Hitting (Spanking)

"I have tried everything I can think of to get my child to stop hitting her little brother. Sometimes she hits me. This really makes me angry. Punishment doesn't seem to work. I have spanked her and made her say she is sorry, but the next day she is hitting again."

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

How are we ever going to teach our children it is not okay to hurt others when we keep hurting them? We are reminded of a cartoon depicting a mother spanking her child while saying, "I'll teach you not to hit someone smaller than you." When a child is hitting, usually his or her feelings are hurt. Your child needs help from you but may feel frustrated because he or she isn't getting the help needed. You probably feel frustrated, too, because you want your child to treat others respectfully and may even worry that your child's behavior is a reflection on you as a parent. Perhaps you are overreacting and treating your child disrespectfully out of shame and embarrassment, trying to prove to the other adults around that you won't let your child get away with this behavior.


  1. Take the child by the hand and say, "It is not okay to hit people. I'm sorry you are feeling hurt and upset. You can talk about it or you can hit this pillow, but people aren't for hitting."
  2. Help the child deal with the anger.
  3. Ask, "Would it help you to go to your time-out spot now?" Time out is not helpful unless the child has helped create a positive time-out spot in advance (see "Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems," item 3). Also, time-out is not helpful if the child does not see the benefit and chooses it. If you make your child go to time-out, your child is likely to see it as punishment and may rebel.
  4. After the child has calmed down, ask "what" and "how" questions. "What is upsetting you? How are you feeling?" See if you can get to the bottom of what is really bothering your child and then help the child discover what other things she could do besides hitting to deal with the problem. Lectures are ineffective at any age because they make children feel inadequate.
  5. With children under four, try giving them a hug before removing them from the situation. This models a loving method while showing them that hitting is not okay. Hugging does not reinforce the misbehavior.
  6. Even though toddlers don't fully comprehend language, you can still use words (while you are removing the child from the situation) such as, "Hitting hurts people. Let's find something else you can do."
  7. When babies hit you, put them down and leave the room immediately for a minute or two without saying a word. At this age, they will understand actions better than words.
  8. When your preschooler hits you, decide what you will do instead of trying to control your child. Let her know that every time she hits you, you will leave the room until she is ready to treat you respectfully. After you have told her this once, follow through without any words. Leave immediately.
  9. Later you might tell your child, "That really hurts" or "That hurts my feelings. When you are ready, an apology would help me feel better." Do not demand or force an apology. The main purpose of this suggestion is to give a model of sharing what you feel and asking for what you would like. People don't always give us what we would like, but we show respect for ourselves by sharing our feelings and wishes in non-demanding ways.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. Teach children that feelings are different from actions. Feelings are never bad. They are just feelings. What we feel is always okay. What we do is not always okay.
  2. Remind your children that it is okay to tell people what they don't like. They can also leave the scene if they are being treated disrespectfully.
  3. Get your child involved in creating a positive time-out area (see Part 1). Teach her that sometimes we need time to calm down until we feel better before doing anything else. Let her know that she can use the time-out area any time she thinks it will help her feel better.
  4. Find ways to encourage your children with unconditional love and by teaching skills that help them feel capable and confident.
  5. Show that hitting is unacceptable by never hitting your child. If you make a mistake and hit your child, use the Three Rs of Recovery to apologize so your child knows hitting is not acceptable for you either (see Part 1).
  6. Take time for training with your toddler. Help her practice touching family members or animals softly. This does not eliminate the need for supervision until she is old enough to understand.
  7. Look around and see if there are ways you are hurting your child without realizing it. Are you sending your child to his or her room frequently, scolding and criticizing regularly, singling out the child when a problem occurs? If so your child may be feeling really hurt and upset and the hitting is a way to strike back at the world. Be more encouraging and positive and stop the hurtful behaviors, then see if there is a change in the hitting behavior.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that it is not okay to hurt others. Their feelings are not bad and they are not bad, but they need to find actions that are respectful to themselves and to others.

Parenting Pointers

  1. Be aware of the discouraged belief behind the misbehavior. A child who hits usually is operating from the mistaken goal of revenge with the belief that "I don't feel like I belong and am important, and that hurts, so I want to hurt back." Children will feel encouraged when we respect their feelings and help them act appropriately.
  2. Many people use the biblical admonition "spare the rod and spoil the child" as an excuse for spanking. Biblical scholars tell us the rod was never used to hit the sheep. The rod was a symbol of authority or leadership, and the staff or crook was used to gently prod and guide. Our children definitely need gentle guidance and prodding, but they do not need to be beaten, struck, or humiliated.
  3. Toddlers are short on both language and social skills, and when they play together they can easily become frustrated. When they lack the ability to express what's wrong in words, hitting and other types of aggression sometimes result. It is developmentally normal for toddlers to hit. It is the parent's job to supervise and handle toddlers kindly and firmly until they are ready to learn more effective ways to communicate.

Booster Thoughts

He: "There are times when it is necessary to spank my children to teach them important lessons. For example, I spank my two-year-old to teach her not to run into the street."

She: "After you have spanked your two-year-old to teach her not to run into the street, will you let her play unsupervised by a busy street?"

He: "Well, no."

She: "Why not? If the spanking teaches her not to run into the street, why can't she play unsupervised by the street? How many times would you need to spank her before you would feel she has learned the lesson well enough?"

He: "Well, I wouldn't let her play unsupervised near a busy street until she was six or seven years old."

She: "I rest my case. Parents have the responsibility to supervise young children in dangerous situations. All the spanking in the world won't teach a child until he or she is developmentally ready. Meanwhile, we can gently teach. When we take our children to the park, we invite them to look up the street and down the street to see if cars are coming and tell us when it is safe to cross the street. Still, we don't let them go to the park alone until they are much older." Studies show that approximately 85 percent of all parents of children under twelve years of age resort to spanking when frustrated, yet only 8 to 10 percent believe that it is dignified or effective. Sixty-five percent say that they would prefer to teach through consequences and encouraging improved behavior, but they don't know how. How often we resort to the familiar instead of learning a better way.

1 From H. Stephen Glenn, Developing Healthy Self-Esteem "Orem, UT: Empowering People Books, Tapes, and Videos., 1989), videocassette.

These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn.