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3 Year Old Hits #300734 - Ask Extension

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3 Year Old Hits #300734

Asked February 12, 2016, 8:32 AM EST

Hello There,

My 3 year old seems to hit Mom or Dad at least once everyday.  She hits when she's happy/excited and angry/upset.  This is a relatively  new behavior.  We think she's learned this at her pre-school.  Is this normal behavior?  What can we, as parents, do to minimize/stop this behavior?  

Tarrant County Texas

Expert Response

Three-year-old behavior can sometimes be challenging, can't it? The behavior you are describing is not unusual for children this age. (That doesn't make it any less frustrating to you, but it may reassure you a bit.) The fact that this behavior is relatively new may suggest that she learned it at preschool. She may also be experiencing some new feelings (both positive and negative) that she does not yet know how to express in more socially appropriate ways. Has anything changed in her life that might be causing her to feel stress, such as the birth of a new sibling or moving to a new home? If so, she may be "telling" you that she is having a hard time dealing with the change. Making her daily schedule as normal as possible, reading books about feelings, and ensuring that she gets enough sleep and exercise can help reduce stress. 

Remember that young children are still building their sense of independence. They do this by testing limits as a way of trying to  control their world. Your best bet is to set clear rules (e.g., no hitting people) and to enforce those rules whenever she breaks them. Redirect her when she hits, make sure she understands that hitting hurts, and help her learn a more socially appropriate way to express her feelings. Giving her playdough or a pillow to pound is one way to redirect her energies in a way that doesn't hurt other people. You can redirect her when she tries to hit you by saying, "No hitting people. You can hit this pillow if you want to hit something." 

I also wonder if this behavior could be an attempt to get your attention if she thinks Mom and Dad are distracted. If you don't do this already, try setting aside specific times to play with her -- and be sure you focus your whole attention on her during those times. Put down the smart phone, turn off the TV, and don't try to do something else while she plays. That focused time will give her more of your attention, which may reduce any attention-getting behaviors. 

Above all, remain calm and be consistent. 3-year-old behavior can be frustrating. Take a deep breath (or two, or three) and speak to her in a calm voice. Gently but firmly redirect her to a more appropriate activity. And if you can identify times or situations where she is most likely to act out, think of ways to prevent the behavior from happening. If she is most likely to hit you when she is tired, for example, be sure you put her to bed before she gets that frustrated. If you think she is learning the behavior in preschool, take time to talk with the teachers to see if she is hitting people there. They may be able to help you come up with solutions that work both at home and at preschool.

This, too, should pass as your daughter learns more socially appropriate actions to express her emotions. Hang in there, and let me know if I can help you further. Good luck!
Diane Bales Replied February 23, 2016, 12:03 PM EST

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