Dear Sharon,

My son is 6 years old. He is hitting his brother (10) and sister (8), and also is hitting some other kids in school. What suggestions do you have as to how to handle this?

Dear Parent,

Impulsive and/or aggressive behaviors like hitting can be caused by a wide array of underlying issues including accumulated minor or major upsets at home or at school that a child is not able to talk about or process effectively. In the case of your son it is not unusual for youngest siblings to be dominated in certain ways by their older brothers or sisters. As a result they might try and compensate by attempting to “dominate” others.

Being the youngest of three children can contribute to hitting but I usually suggest that Moms and/or Dads of children who are showing signs of aggression think of all the factors in a young one’s life that are difficult and then brainstorm ways to reduce this stress at least some of the time. Reducing underlying causes of upset is often the most effective way to decrease hitting and other forms of negative behavior.

Of course it can be hard to reduce stress and there are other factors that can contribute to hitting as well.

Here are some other suggestions that have often helped parents in your circumstances.

Many children, especially those with multiple siblings, benefit from some “one on one” with Mom and/or Dad. I have often seen even a short tern schedule of regular “dates” with a child give parents an opportunity to offer some positive, loving attention and time to talk things through in a calm, clear and effective tone.

Many six years olds also benefit from regular physical activity to overcome the pressure of sitting relatively still in a classroom setting for most of their day at school. This may mean heading to the playground or making sure a child gets some exercise (ideally some that is relatively tension free) directly after school.

Assisting a child before an incident occurs is often more helpful than sorting things through after the fact. After children hit they are often in “a defensive frame of mind” and reluctant to talk or process what happened. Thus if at all possible it can be beneficial to watch over a child who is prone to bouts of aggression and calmly intervene when it looks like things might be “getting out of control”.

At such a time it can help if the child can be gently separated from the potential problem, be given the opportunity to express what is on his or her mind and then get some help sorting through alternative solutions to lashing out. Even if this is done once or twice it can help the child think through a wider range of alternatives to hitting.

When an adult does see a child hitting it can of course be upsetting but an upset adult reaction usually does not move things in a good direction. As hitting is often a result of emotions that are “out of control” it is important that adults stay calm and clear when talking to children about such behavior. If possible it can be useful for an adult to take ample time to listen to children explain their version of what happened, discuss consequences with them in a supportive tone and help them sort through possible alternatives if and when they get agitated again.

Unfortunately, there is rarely a simple solution to helping a child who is hitting. Nevertheless I have seen many parents, teachers and caregivers succeed in bringing an end to this type of behavior with consistent support and patience over time.