Son Constantly Hitting Little Sister

Updated on November 20, 2009
E.C. asks from Eugene, OR
16 answers

Help! Son is constantly hitting, pushing, tripping, squeezing, sitting on top of daughter whenever he wants attention for ANYTHING -- hungry, potty, sleepy, wants dvd, wants to go out, etc. I am at my wits end and worried that I am raising a violent child -- he watched this stupid program a lot when he was 2 because my hubby was in love with that program. The protagonist is always hitting and being hit and no one suffers any negative consequences (except Don Ramon gets hit by Dona Florinda whenever he hits her son Quico!!) I put a stop to it too late when he was nearing 3 and I think this has helped to making hitting 'okay' in his mind. Time outs have never worked for me -- he always reacts by getting angrier and acting out more for days. What can I do to stop it? I know that he needs more outlets, and it seemed to be getting a little better when he was going to preschool (for about a week), but then we came down with swine flu and have been cooped up for over a week now. I've resorted to lots of DVDs which I usually don't do (Elmo, Caillou, Bear in the Big Blue House, Wiggles).

I know I need to work on preventing the hitting by anticipating his needs, not rewarding any hitting, and taking each offense seriously. I just got down to his level and looked him in the eye and said firmly but nicely, "whenever you hit from now on, I am going to give you a time out, okay?" and he said, "okay" very positively. But are there any anti-hitting videos, books, etc.? He is a bookworm! Anyone had this problem, and any particular tricks out there that worked? Thanks!!!!!

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So What Happened?

Thanks everyone. This is such a complicated issue and every child is so different. I am definitely going to check out he "Hands are not for hitting" book at the library. I'm no longer allowing them to be together for a single second without close supervision, and I am attending to the sister first when she gets hit and this seems to help. Also, whatever he hits with is not allowed to be played with and that has also helped a little. I've had some talks with him about why he hits and that he could try to do something else like tell me he wants something instead or hit a pillow. This only helps a little but I think it is starting to sink into his awareness better. The problem is that at age 3 I think he really doesn't often know what it is he needs or wants. I don't agree with punishing him as the negative stuff tends to bring out the worst in him. I knew that time outs were not supposed to be punitive but I think I ended up in power struggles with him when I tried to bring him back to the same spot over and over. Now when I try a time out, he immediately runs away and there is no time for reflection. Locking him in a room causes more anger and upset than it's worth.

Another thing that has helped is not treating him like a baby anymore. By not responding enthusiastically to every little thing he does, he seems to be calming down more. He is still relentless when he is tired, but I've come to realize that it is just best to take care of his needs as soon as I am aware of it, and it will go away for a while. Also, I think when he returns to preschool and starts going regularly, his self-esteem should improve as that's what I observed the couple of weeks he went before the flu. Thanks again everyone for all of your input.

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answers from Portland on

You've gotten great advise from others regarding punishment, time out, etc. My only word of advice comes from what my sister (a school teacher)told me when mine were little. When you tell him you are going to do something don't end the sentence with "okay". This takes the power away from you and gives it to him. Basically you are asking permission to punish him. Good luck.

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answers from Seattle on

My advice is to find a punnishment that is actually a punnishment to him. If he loves his DVDs and books so much start taking them away for the rest of the day when he acts out.

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answers from Seattle on

IMHO, him getting angrier is EXACTLY what you want when you put a child in timeout, especially in the beginning. If my son wasn't crying unhappy, or screaming mad when I put him in timeout... I guilted him into being unhappy. Now, I didn't yell or do anything mean (in fact, if I was losing my temper I went outside and took my own timeout until I could be calm and matter of fact, before I talked with him), but I definately wanted him to be feeling lousy. Also, so he wasn't just focused on how HE was ticked off, I'd remind him every minute or two WHY he was on time out ("You're on time out for *HITTING* your mommy. It is NOT OKAY for you to be hitting people because of ________. You don't HURT the people that you love, on purpose.").

