Why a 6-year-old keeps hitting — and what to do about it

Meghan Leahy

Meghan Leahy

Q: My first-grader still hits when he's mad, frustrated, etc. Sometimes, it's obvious he's overly emotional and lashing out physically. Other times, it seems more calculated. Just this morning, he was mad about leaving for school (despite all the recommended steps, such as agreeing to a plan, giving time updates, etc.). While getting shoes and coats on, he kept taking swings at his sister. When I said we're not having play time tomorrow morning before school because of this behavior, he finished tying his shoes, calmly got up and head-butted me. We don't hit in our household; no corporal punishment. And yet it continues to be his preferred method of lashing out. Usually he apologizes later, but I don't know what to do in the moment. How do we get him to understand this is not acceptable? When does this stop being normal kid behavior? It doesn't feel normal.

A: This is an issue with which many young children struggle. Why do young kids hit? We know it is because they are frustrated, but what does that really mean? Let's review a tiny bit of brain science to clarify this challenge: Our prefrontal cortex is basically in charge of regulating our emotions. Someone cuts me off in traffic? My initial fear gives way to anger, and I want to attack the other driver. My prefrontal cortex says: "No, Meghan. They probably didn't see you and it doesn't help to make a situation worse with your anger."

So when it comes to your 6-year-old, we can clearly see that something is keeping him from regulating his big emotions. What could do that? Here is a list that is in no way comprehensive but may give you a place to begin to look.

Maturity: The No. 1 reason that children hit is that their brains are taking a little longer to mature. And although the boy and girl brain are pretty much the same, girls' social and language skills develop early, whereas boys' strengths lie in spatial skills. This accounts for some of the violence we see in boys. Will boys catch up to the girls and vice versa? Yes, it just may take a little longer for a boy's brain to process his big feelings and put them into words.

Sleep: Poor sleep affects our ability to regulate our emotions; as adults, we know this all too well. When we don't sleep enough, we overreact to real and perceived threats.

Neurological issues: This can be attention-deficit disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning issues, etc. What is difficult is that around ages 6, 7 and 8 years of age is usually when moderate children are diagnosed. Why? Children with severe issues trip the radar of parents and professionals at the ages of 2, 3 and 4, whereas children with moderate to mild issues can blend more into the "normal" array of behaviors. As children mature, you begin to see a chasm between the behaviors: Suddenly, your son is in trouble at school, in trouble at home and his peers seem to be largely moving forward.

Anxiety: Even a 6-year-old can have anxiety. With the right environment, anxiety and sensitivity can result in frustration and hitting in children. Why? The brain is trying to protect itself from a source of worry that it cannot really understand, and this chronic low-level panic leads to outbursts.

Allergies and other issues: Blood sugar alone can greatly affect a child's behavior. It's worth looking into.

Too much technology: When children are overstimulated by gaming and screens, their ability to regulate emotions drops significantly. Some children are more vulnerable to this stimulation (see ADHD), and it can create mayhem in the home.

It sounds as if you are using some effective and well-known strategies to help alleviate the hitting (creating plans and giving frequent updates), but I am going to encourage you to try to understand the behavior before you treat it. After all, one child’s medicine is another’s poison. If you feel that there is something else going on, please get support. Talk with his teachers and talk with his pediatrician, contact some specialists and begin reading. I know it can seem insurmountable, but take small steps.

In the meantime, get to the basics: Whenever physically possible, touch him gently, speak to him while looking in his eyes, and have a slight smile on your face. Try your best to assume that he will hit and get in front of that behavior as best you can. When he is hitting, help to get him out of the situation while saying as little as possible. Look into whether “positive time-ins” might be a feasible option for him. To do this, resist the urge to lecture or punish in the moment; you can always circle back and talk to him when everyone’s emotions are more regulated. Instead, spend 10 positive minutes with him a day. Play cards, kick a soccer ball, anything that makes you both smile. Let him feel that he is valued and loved unconditionally, every single day.

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