My daughter has started hitting me when she doesn't get what she wants. She is 6 years old and is strong. She has really hurt me a few times now. I don't know what to do. What can I do?
I'm very glad that you're writing when your daughter is 6, rather than 16. I have worked with far too many parents whose fear of being physically hurt by their adolescent makes it nearly impossible to parent them. Here is my advice for putting an end to your daughter's aggression toward you:
Establish that yours is a non-violent home.
Saying "We don't hit!" to a child who is hitting makes no sense at all. In fact, it only makes you come across as less effective and in charge. If it was true that "We don't hit," she wouldn't be hitting!
I have worked with a number of parents whose children are physically aggressive with them, and typically the parent is wishy-washy, begging the child to stop rather than firmly declaring that while angry feelings are normal, hitting is not allowed. Be clear and decisive with her as you talk about her outburst (later, when she's cooled down), explaining, "I know you get mad, and you have a volcano of anger. I am going to help you manage those big feelings without hurting anyone. I will help you handle things that are making you very mad, but hitting mommy is not allowed."
Ensure that she is rested and nourished.
Is she tired? Hungry? A child who lashes out is often running on empty. Look for patterns in this problematic behavior. Is it usually right before dinner? Give her a little protein snack to tide her over. Is it right before bed? You may want to push bedtime up earlier so she's not over-tired. Some parents find a child less able to manage feelings of frustration when they're amped up on sugary treats, so make sure you're providing her with healthy snacks.
Make sure she is not being shortchanged on your undivided attention.
As my friend and pediatrician/author Dr. Harvey Karp says, "Feed the meter." Make sure you give your daughter small doses of your attention throughout the day, even something as simple as a quick hug or a smile. When all of our interactions are focused on getting tasks accomplished -- "Did you wash your hands?" "Have you started your homework?" -- we deprive our children of those sweet exchanges that let them know that we love and like them. Children who feel close and connected to us will generally try their best to please us.
Once the behavior has become explosive, limit your words.
There are no magic words you can say once your daughter is riled up; once she has lost control of herself, it will be nearly impossible for her to calm down until the storm of her emotions subsides. The best you can do once she has fallen apart is to try to contain her and keep both of you safe.
Address the hurt that is fueling her aggression.
An angry child is generally a hurting child. Wounded people wound. Set up a quiet time and space with your daughter to explore what might be triggering her outbursts. Invite her to tell you her truth about what she claims to be her reason for a recent outburst, and listen without interrupting or advising. "This morning, sweetheart, you were really mad at mommy when I said you had to wear sneakers instead of flip-flops to school. Tell me about that -- What was it like for you when you wanted so badly to wear your flip-flops and I said 'No'?"
Once she's shared her feelings, look to get those three "Yesses" I talk about in my Act One strategy. "You thought your blue flip-flops would look really good with those leggings... Carrie wore flip-flops yesterday so it didn't seem fair when I wouldn't let you... Sometimes it feels like mommy is always making you do things you don't want to do..." Listening in this Act One way will let you find out what's really bothering her so you can do the parenting she needs, which may include helping her have a good cry over feeling insecure about recent events with some of her friendships at school.
I recently attended the wonderful Wisdom 2.0 conference and several presenters talked about their work with children and mindfulness meditation. Congressman Tim Ryan saw a profound reduction in childrens' anger and agitation after participating in just a few minutes of kid-friendly mindfulness exercises in the school programs he instituted. You can watch a video of some of the children he's worked with here. Ali and Atman Smith talked about their work with extremely angry and agitated kids in Baltimore. Elisha and Stefanie Goldstein are doing this work with teens in Los Angeles.
All of these programs -- and many more -- are proving that even restless and fidgety children are able to focus on slow and quiet breathing for a few minutes, sometimes rocking a stuffed animal to sleep on their belly, which helps them better manage anger and aggression. For more on this, please check out Susan Kaiser Greenland's book, The Mindful Child.
Be that Captain of the ship your daughter needs to help her manage the big feelings that lead her to lash out at you so that neither of you continues to hurt.
Do you have a question for the Parent Coach? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in an upcoming column.