Why is a three-year-old child hitting and what to do

Sue Cvach

From the archives: Posted on 22nd May, 2001

A poster wrote:

Not knowing the child or the situation it is hard to know what is behind it. I don’t think it is very unusual for three year olds to hit, particularly if they didn’t hit much when they were two-year olds.

In any situation, a person cannot know for sure what is in another’s mind, what their true motivation is. Even when a person tells you what they think, you can’t be sure they aren’t mistaken. A person can only go on their best guess of what might help.

Hitting, by any age person, could be in self-defense, or it could be a way of exerting power (might makes right theory), a way of getting what they want. Hitting might be an effective means of self-defense, or there might be better ways to defend oneself. There are better ways of getting what a person wants, and that is what children want to find out, I think, is the best way for them to get what they want. Parents – though often quite confused themselves about how to get what they want! – can be a child’s best advisor and helper in figuring out good ways (for everyone involved) to get what each person wants.

First, I would assume that the child is doing what is normal in two and one year olds, i.e. they are aware of themselves as people but they haven’t yet extrapolated the idea of consciousness onto the other children they are coming in contact with. I have even seen this in four year olds, if they haven’t had much time with babies, for example, when they do get to spend time with one they may not realise that they can’t just poke their fingers in the baby’s eyes. The concept of the baby as a person like themselves has not necessarily entered their awareness.

I think that this can apply to people of any age. I think there is more to developing empathy than age. How the individual is treated by others, for example, especially by their parents, I conjecture.

The step from awareness of self to awareness of others as selves is not always completed by three.

or age 20, or age 70.  🙂

Sometimes a child that has spent a lot of time with grown ups (who are not interested in helping the child get what s/he wants) and not so much time with other little children will have the awareness about grown-ups. But they may not yet have extrapolated that awareness onto the funny little bodies running around that look kind of familiar and may be some kind of dog or animal so lets give it a whack and see what happens.

Oh, dear… I don’t think I am buying this theory.

If you find that responding to the child in the way you would respond to a two year old isn’t the approach that is needed, then perhaps the anger theory is a good next step.

I would respond to any child of any age (as a parent to child, that is) by trying to figure out what they want, and doing everything I can to help them get it. If the child is angry, I’d keep helping them get what they want. Trying to figure out why the child is angry might be intrusive and make things worse, I think… children often can’t answer the questions of ‘why’ that parents/adults pepper them with, not having the words to explain what is in their minds or whatever. We make our best guesses and keep at it.

If the anger theory doesn’t seem to make sense

Oh, I think it makes perfect sense!

then I would just do my best to make sure that other kids don’t get hurt and wait for it to pass.

It is important to protect children from being hurt, physically, emotionally, mentally. And it is important to help children get what they want.

I have found that all the things that drive me crazy for a time end and then you forget they even happened. I always remind myself of this as the next frustrating aspect of my children arises.

Chalking up children’s behavior to ‘a stage’ and waiting for it to pass, without helping them to accomplish their ends, is not helpful or right, imo.

It’s as if we are conditioned to do this as parents.

I agree that we are conditioned by memes to act in certain ways, but they are not always moral or right ways. I think it is very important to recognize when one is acting-out a harmful meme, and put in the required thought and action to replace it with a better theory.

Whatever is causing the hitting it is probably arising from frustration and frustration is the basis of learning. Both for you and your child.

I disagree. While frustration might be a motivation to change things, it is not necessary for learning… in fact, it can derail learning. Frustration is a sign of coercion at work, imo. Conflicting theories fighting it out in one’s head. Conjecture and refutation is how learning happens.

Sue Cvach, 2001, ‘Why is a three-year-old child hitting and what to do’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/why-is-a-three-year-old-child-hitting-and-what-to-do/