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Adoption Blog: The Perfect Blend

A Sensitive Way to Address Our Son’s Behavior Problems?

Thank you to those of you who have responded to my last post about the important, agonizing struggles of earning our newly adopted son's trust. I'm pleased to report that, in the past week or two, we've all come a long way. Dylan seems to be thriving, blossoming into a funny—pleasantly quirky, actually—little boy who still complains when I leave the room to take a shower but has fun with his daddy in the meantime and is happy to see me come back.

On to the next challenge.

Dylan's a hitter. He hits when he's mad. He hits when he's frustrated. He hits when he's tired or when he's wound up. He hits me—a lot, actually—when we're snuggling and he's content. He hits me upwards of 30 or 40 times a day. We've spoken to several post-placement social workers who say it's a baby thing or a boy thing.

And maybe it is. But I'm not particularly keen on being beaten by my child.

Although hitting isn't an adoption issue per se, I feel like I want to simultaneously teach my son good behavior and be sensitive to his history and the strides he's made in the methods I use. Since separation has been such an issue, for example, a time-out isn't the answer. But a firm "no" is met with laughter and another hit. Advice anyone? In stubbornly refusing to accept that it's just "natural" behavior for a boy, am I making a mistake? How can we curb this behavior?

Related Posts on AdoptiveFamiliesCircle


I’ve not yet adopted (in process) but I have a 3 and 5 year old boy. The 3 year old in particular went through a hitty phase, and “time-outs” were not effective for him either.

Here are a few things that worked for us:
Sitting at our feet or somewhere near us until he could be calm and apologize.
Immediate, empathetic removal of any toy used as a weapon.
Holding his hands for a little while until he could be calm and apologize.
Looking directly into his eyes and telling him that it hurt and we did not like it, and that we can’t play xyz if he is going to do that.
Immediately giving him the words to say if he hit out of frustration, but still following through with any consequence.
Protecting his brother and being sure the hitter sees any tears/crying the hittee does. This also really had an effect on our sweet-hearted aggressor.
Getting in some couch cuddling or floor wrestling first thing each day seemed to help, too.
Changing our consequences quickly and frequently. They have ranged from a delay in getting favorite foods to toy removal to doing his brother’s chore. Nothing too intense, and always announced with compassion and empathy, with my hands helping him gently to comply. It’s a little like chess- gotta reformulate the strategy as the game plays out, or so I hear.

We do a sort of Love and Logic- mishmash. The love part is really important with our boy- hearing that we love him and that we don’t like that behavior and we are sad to have to take away xyz made a difference. It takes about a million repetitions, the calmer the better, but it does make a difference. Even at 3 he understands when I tell him my job is to teach him how to be a part of our family, and that we do not hurt each other. Framing it so that even Mama is following the rules when a consequence occurs (rather than it being done out of anger or frustration) seems to really help our dramatic son.

If you’re interested in the Love & Logic stuff, the best book is the one for teachers. It’s got the most clearly laid-out reasoning and the best examples.

Good luck, this too shall pass.

By Mimi Boheme on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 8:21 am.

We have a nearly 3 year old that, finally, seems to be coming to the end of his hitting stage. The hitting happens when he is feeling overwhelmed and is just as likely to happen when he is angry as when he is really excited. He was adopted domestically as a newborn.

We have been firm since the beginning and repeatedly explained that hitting hurts others and he should not do it. As I said, as he approaches his 3rd birthday it has dramatically reduced in frequency. But frankly, I have no idea if what we did had any effect or if he is just coming out of this stage? I do believe this is a stage that many children go through, regardless of whether they are adopted or not.

By Global Librarian on Thursday, August 25, 2011 at 9:41 pm.

Hi Meghan,

I’ve got a hitter (and scratcher)! My daughter is two and a half now (domestic, adopted from birth), and has greatly improved her restraint in the past few months. Although she gets a good one in now and then, like just this morning—ouch!

Talking and talking and talking about it has been helping (that it hurts, words she can use to express her feelings). Before we see her little friends, we talk about other things she can do with her hands besides hitting like giving high fives, hugs, and pats on the back.

It’s definitely a stage. Oh, and I read that kids hit the ones they feel safest with. Little comfort perhaps, but it might ease the pain somewhat the next time you get a whack in the head!

~ Barbara

By Barbara Herel on Friday, August 26, 2011 at 9:12 pm.

Depending on age once he hits (it can be a day later) he needs to make amend. Like you hit me yesterday on the arm now I can’t wipe the table so you wipe it for me.

The child may have the social/emotional development of a younger child…so if emotionally socially he is 2 but chronologically 8 he may hit. It is not OK.