ONLY after he had calmed down AND we had talked it out (why he was in time out, why what he had done was wrong, and what he could do INSTEAD of the offense next time -which means tracing back the "why x happened" in the first place) was he allowed to come out of time out.

Most kids aren't born with empathy (although some either are, or pick it up from example very very young)... but for most we have to teach them to feel badly about their actions that hurt others (after all, hitting doesn't hurt the hitter... and if they get what they want from the situation, bonus!)... which means that they DO actually have to be unhappy. The unhappiness usually starts out as personal affront. and then we link it to the offense, but constant repetition. Kinda like Pavlovian training.

When my son was 2 timeouts were no problem (for one thing, timeout was in his crib). When he was 3 through, we'd have days where he might be in and out of time out 2 times an hour all day for 3 or 4 days in a row. Oy. (Can you tell we had the Terrible THREE's in our house?). Then it would be good behavior, mostly, for a week or so...and then back in and out of timeout. When he was 3.5, we finally got rid of the crib, and had a new problem: staying in timeout.

Most of the time, the whole leading them back to the room (hallway/couch/staircase/whatever) silently was sufficient. Once though, in a towering rage (I was really tempted to put him in a cold shower to cool off...would have if he was older, but I was afraid he'd hurt himself), I had to literally sit beside the door to his room. When he started to try and rip the door off it's hinges (kinda cute in a 3 year old), and then started opening it and slamming it into the wall and doorframe, he got a warning that if he did it again I was going to hold the door shut. I held the door shut for 20 minutes while he thrashed himself out (totally safe room to do it in). My heart was breaking the entire time... but this whole thing had become a Big Deal. Any attempt at calming him merely erupted new fury (awww, poor little love... and poor me!) Anyhow, I'd committed myself to the battle (I pick mine rather carefully, since my parents never picked theirs)... and there was no way I was going to back down and teach him that if he got REALLY angry he'd get what he wanted.

That "coming off of time out" conversation was a long one. Not only did we have to discuss what had started it, but we had to talk about what had happened DURING it, and that he *needed* to listen to me. That timeouts aren't punishments, they're a time to cool off and either get our tempers back or think about how to fix a problem that we had created. Discipline, as opposed to punishment.

We never had a problem again, though, with him trying to leave timeout early.

We haven't had the multiple timeouts over multiple days thing since his 4th birthday (thank god). At most it went down to 1 every week or two. He also started putting himself in timeout (house rule, if you put yourself in timeout *before* losing your temper you can come off whenever you want... and you only have to talk about it if you want to.)

These days (7yo), I end up putting him in timeout maybe once a month... and I've "banished him to his room, in disgrace" (which is way different that time out) twice in the past year.

Another rule, that works in our house, you might think about ... is what to do when someone throws a fit. in our house "If you throw a fit, you don't get what you want" hands down, flat out, always (there are way better ways to get what you want)... AND it also equals timeout (for a month he tried throwing a fit whenever he wanted alone time, and that had to get nixed... but it was a quick fix).

I know a lot of parents hold out a reward for stopping the fit (aka, they can have "x" once they've calmed down)... but since we have hot tempers in our family... it's been more important for US to teach how to deal with tempers (aka, you NEVER get what you want when you throw a fit) than to smooth the waters, or bribe our way out of bad behavior. <grinning> We DO use bribery, but only for good behavior. Not returning to good behavior.

Anyhow, as always, just what's worked for us.


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answers from Portland on

You are doing so many things RIGHT! Congrats! You asked for a book recommendation and I just picked up a book at the library called "Words Are Not for Hurting" and I noticed on the back that there's a whole series. One of them is called "Hands Are Not for Hitting".

