

 The best daily prevention practice is empathy as your go-to reaction to everything your child does. That doesn't mean analyzing her, just understanding. When she's angry, acknowledge it: "You're so angry ... It's hard to share me with your sister." She's allowed to be angry. It's the hitting we need to stop, not the anger.

2. Comfort your hurt child. Ok, so in spite of your best efforts, one child hurts the other. Clearly, the crying one year old needs you first. She needs attention to her physical owie. She may also need your reassurance: "Yes, I heard your sister yell that she would kill you. She is very angry right now. Don't worry, I won't let her kill anyone, no matter how angry she is. You are safe. I will help her with her feelings as soon as I can."

 Don't glare at your other child as you comfort your hurt child. Ignore her completely until you calm down. Sure, you feel an urgent need to set your kid straight, but that comes from "fight or flight." Ignore it. There's actually no emergency.

 3. Calm Yourself. Aggression is always a sign that our child has moved into a state of fear and emotional dysregulation. The only way to help a child out of the abyss of fear and back into an emotionally regulated state is to regain our own composure. I know, it's a tall order. This is the hardest work there is. That's why it's so important to find ways to de-stress and re-center yourself all day long. Once you move into fight or flight, you can't help your child to a better place. So practice a mantra you can use when you're triggered, like "No one's dying. This will be okay."

 4. Once your hurt child is recovered, respond to your other child. So here's the million dollar question. What's the best response to the three year old to prevent such incidents in the future? Conventional parenting would take a behavior-mod approach of punishing her, hoping that in the future when she gets ready to lash out, she will remember the punishment and restrain herself. At the very least, a timeout would make us feel like we took action to address the situation, and help everyone calm down.The problem is that punishment after the fact doesn't prevent crimes of passion. The defining characteristic of rage is that the thinking part of the brain isn't engaged, so we forget all the lessons we've learned. If a three year old saw someone else kick her sister, she'd run to her sibling's defense. But her rage was so strong that at that moment she just didn't care. We've all been there. When we're in fight or flight mode, even someone we love can look like the enemy. We do things we would never do if we were thinking straight.

So a timeout isn't going to prevent such an incident in the future. Unfortunately, a more "memorable" punishment will just make her seek more vengeance on that baby who caused her misery. If she has to sneak to do it -- meaning wait until you're out of the room to kick the baby -- that's what she'll do. (Not so good for the sibling relationship.)

But that doesn't ever mean we just permissively let our child wallop another person. No, we go to the source: her emotions.

We start by moving her back from the abyss of fear and into a zone where she feels safe, where at least someone is helping her regulate her actions: "You are VERY angry. Don't worry, Sweetie, I won't let you kill your sister or anyone else. And I won't let you kick her or hurt her again. I am right here. You are both safe."

By contrast, if we yell it would intensify her fear. Now, she is already beginning to calm down, even if we can't see it -- because she knows we're there to help.

 5. Help your child get to the more vulnerable feelings driving her anger. Aggression is a red flag that your child is hurting. If you can seize the opportunity, this is the time to help her with those emotions that are festering and brewing her anger. There are lots of examples on the Aha! Parenting website about how to do this. Here's one: What about those days when he's hellbent on misbehaving?

Remember, you're not soothing, at this point, you're helping her express her unhappy feelings. So you are NOT doing what Kerri described above, "just sit with her until she feels better." This is NOT just a time-in during which you reconnect with your child. In fact, it's hard for kids to reconnect with us when they're so full of pain. It's like trying to fill a leaky cup.

That's also the problem with letting her calm herself down in a timeout. She isn't getting help with her big feelings, and her cup stays leaky, and now she feels like a bad person on top of it. So at the next provocation, it's "Take that, Baby!"

To help your child get under her anger, stay as kind as you can while you look her in the eye, which triggers all her uncomfortable emotions to come up. Say "Your sister is hurt and scared. You must be hurting so much inside to kick your sister and threaten her....What is going on?....Something is making you feel so bad."