You can try rewarding the victim…like you hit mom so she gets a treat.

We see this behavior a lot at the attachment center where I work and if not curbed can get quite dangerous as the child ages.

By Regina on Monday, August 29, 2011 at 12:41 am.

i dont know how old your son is but there is a great book i use this book with my clients who are young children.  “hands are not for hitting.  also a rewards chart could be quite successful.  a chart for sticker for good behavior.  after so many stickers he is rewarded with a trip to the dollar store where he gets to pick a item of his choice.

By margo Ferrin on Monday, August 29, 2011 at 1:04 am.

My daugher is also a hitter.  I brought her home at 19 months (international adoption) and she is now 4 yrs old.  She hit the first 6 months she was home - it was the only way she could communicate her feelings.  We got past those days of hitting.  But, in the past couple of months, she has started hitting again.  Usually it is after I tell her “no” or she doesn’t get her way.  She never hits anyone else but me.  But she will carry on for 30-45 minutes of screaming and hitting.  I’m at a loss as to what to do so was happy to see the posts here, to know that I am not alone.  I am familiar with the love and logic approach from being a teacher in the classroom.  So many people tell me it is just a stage but it seems to be much more than that.  and I am so afraid of what will be if we cannot stop this behavior now.  She is already a very strong child and it wears me down to try to contain her during a tantrum and hitting fit.  I would love to hear comments from anyone else who has dealt with anything like this.  Once calm, she is the most loving, remorseful child who promises she is not going to hit mommy anymore.  She sincerely does not want to be so short-tempered and hit but seems to have no control.

By jessijo on Monday, August 29, 2011 at 1:28 am.

When my son went through a hitting phase as a toddler, one day, I picked up his hand and hit it, not hard, of course, just like you might slap a child’s hand away from a hot stove. He cried. I held him and explained “hitting hurts”. He stopped hitting. I only had to do it once and he understood. (Of course, he hits occasionally, as most children do, but it stopped the hitting epidemic.)

I think sometimes we can talk and use our words as much as the books say we should, and it won’t work because kids need to understand concretely what’s happening. I’m not advocating repeated use of this method. I don’t believe in hitting children in any way. It just occurred to me that just saying “this hurts” wasn’t working. He needed to be shown what “this hurts” meant. Just like you can tell a child not to pull the cat’s tail, separate the child from the cat, try to teach the cat to stay away from the child, but nothing stops a child from pulling the cat’s tail as much as the cat scratching the child will.

For older kids, we like “1-2-3 Magic.” However, no matter which disciplinary system you use, the key is consistency.  You also have to have zero tolerance. Some of the behavior is never OK. If your child is motivated by “carrots” you can use a points system. We gave my son points for behaving well at school. When he got 10 points, he got a special outing with one or both of us. The idea was to show that positive behavior merits more attention than negative behavior. After awhile, we stopped having to give the points because he was behaving well on his own.

By rredhead on Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 12:00 pm.

Addressing it immediately is key. Sometimes kids can have a learning curve on the concept of cause and effect. Waiting to discuss it later can confuse him.

Address it every time. He’s probably had little consistency up to this point, and consistency is what kids need. Same response, same result, every time.

I’d say immediately remove him from the situation until he can control himself. A firm, but gentle, NO with eye contact and restraining the hitting hand will get his attention. Then move him out of the situation, whatever it is, to another spot and have him sit beside you or near you until he is ready to apologize. After he apologizes, resume your original activity he was removed from. The message then becomes “when I hit we stop having fun but when I apologize we can have fun again.”

By wasingerl on Friday, September 02, 2011 at 7:36 pm.

By the by, I’d like to respond to a PP about giving the kid a little whack on the hand in return. I disagree big-time. I know you are just doing it to show them that it hurts, but this sort of logic is lost on the kid. At the end of the day you are hitting to show that hitting is wrong. It will simply confuse the child.

Also, kids who are adopted may have experienced or witnessed some degree of physical abuse in the past. Even a minor slap on the hand could be terrifying or traumatizing to the kid who maybe saw another child beaten before. Even if there is no indication of violence in your child’s background, it’s possible that it wasn’t known or reported.

By wasingerl on Friday, September 02, 2011 at 7:45 pm.

Our son adopted from foster care @ age 2 went through a hitting and screaming phase when he was first home.  It was very difficult being hit and screamed at by my otherwise happy and loving child.  It happened quickly and escalated easily.

After trial and error, what worked for him is getting down to his level, holding his hands and calming saying o honey, we don hit people in this family

The key with him was for us to stay calm, address the behaviour immediately, but with love.

By lovemykids on Friday, September 09, 2011 at 6:15 pm.
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