Also, it sounds like you've had some major family disruption with sickness in the family. He may be acting out some frustration about being cooped up and not getting the attention he normally does. Be encouraged that as you get back on your feet and get out of the house more, chances are his behavior will probably get better. I remember when I was pregnant with my second, my oldest started exhibiting all kinds of nasty behavior and it took awhile for me to figure out that I was needing to take care of myself more (had really bad pregnancy sickness and plopped him in front of the TV many-a-time in order to take a nap). You are NOT a bad mom and will not raise a violent child. It sounds like you care immensely for your little guy and I know (in time) it WILL get better!

(Editing my response and adding the following):
I wrote all of the above without reading anyone else's suggestions. I have to say I really don't think "punishment" is really the right way to go here. Unless you think he's doing it all on purpose and it doesn't sound like thats the case. Taking away his books or videos or sending him to time out won't really help him stop hitting. Definitely enforce "we don't hit" and redirect him. If he's hitting because he wants a toy she has, find a different toy that is ok for him to play with. If he's in a bad mood or mad about something, tickle him and it will lighten the mood....soon you'll both be laughing and playing....doesn't that sound like a better way than trying to hold a 3-yr-old in time out (trust me, I've tried it...didn't work for us!). Some may say that approach is "letting him get away with it" but what's more important, punishing him so he knows "that's bad" or simply getting the behavior to stop by changing the circumstances (and probably making him forget he was mad and hitting to begin with)? And honestly, as long as you aren't letting him continue to hit her, you AREN'T letting him get away with it. Ok, that's all I have to say.....good luck!

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answers from Portland on

Hi E.,

Keeping in mind that your son is three, while I read several suggestions that would work better when your son is older, here's what I would do for now.

1. After every incidence of hitting, first tend to the hurt child, talking for her ("Sister says "I don't like when you sit on/hit me. That hurts my body.") Give HER the attention first. Involve your son in fetching an ice pack or other appropriate first aid/soothing. Don't overdo it, but let her be your priority number one, because she's been hurt.

2.Create a separate space for him to go to. Does he have his own room, or a place that can be mostly his? Then this is where he should go after each infraction. Take him by the hand (after checking on sister) and take him to his room. "You may stay here until you are ready to be careful with your body. You can come back when you can be careful." This is non-punitive: it gives extremely clear limits that allow your son to practice making the choice of being safe and returning when he's ready. (By the way, this isn't the time to make him feel terrible, as some have suggested, but a matter-of-fact parent can make quite an impression.) This also clearly tells your son that there are social expectations which must be maintained in the family's common areas (anyplace other than his room). Hitting is NOT ALLOWED, period.

If he returns and does it again, take him by the hand and say "I see you are still not ready to ....You need to come back when you can be safe."

By the way, it may seem to the parent at this point that this is a "reward", because it looks like the child is just going into their room and playing. On the contrary; the child is doing what we need them to do, which is to take a break until they are ready to do the work of regulating his body and finding better ways to communicate.

3. You suggest that your son is doing this "for attention", which is a very good reason (in a child's eyes) for this acting-out behavior. I'd say, change it up. Start a new, fun trend. One thing that kids like is novelty, right? I'd make some brightly colored cards for your son with simple pictures on them.--a picture of some crackers/food on a couple, a picture of the toilet or potty, a picture of a dvd, a picture of bed....anything your son regularly expresses a need for, even hugs and kisses and stories. You don't need to be an artist to do this. Then, explain to him "When you are hungry, bring me your card and we'll find a snack for you. When you need to go potty, bring me a card and we'll get you to the potty."
--the point being that since he's not *directly addressing* you for these needs, now he's got another choice to make in how to engage you.

Hitting among siblings is very common. I'd also suggest having a pack-n-play handy to place one or the other of the kids in during high transition times (esp. meal prep) to keep them separate. I always think that until they're old enough (both above the age of 3) that children shouldn't be left alone together. Just too much potential for bad things to happen.

