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Toddler Hitting Mother

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Dear Dr. Susan:

I am the mother of a 15 months old son. We have a wonderful and loving relationship. One problem. He hits and slaps. He doesn’t hit and slap everyone, usually only me. I don’t understand why. We are as close as a mother and son could be. Any ideas?

Christine

Dear Christine:

Thank you so much for writing! 12-18 month olds are great imitators, and they use their hands and feet to “pretend” and to act out what they see and hear. He is testing you. Just say, “Stop, put your hands down.” Don’t ask questions – like “why did you do that?” Don’t sound mad. Don’t punish or take him to his room; time out is not appropriate for children under 4 years old. Just be totally matter-of-fact and state what you want him to do, not that he was bad to do it. Say, “in this house we do not hit; hands down.” Use distraction and substitution as discipline. Put play toys in his hands when he does what you asked him to do. Say “that is what your hands are for, not hitting; no hitting; hands down.” You will have to be consistent and say these phrases over and over – it will stop, I promise, as long as he doesn’t see people hitting.

He is totally attached to you, almost as if you are an extension of his body – his arms and legs – in is mind, you are physically connected to him, as the person he sees, smells, touches, and hears more of the time than any other person. Infants are so smart they fall in love with their caregiver’s body as well as their attention. Some babies need to do more touching than they need to use their other senses. Your son knows you will respond, and so he is, in a sense, “reaching out: even if it’s now a semi-bad habit”. It’s a small problem – encourage him to “talk” (babble) to you and say “talk to me – we don’t hit – we talk.”

Thanks again,

Susan H. Turben, Ph.D.

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