Why Hitting is Harmful to Children

Why Hitting is Harmful to Children

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Hitting hurts children both physically and emotionally

As a parent you love your child more than anything in the world. And most of all, you want your child to grow up feeling loved and happy. But children are very difficult to understand and their behavior is hard to manage. Children can be aggressive, refuse to listen and break your rules. When children act out, parents tend to feel powerless and frightened by the behavior, (“Maybe there is something wrong with my child”), and fear leads to anger. This often causes parents to respond impulsively. Unknowingly, parents can say or do something that harms their child’s self-esteem. Sometimes parents will hit their kids out of frustration.

It is with a deep understanding of parents and how difficult the job is that I address the issue of hitting. My goal in this article is to raise your awareness, in a non-critical way, about the negatives of hitting children and suggest that you use positive limit setting instead, which I will discuss step by step below.This method helps you to communicate to your child the need to change his negative behavior while teaching him the skills for developing self-control and safeguarding his self-esteem.

For centuries some very outdated, negative perceptions of children have been the accepted gospel. The old fashioned belief that children are innately bad and are born with bad impulses, still is lodged in many parents’ psyche. So is the belief that the only way to get children to behave “correctly” is to punish children harshly whenever they misbehave, for instance spanking them. Parents who have been raised in this way, naturally gravitate to this response. Parents often deeply regret their action but do not know what else to do. Lacking the knowledge of other viable skills, they find themselves continuing to respond in the same familiar way over and over again.

Let me explain why hitting is so harmful for children. When a child misbehaves and you hit her, you not only hurt her physically, but you actually hurt her emotionally, as well.(This is also true of using negative words.) The child worries that if you can hurt her, you do not really love her. The natural conclusion, is that she must be a terrible person and that she is unlovable. As a result, she might grow up with a low self-esteem. This negative sense of self can harm her relationships and her ability to succeed.

Hitting children also communicates to them that it is OK to be aggressive to others.(The opposite of the lesson you are seeking to convey.) You cannot tell children not to hurt others, if you hurt them. Children are more inclined to do what you do, not what you say. It is common for children who are hit, to hit their siblings, other children and even their parents.

When you hit your child, you also communicate that it is okay to hurt a person you love. As they grow, the parent/child relationship becomes a model for the way a loving relationship feels. As a result, the child might unconsciously be drawn to aggressive relationships, even in his marriage.

Hitting also can damage the parent/child relationship. When a child is hit, she becomes fearful of her parents and enraged with them. Before long, a negative combative parent/child relationship can evolve and the child may fight the parent over everything. Each battle usually leaves both the parent and the child feeling miserable.

Sometimes children bury the anger instead, and become depressed. Or they will turn the anger against themselves. This process maintains that the parent (whom they need desperately for their care) is good, the child is at fault for everything. Unfortunately, when this happens, the child may develop self-destructive thoughts. At an extreme, these thoughts can cause severe behaviors, such as cutting.

There is a body of knowledge in parenting today that supports the idea that a parent needs to be a kind, supportive mentor and take an educative approach with children. This helps children to grow up to feel loved and self-confident. Using positive limit setting will accomplish these major goals.

Here’s how it works: Suppose you walk into the room and you see your youngest child hitting his older brother. These are some effective steps to take.

Set a limit on the aggressive behavior: You can tell your child in a calm, firm voice, “Stop. We don’t hit anyone in the family.” Limits are important because children get overwhelmed by their aggression. If they are allowed to hurt others or break the furniture, they become frightened by their angry impulses.

Explain your limit: You might say, “When you hit your brother, you hurt him. We don’t hurt anyone in the family. We would not let anyone hurt you.” It is helpful to remind children of times when they were hit, so they can identify with the other person’s experience. Once they understand the reason for your rule and it makes sense, they will be more co-operative and willing to change their behavior.

Acknowledge and accept your child’s emotion: Tell her, “It’s O.K. to be angry, but you cannot hurt anyone.” This helps her to distinguish between anger and aggression. It also promotes an acceptance of anger, a natural human emotion, and as she grows she will feel comfortable to talk to you about her feelings, rather than act them out. This will give you the opportunity to provide her with the support she needs and help her solve problems.

Connect your child’s emotion to the situation: Explain to your child,”You got angry at your brother because he would not let you be the teacher.” As you make these connections for your child, you will help him to understand his motivation for his actions, and over time he will develop better self-control.

Encourage her to use words: You might say, “When you’re angry you need to use words. Say, “I’m angry.”(Children do not naturally know what words to use.) Once she uses words, she no longer needs to act out in a physical way. This becomes a skill she will begin to use in any conflict.

Address the underlying issue: In every situation, there is generally a deeper source of the problem to address. In the anecdote with the two siblings, for instance,you might say, “It’s hard to be the youngest child in a family. The oldest child always likes to be the leader. You can tell your brother, “It’s my turn to be the teacher,” or come to me for help.’” In this way, you deepen his understanding of his feelings, and teach him skills to handle similar situations.

Keep in mind that children learn skills through a process over time. One telling of the rules when she behaves disagreeably, does not do the job. Learning an emotional skill such as self-control, takes years. In some ways you can compare the process to teaching the alphabet to kids. You need to patiently repeat yourself over and over again over time, until it takes hold. Ultimately, over many years your child will internalize your rules, and develop self-control. In the meantime, parents need to function as patient, kind, supportive, educators. If you think back to your childhood, these were the qualities of the teachers from whom you learned the most.