One more thing, and this might seem like a small quibble, but I would drop the "Okay?" at the end of explaining things to your son. We mothers tend to do this a lot, but asking for their consent to our decisions undermines our being in charge. And as parents, we have to be confidently leading our children. Tacking on an "okay" or "do you want to/are you ready to?" questions just add another level of confusion. Are we asking them, or telling them? Our society likes us to be "polite", but frankly, having just another thing for kids to say "no" to doesn't ever help the situation, esp. when it comes to giving clear limits and boundaries. Try to catch your "okay's" took me a long time to drop mine, but I sound much more like I mean business.

My best to you.

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answers from Portland on

You son is at such an interesting age, isn't he? Your second paragraph contains most of the advice I would give you; connect with him eye to eye (because he craves attention); anticipate his needs (which will also help meet his need for attention); act quickly and consistently every time he offends; incorporate a non-violent consequence (time outs).

Reminding him lovingly of your need to correct him when he's not actually receiving the correction is good, too, on occasion. You gently reinforce your authority at a time that he's not emotionally engaged in hurting his sister, so there is no drama. You can slip in little messages about why the hitting is wrong: his sister has feelings, you need him to know how to control himself, etc.

====== ON TIME-OUTS =====

I read a wonderful blog a few weeks back, which I can't find now, about the real function of the time out. Ideally, A TIME-OUT IS NOT PUNITIVE, and therefore, it's not important that the child sit quietly for the full minute (or whatever his age calls for). It is only important that he realize that he must be in control of his emotions/behavior to continue his play.

Once a power-struggle ensues in which a parent repeatedly drags a child back to the time-out spot to start the clock again, the exercise becomes punitive (to both parent and child, you may notice). The original point of the time-out has been completely lost on the child, and he ramps up his emotions and resistance.

Now it's merely a power struggle, an entirely different dynamic than "I need you to be in control of yourself." Instead, it has become, "I need to conquer you." This is really infuriating news for a spirited child, and unneccesary. The ideal is to help a child learn to control himself, not to be controlled by outside forces, even if the force is a well-meaning parent.

So, the ideal time-out gives the child a minute or so to realize his behavior was undesirable, so that he can re-set himself and resume his play. While he's "getting" the point, he may need numerous time-outs, but after a week or two, the need may noticably dwindle. And with the ideal time-out, the child will feel honored and assisted in his growing up, not embroiled in a power struggle that leaves bad feelings for him to deal with.


Reading books to sick kids is wonderful, but not always realistic for busy parents. And DVDs really are okay on occasion, much better than TV with its many child-targeted commercials (and I say this as a person who limits my own screen time severely). Almost any video produced specifically for children incorporates good moral and ethical lessons, and most will help a child become more empathetic toward others. Once your household is feeling better, you can get them back on a more varied and physical schedule.

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answers from Portland on

Hi E.,

Check out "Hands are NOT for Hitting". It is a fabulous book! If you feel he is hitting for attention do not give him attention when he hits. Turn ALL of your attention to the person who was hit. Console them and explain what happened to the person who got hit (but really for the benefit of the hitter) "oh no, Trevor hit Bethany and it really hurt! Bethany, I'm so sorry that happened. Hitting really hurts our bodies and our feelings." Turning the attention to the person who was hit should make it less appealing to hit. After that, put him into time out or whatever but don't be angry about it - just tell him "Time out for hitting" and walk him to his time out area and when it's over, it's OVER. Don't harp on why he was in time out or what he can do in the future to avoid a time out, he's done his time and he does know why he had to sit there for 3 minutes. I also am a big fan of telling my son what IS okay to release frustration - we can hit pillows, the bed, jump up and down, push on the wall, draw a picture etc. but we NEVER hit people. It's not nice and it hurts. Seems to help.


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answers from Seattle on

I just bought my two year old 'Teeth are not for biting' (There is a hands title for hitting) - it seems really too young for her, but, she's asked to be read it a lot.