6. Deep emotional healing always happens in the context of relationship, when love dissolves fear. When she tells you, listen. If she's old enough to express her feelings in words, that will help a lot. But the deepest healing is always beyond words, so it's more likely she needs to cry. Releasing those tears will evaporate all that pressure that's been building inside her, that's causing her to lash out.

She'll certainly start with anger: She hates her sister, she hates you, you always take her sister's side. Don't take it personally. That's just her defense against deep pain. Stay as compassionate as you can, and empathize: "I am so sorry, Sweetie...That must hurt you so much...You can be as mad as you want at me; I will always love you no matter how mad you are...I could never love anyone more than I love you." If you can keep your calm, and provide safety, she'll go behind the anger to the tears and fears driving it. It's your compassion that heals those hurts.

7. Build your child's ability to control herself in the future. When little ones get upset and we soothe them, their self-soothing neural wiring gets built, reinforced, and strengthened, so that they become increasingly able to soothe themselves. This is not just a psychological learning, but a physical one. The brain and nervous system take shape depending on the child's interaction with the environment. We learn to regulate ourselves emotionally in the context of our intimate relationships.

So when your child feels safe enough to go behind her rage to all those tears and fears fueling it, she will cry and thrash and sweat. She may not let you hold her at that point. But your steady presence nearby will help her feel safe enough to let all that upset out, and soon she'll be crying in your arms. Your loving presence builds the neural wiring for her to soothe herself and restore emotional regulation.

8. Help your child internalize self-discipline so she's less likely to lash out in the future. After your child has the chance to sob in your arms, she will have moved out of "fight or flight" and back into love. She will be able to reflect on her actions. But don't rush it. Give her time to regain her equilibrium. Once she can handle a little playfulness from you, you'll know she's ready to talk.

If you can resist blaming and instead be as kind as possible, she will be more able to take responsibility for her actions, which is what will prevent her from repeating them. This is the holy grail of internalizing self discipline, but it doesn't work when it's imposed from outside with blame and shame.

Instead of "Kicking is bad," try "You were so angry. It's ok to be angry, but it's never ok to kick a person. It hurts! What could you do instead next time you're angry?" Help her brainstorm other options: calling a grownup for help when the one year old pesters her, walking away, stomping her foot instead of kicking. Have her actually act out those scenarios, so that she develops muscle memory of them and is more likely to be able to summon them up next time before she loses control.

9. Help your child find a way to repair what she's damaged. Finally, she is ready to acknowledge that her kick hurt her sister, and their relationship.

A child who is raised with empathy will feel empathy toward her sister at this point. As long as she gets regular opportunities to express her negative feelings about her sibling, she will be open to your helping her reflect on this, not in a shaming way, but in an empowering way. "Your sister was scared and hurt. I wonder if there's anything you could do to repair your relationship with her?" Don't encourage an insincere apology, although you may witness a sincere one, accompanied by a big hug.

Resist the opportunity to punish her with a "consequence." Instead, see this as a chance to empower your three year old to learn she can repair rifts, and to strengthen the sibling bond between your children. Both of these outcomes will make future sibling violence less likely.

Are we giving her attention for kicking the baby, which will make her kick the baby again? No. Timeouts and other punishments give the child negative attention, which actually reinforces the negative behavior. Our child learns that when he is emotionally dysregulated, he can just hit his sibling, and we will step in and force him to re-regulate with a timeout. But that kind of re-regulation just calms the child temporarily, it doesn't prevent such occurrences in the future -- in fact, it makes them more likely.

Instead, we are giving our child help she desperately needs so she won't ever kick the baby again. It's a lot more work than a time out. In fact, I'd bet it's tougher than lion-taming. But it works very effectively to raise a child who WANTS to behave and can manage her emotions to do so. That makes for an increasingly easy child, a delightful teenager, and better sibling relationships. Not to mention fewer blood-curdling screams.


For 5 ways you can help your children develop a great relationship , check out my audio: Friends for Life: Great Sibling Relationships.