Question: I have a daughter, who will be four years old next month. She is very bright with amazing memory and artistic talent and tends to expect everybody to understand her or to have 100% answers about her questions. If she is not reading books, she is a non-stop talker at home. She behaves good in public, though she is shy at the same time. She is very sweet to her teachers at her preschool and her dance school. She is very sweet and forgiving towards her aunts, uncles, grandmother and cousins and her father. On the contrary, she gets very harsh towards me. Since I stay home with her most of the time, I can understand her feeling too. When I don’t understand what she says, for example, she immediately starts hitting me. This happens only inside the house. I’ve been telling her that hitting is hurt and not doing so by letting her think of putting herself into the same shoe for a thousand times. Still, she does. Recently I started feeling at my wit’s end. I sometimes start crying though I do know I should keep myself cool, and shouldn’t act like that. I feel like being a failure.
Answer: You are definitely not a failure! You have taught your daughter an extraordinary amount of things. She is still young and needs to learn more about controlling her emotions. First, start by teaching her what to do when she feels frustrated at those times when you do not understand what she is saying. Hold her hands when she tries to hit you and tell her “mommy does not understand what you are saying – tell mommy again slowly”. You can also add that “hitting does not help mommy to understand”. If you honestly believe she is hitting because she is frustrated, she will quickly learn to stay calm and try again.
Sometimes young children continue to hit because it gets a strong reaction from adults. She may be sensing how much the hitting bothers you. Children tend to repeat their most annoying behaviors because it gives them emotional power. Your daughter is at an age when she is testing to see how much power she has and where her boundaries are. Don’t be afraid of this – it’s her way of learning right from wrong. Home is the best place to experiment with the rules because it is a safe and loving place. Your role as a parent is to respond with clear limit-setting.
When she hits you, tell her very firmly (with your strongest voice) that “hitting hurts and you may not hit me”. Turn away from her or take her to her room. Let her know you will not play with her or listen to her requests when she hits. Give her your attention only when she says she is ready to act appropriately. This will probably take a few times before she realizes you mean what you say. If she becomes angry and has a tantrum, stay calm and repeat your message – “mommy cannot listen to you or help you when you are acting like this”. In time, she will learn that hitting does not get her what she wants.
It also takes time to teach patience and thoughtfulness. You will teach her to be less demanding by not jumping at her every wish. Practice short delays, just a few minutes, before responding to her demands. Explain to her that you have important things to do but will help her as soon as you can. Gently but firmly, teach her that other people have needs too. Show her, by your example, that there is strength in gentle ways.
Sometimes, this means standing up to her even if her misbehavior escalates. Stick to your rules and to your routines but give her choices in other ways. For example, she can decide what kind of cookies to have for dessert but she may not eat the cookies before dinner.
In time, you can teach her to use her strengths in some settings and to use her gentler side in others.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.