My doctor suggested that we work on having my daughter say things like 'i need a hug', or, 'i need some mommy/daddy time'. The idea is to give a concrete positive action to take that can fill in the place of the negative action you want to discourage. You could do similarly by suggesting an action he could take instead - 'when you feel like hitting your sister, why don't you do a jumping jack instead'. (We used, 'give a hug instead' and that seemed to work for a while.

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answers from Anchorage on

First of all, the choices of shows...Cailliou for instance spends a lot of time doing things he shouldn't do..whether hitting, lying..etc..without much in the way of consequences. We banned that show when my son learned how to lie...that was about three I think..we didn't like it to begin with so it was an easy thing to do. Elmo is a little harder but after watching him for years, mostly Elmo gets by on "Cuteness". He gets away with a lot, and people don't react negatively to him so they won't "hurt his feelings" and what not. He's everybody's kid brother sort he's not so bad but what kids learn is that "they can get away with stuff" just because they are cute, just because they whine, just because someone smaller is afraid..etc. Real life says otherwise. Real-life consequences every time he hits someone in real life. Give him outlets that he can hit..pillows and all that. Hitting hurts in real life. Check out some comics and stuff that show people hitting, and the "expression" balloons "oomph, arrrgh, ouch!". When you read them, or see someone hitting on tv, say things out loud like "oo that must have hurt!" When something happens that hurts him, compare it a little bit to hit sitting on his sister. "Hmm, I wonder if this is how your sister felt yesterday when you sat on her...hmmm". Just sort of find associations that make hitting seem less attractive to him. Hitting isn't cute. That's your message, and you want it to stop. We became a big fan of Backyardigans, Big Big World and Sesame Street. But we never got into the single character promos that much. If you don't want to outright "ban" tv, then start watching with your son so you can point out the things that you find wrong. When Caillou lies about something, talk about how you might react or what you might do if he did the same thing. He may not "get it" all but some of it will sink in. We say things all the time about those type of things on tv: "If you lied to me like that I you'd be going to bed early for about a week, be banned from tv for about a week"...etc..etc... It's not a threat, it's just stating a fact. If he lied to you like Caillou did to his mommy, you'd be angry and rightly so! Same goes for hitting..consequences. Stop letting his anger manipulate you. Consequences for the acting out when it happens, consequences for doing things to his sister that he shouldn't (and anyone else). Time to get a little strict with the boy!



answers from Portland on

Hello E.,

I'm a parent coach and have worked with children for 15+ years. I suggest you first have written household rules with consequences. Allow your children to add their rules too, then everyone must agree to the rules, maybe by signing the back. This removes you from the punisher, you're just enforcing the rules he agreed to.

Regarding consequences, I believe in having the consequence pay back the 'victim.' In the case of hitting, if your son hits, he must do a chore of that person's. If the persons is old enough they get to choose the chore.

In my 15+ years working with children, I've never found time outs to work. I stopped using timeouts about 10 years ago. During a time out your child doesn't think about his misdeeds, but his dislike to the punishment.

I also believe in providing educatgon to children when they show that they don't know what to do. You said he hits when he want's something, so if you're not already, redirect the behavior. "Bobby, hitting others doesn't tell me what you need. If you wanted the toy you need to ask. What words would you use to ask for the toy?"

Good luck. This is a frusterating issue.

R. Magby



answers from Portland on

If you blame a program for your son's behavior you are doing him a grave disservice and are only ignoring the real reason behind his behavior which will only allow it to continue. An open dialog with one's child, no matter what sort of programs one allows them to watch, is what is going to form the childs mind patterns and influence the childs behavior. Even at three years old one can most certainly discuss the violence they are seeing in the program and can even influence the child's future attitude toward violence. With our son who is now in his late twenties, who has never exhibited any violence even though he grew up watch the same action films and scary films that we watched, we first of all made it perfectly clear that was a film and meant to be entertainment. When the entertainment we saw was not in line with how we wanted him to grow up we talked to him about it pointing out that what he was viewing was not acceptable to us except as a part of the film/program we were watching.

