Most young children who spend enough time together will eventually devolve into physical problem-solving - hitting, kicking, pushing, etc. Knowing this is true, does not make it easier when the struck child is yours! If you have less physical children (Emotional or Engaging Brain Types) and this isn’t a common thing in your home due to your children’s personalities, experiencing a more physical child (Enterprising Brain Type) can be even more upsetting.
You’ll probably first feel anger! “Mama Bear” is real. You don’t like what happened, you don’t like that you didn’t prevent it and protect your child, you don’t like that the other child didn’t have the self-control to stop their own body from contacting your child’s, you want to blame the other parent, or maybe the little kid, or maybe both!
You may feel guilt under the anger for not being there to block the hit, or for bringing your child to this situation in the 1st place. So many moms have told me they feel guilty for needing daycare because their child was hit or bit by another.
You may feel sad that your child experienced this conflict and experienced this pain. You may feel hopeless to change the situation. Obviously, you can’t go back in time, but you too can’t perfectly control the future either. You may feel scared and that can take the form of all manner of catastrophization.
So first and foremost, accept any and all feelings you’re having right now. Those are valid. It sucks to see your kid get hit and you’re allowed to feel that way. Deep breathe, move your body, try some tapping, whatever you need to model the self-control you’re hoping to teach your child. Once your fight/flight nervous system response settles and your logic comes back online, visit these important points.
Your child deeply wants you to believe in them. Believe that they can face challenges and overcome them, believe they are not fragile and breakable, believe they are resilient, believe that they are also learning and growing. Avoid painting your child as a “poor victim.” They want you to see them as capable and strong and able to solve their problems. So, aim to see the situation as neutrally as you can. Don’t project all of your difficult feelings. That way you can hold space for your child’s. Observe and offer words for their feelings, thoughts, and perspective without added “drama”. I use phrases like,
“Oh, he hit you. You don’t like that. I see. Did you tell him?”
“You feel so mad! That's fair. Do you want help talking to him or do you want to talk to him yourself?”
“I see you're so sad. You didn’t like that. I wouldn’t either.”
“Do you want to keep playing or take a break from playing with this particular child?”
Assume the best of both parties. I know that’s hard. I promise that little kid (we’re talking about early childhood here) is doing the best they can too. They don’t want to be mean or hurtful just for the sake of harm. They have needs they are trying to meet and doing it in a not-great way. This is an opportunity to practice better conflict skills for all the children involved. They aren’t supposed to be good at it yet, don’t panic! You’re there to help.
If the conflict involves a child yours will likely need to see again (sibling, cousin, neighbor, classmate), consider “it takes two.” When small kids are in conflict there are often 2 sides to the tale. When it’s our own child and someone else’s it is hard to consider the other child’s perspective, but doing so will raise more empathic children who are more emotionally intelligent and better problem solvers as adults. Our child may have actually posed a threat, but it could be simply that their actions made the other child think there was a threat they needed to defend against. Giving them better ways to defend themselves, their property, or their play, can help both kids get along better. (Obviously, some random kid at the library may be worth just walking away from, but repair is valuable for repeater kids.)
Consider what role you can play. If you’re dealing with preschoolers, they likely need closer supervision. Under 5’s are impulsive and cannot reliably apply their thinking about past situations to current ones. Emotional self-control comes from the pre-frontal cortex which is not going to be fully developed until 25/26 years old. So we’re talking about kids who have roughly 2 decades underdeveloped brains here! Expect impulsive and maladaptive behavior to happen and be close to intervene. When they can’t control themselves, BE their self-control. Block their hand and say, “I won’t let you hit my child. You’re wanting him to move? You can tell him, 'I need space.' or you can ask a grown-up for help." Yes, I talk to other people’s kids. It’s my job to keep my kid safe when I can. If the other parent is right there, they can do it, but if not, I won’t allow fear to stop me from empathically and respectfully holding the boundary I need.
Give your child tools too. How can they speak up for themselves? What do they do when their nervous system pours energy into their hands or feet? Do they know they can stomp instead of kick? Do they know they can do the sign language for “stop” instead of hitting someone else? Do they know they know how to hold up a strong arm and firmly tell someone else, “STOP! I don’t like that.” Self-advocacy is empowering.
Little kids are going to be bad at conflict before they are good at it. They are going to grow and develop in different areas at different times. When they are under more stress, they will struggle with self-control even more. Being tired, hungry, scared, lonely, feeling left out, feeling unimportant, feeling unseen or unheard, being sick, feeling pressured - all of these things can bring out surprising behaviors as our kids, or our friends/family’s kids, reach their breaking point. We don’t want our kid to take the brunt of it, but if it happens, all is not lost. We can use those challenging times to help them feel like we believe them and believe in them, that we’ve got their back and they are capable of handling their conflicts with their skills and by borrowing ours if they need them until they can collaborate and problem solve on their own like a pro!
Here's a link to go download the PDF of the simplified path to handling these conflicts.