What to Do When a Child Hits You

was in a class over the weekend at my local Seattle National Nanny Training Day event. The question of what to do if a 3 year old child hits you came up. This is more common than you might think. Even the most well behaved kid can have an off day and lash out by hitting, kicking or even biting. And let’s face it, for some kids lashing out physically is their first reaction. So what’s a nanny to do?

We talk about this in the Setting Real World Limits section of my Connected Centered Discipline Nanny Certification training. The first thing I always emphasize is that you have the right NOT to be hit. That seems like a no brainer but for many nannies it can be hard to set that limit in a real way.

Setting that limit is often hard because our first reaction may be anger and for most people, especially caregivers, that’s a really scary emotion. Especially when it’s directed at a child. What we need to remember is that emotions and feeling are what they are. You can’t stop them from happening. But you can choose how you act in response to them. So when a kid hits you and your first reaction is annoyance, frustration or anger, it’s OK. We’ve all been there. If you go into guilt mode over your feelings, you’ll have a hard time setting a strong boundary. Of course what’s not OK is to react from that place. To yell, hit back, handle him roughly or do anything else that scares or hurts the child. He may be out of control but you shouldn’t be. As a nanny – really as an adult – it’s your job to make sure you have the emotional skills needed to immediately push past the anger and take positive action.

The trainer is the session I attended suggested that adults should always react to kids with love. (Think of a soothing AHHHHHH). I disagree with that. Of course we love our kids and that love should never be conditional. They need to know we love them when they’re behaving perfectly or when they’re kicking us in the shins. However they also need to know that their behavior affects other people and not always in a good way. They need to see us model how to talk about and react to anger in a healthy, respectful way and how to set boundaries about how others treat us. They need to understand that you can love someone and still feel frustrated or angry with them. If we fake our way through our emotions, what are we teaching them? What kind of skills are they learning? How will they handle it when faced with a similar situation on their own?

OK, so what can you do? First, stop the behavior. It’s perfectly OK to gently hold a child’s arm to stop her from hitting you. Remember, we’re talking about younger children here so force is never needed. If you have an older child hitting you, you’re dealing with a very different issue.

Second, firmly restate the limit. You can say something like “It’s never OK to hit.” or “No hitting.” I try very hard not to use the words no, don’t, stop, or can’t throughout the day. So when I do pull them out of my bag, they have a real impact.

Third, connect with the child. This is one of the cornerstones of Positive Discipline. Kids do better when they feel better. A hug or a kiss may help him calm down. Acknowledging his feelings may be the key. What works will depend on the child but it’s important that he knows you’re on his side. Many nannies think that connecting with a child will send the message that hitting is OK or that they’re rewarding bad behavior. Neither of those things is true. You’ve stopped the behavior, you’ve enforced the limit, now you’re just saying I love you and let’s work on it together.

Fourth, figure out what’s going on that’s making the child hit. Once you have that piece of the puzzle, you can work on helping him find a better way to deal with the problem the next time. This is one of those teachable moments nannies so often talk about.

Like most things, consistency matters here. When your child knows hitting is never OK and that you’re going to stop him each and every time, he’ll quickly get the idea. But remember, you also have to teach him how to deal with the reason he’s hitting. One without the other just doesn’t work.

If you’d like to take an in-depth training on the Positive Discipline approach, please check out my Connection Centered Discipline Nanny Certification. There are both online classes and weekend intensives in cities nationwide.

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