You'd be surprised just how close kids are listening and how truly influential parents are. That is why it's so critically important for parents to be conscious of how they act, what they do and what they say because we are living examples of how they should be...


answers from Seattle on


Two things stick in my mind about your post. First, your comments about timeouts. They do work when used properly and consistently.

My son has spent an hour or more doing a 6 minute timeout because he doesn't do what he's supposed to. At my house the offending child (2 year old or 6 year old) stands in a corner of the house with their nose in said corner for one minute per year of age. And they will stay there until they do their time.

For your little guy, if he runs away before the three minutes are up he goes back repeatedly until he stays in time out for the allotted time. Be prepared for meltdowns and what seems like an inordinate amount of time spent on the one time out. If he doesn't comply with what you have said as his mother, he keeps going back to the time out until the time is completed. This is not a cumulative thing either. He sits, he stays for three minutes and then he's done. It can't be 30 seconds here and there. He's testing boundaries and right now he's winning.

For the anger thing there's a book: "When Sophie Gets Angry, Really Really Angry" It has a lot of bright colors and an awesome message on how to deal with anger.

Hope this helps,



answers from Seattle on

Hi E.,

Look for the book, Hands Are Not For Hitting by Martine Agassi. Also, I was wondering if you are willing to punish him beyond a time out. Maybe taking away a favorite toy when he hits and making him earn it back with good behavior, small chores, etc. My neighbor used that one on her son that would get violent and thrown the biggest tantrums over anything. He is an only child so I don't know if this is feasible for you with two kids to look after but maybe.... I am pretty sure she got the idea from a Love and Logic book. She would also calmly just take him to his room and shut the door. Her son had to stay in his room until he could calm down and not scream and hit. I don't know that that would work for every child or house. I am not sure that it was that effective for him but it definitely gave his mom the space to stay calm in the chaos and prevented him from hurting anyone.

Good Luck!



answers from Portland on

this is tough and I have a bit of this too. I wonder by saying anytime you hit you will get a time out, may make it still sound like it is OK, as it is acceptance that it is going to happen. Maybe it would be better to say, it is not okay to hit anyone, ever, under any circumstances... it hurts. You don't like to be hit and neither do other people. If you do it for any reason I am going to take a toy away and you won't be able to play with for a week (or few days) or whatever seems tough to them or take away some other kind of thing they like. I know they don't like time out, but we do end up overusing it and for them, OK they go and sit on their own for a few minutes, but I wonder if it really matters. Losing things they like, toys, movies, treats, TV, computer time etc. may work better. Just a thought.
The other thing I read was about sibling rivalry and to never make comparisons between the kids e.g. look Sally is eating her vegetables, or Sally is already in the bath, or look how well Sally is behaving. All those types of comments tell kids that we make comparisons and amps up the rivaly. Made sense to me so have really focussed on not doing that. Think it is helping, but who knows!!!
Other than that, lots of exercise and outdoor time!
Good luck :)



answers from Honolulu on

I am sorry. I do not know the answer, however, I would ask a professional like pediatrician, psychologist or seek help in some of the parenting books. You want him to grow up loving and caring and you don't want him to turn into a bully around other children.
You are right, I think it is an attention getter and what he is doing is probably very normal.
Good luck.



answers from Seattle on

Put him in time outs that remove him from the action, i.e. put him in his room.(And if he won't stay there shut the door.) Before you put him in, tell him you are putting him in because...... Then do so. Continue every time he acts out. Even when he gets louder, because he will for a while. Don't get mad--stay very calm. If you feel like screaming go out side, shut the door. (I used the bathroom and turned on the shower.)

Do this for at least a month. Consistency will change his behavior. It is important that you learn this technique now because you will have more situations come up as he grows.

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