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How to Get a Kid to Stop Punching

Prevention built on praise and recognizing the context of violent behaviors are key to getting a kid to stop using their fists to communicate.

Kids learn super early that they can make fists out of their hands and use those fist to bludgeon their parents, the ground, and the cat. And when frustrations have piled up on their little shoulders, punching is a go-to response. After all, a punch can make a brother stop ruining a game or capture a parents attention quickly. However, when punching starts, communication ends. Which means resolutions take way longer. Happily, kids can learn to talk rather than punch. But, like other types of training, teaching kids not to punch isn’t about following a lesson plan. It’s about curbing the impulse by making sure children feel secure.

“If we have a really strong relationship with a child, they are more apt to use adaptive coping skills when they are frustrated,” explains child psychologist and professor of psychology at Husson University Dr. Lauren Holleb. That’s because kids who feel secure are less likely to lash out in the face of adversity or continue to exhibit signs of genetically coded childhood aggression. They have a tendency to feel much more stable. But building that strong relationship isn’t necessarily the parental default.

“Praise a child anytime you catch them doing something you want them to do,” Holleb advises. But she acknowledges it can be a tough habit to start, considering adults rarely even do this with the other adults. It is, as Holleb points out, more common to nag a spouse for not doing the dishes than to notice and thank them for a job well done. To that end, dealing with a testy toddler appropriately can train adults to be better versions of themselves as well..

“If we praise praise praise in good situations, children will be more apt to behave that way in the future,” Holleb says. 

That said, it’s also important to give some thought to what exactly that kid’s immediate future holds. After all, so much of the way a child reacts to an unpleasant situation is based on context.

How to Get a Kid to Stop Punching

  • Praise a kid often when they react to adversity in ways that are appropriate rather than only reacting to bad behavior.
  • Think about the context that surrounds the punching behavior and avoid situations where a kid might escalate to hitting.
  • React calmly and model an appropriate response to difficult circumstances.
  • Be direct and simple by telling a child hitting is never okay because it can hurt people.
  • When feeling overwhelmed or angry, step away from the situation.

“If we can intervene before the aggression even happens we will have the best outcomes,” Holleb says. “Think about what’s going on when that punching is happening. Is the child becoming aggressive or lashing out when they’re exhausted and missed their naps? Or is it always happening when a child is in a transition?” Understanding what leads to a punch can give a parent clues as to when it might happen and allow them to remove a kid before things get violent.

But, of course, even a sharp eye towards prevention will not stop every punch. So when it happens, parents need to have a plan to intervene. And that intervention begins with a parent’s own reaction. According to Holleb, the key is to stay calm and model how a person should deal with adversity. “If we yell at the child, we’re modeling for them that that’s okay to do,” she explains.

The better reaction is calm communication. It requires removing the child from the situation and approaching them with a little empathy and understanding they’re not violent at their core. They just lack the tools they need. A parent is completely right to tell their kid it’s not okay to hit, but they also need to tell them why. It’s short and simple: “You don’t ever hit people because it will hurt them.”

But talking with a kid does not preclude consequences. Sometimes a time out is necessary, as long as it’s given calmly. And if a parent can’t get calm themselves? “It’s okay. It’s how we act across the board in general,” Holleb says. “We’re all going to have instances when we’re frustrated and don’t handle ourselves the way we’d like. Give ourselves a couple minutes to calm yourself and come back to intervene.”