How to discipline a 5 year old who hits. It’s common for young children to struggle with unwanted behavior such as hitting. Everyone knows that the toddler years are notorious for bad behavior. This is often because younger children have a hard time navigating big feelings they experience for the first time.
However, knowing this doesn’t make your child’s aggressive behavior any easier. Even more so when you have an older child who’s hitting.
I’ve been through this messy season of parenting. Today, let’s dive into some effective ways to discipline a child who hits.
Make It Stop!
Ultimately, when your child’s behavior is aggressive or explosive, you’ll do anything to make it stop. This is completely understandable.
If your child is consistently aggressive, then traditional parenting strategies have likely backfired. So, how do you discipline a child who responds to difficult situations with physical aggression? What’s the most effective way to respond?
- Natural consequences?
- Positive reinforcement?
- Positive parenting?
- What about Time outs (one minute per year of age)?
- Withhold privileges such as screen time?
Which one?!!! How are you supposed to respond when your child bites her little brother?
Disciplining My 5-Year-Old Son
Before we talk about disciplining your child when they hit or become aggressive, I’d like to give you some backstory.
When our adopted son turned 18 months old, our home became a war zone. I’d always parented my biological children using a traditional discipline approach. You know the one I’m referring to.
The parenting mentality that nipped poor behavior in the bud swiftly and consistently. Yeah. That one. It worked with my girls. So I thought.
So, the last thing I expected was to be taken down by my youngest son. However, I was.
Hitting and Aggression
Nothing prepared me for his volatile, aggressive, out-of-control behavior. No amount of logical consequences, time-outs, or any of the traditional discipline strategies worked.
After an insanely long time fighting this kid (we’re talking years), I realized that pushing harder with the same approach was a recipe for disaster.
Ultimately, I spent years learning everything I could about the brain, behavior, and learning. And, I changed my entire discipline approach.
(Side note: It’s mind-lowing how little of this I learned in graduate school to become a teacher!)
Once I made the switch, I got much better results with my son. Even more importantly, by God’s grace, I was able to save my girls from any further damage.
Learn More in Behind the Behavior Book!
Reasons Why Kids Have Aggressive Behavior
There are several reasons why kids are aggressive. Whether your child hits, bites, or scratches, there are so many different things that can influence your child’s behavior.
Some root issues behind aggressive behaviors can be any combination of the following. Your child may be:
- in a stressful environment
- experiencing separation anxiety
- has a lack of emotional language skills
- sensory sensitivities or sensory needs
- tired (needs to sleep)
- trauma-related experiences
- the victim of teasing or bullying by children or teachers
- intimidation or fear/anxiety
Processing through these possible options will help you determine what’s triggering your child’s challenging behavior. Then, you’ll know where to start.
Alternative Behaviors & Unmet Needs
Biting is not always a sign of aggressive behavior rooted in negative emotions. A good example of this is a toddler who bites his baby sister.
Those bite marks on little sister’s arm could be rooted in many different reasons. One possible reason is that the little guy is in pain because his 2-year-molars are erupting!
If we’re always looking at a child’s behavior as negative, we’re nowhere close to resolving challenging behavior. In this case, the toddler has unmet needs that can easily be addressed with alternative behaviors. Specifically, chewing on a teething ring rather than his little sister.
Discipline by Identifying Needs
The best way to discipline a child who hits is to equip them with what they need to make healthier choices next time.
This means shifting your focus off of your child’s behavior and instead focusing on your child’s needs. Specifically, it means asking yourself some important questions.
- Why did my toddler hit me?
- What led to that explosive response?
- How does my child’s behavior clue me into what’s going on in their internal world?
- What emotional regulation tools does my child need?
- Did I provide clear expectations in this situation?
- What sensations might my child be feeling right now?
- Are there any simple words I can give him so he can more clearly communicate?
Asking yourself these types of questions doesn’t mean you ignore your child’s negative behavior. Nor does it mean you placate them and let them rule the roost.
Further, I’m not promoting any form of permissive parenting. Not at all. However, I am suggesting that you use your child’s behavior as information. By doing so, you’ll get closer to the root issues behind the behavior and better equip your child for the long run.
What Doesn’t Work
If you’re tempted to “teach” your child by guilt, shame, or punishment, you’ll be creating discouraging beliefs that are difficult to reverse in adulthood.Dr. Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline
Here’s the deal. Discipline does not mean coercing a child to acquiesce to the will of an adult. On the contrary, the root of the word “discipline” is to teach. And with that is a heart dedicated to the well-being of the child.
This means that corporal punishment or any form of physical punishment has no business in a child’s experience. When children are disciplined by hitting them back, you increase two things.
- the brain’s automatic fight-flight-freeze response
- and increase the chances that your child’s brain will develop stronger neural pathways connected to aggression
A child’s aggressive behavior does not excuse an adult’s.
Harvard Spanking Study
In 2021 Harvard Graduate School of Education study researchers studied the consequences of spankings. They found brain response differences between children who had or had not experienced spankings in the early years of life.
Children who’d been spanked in early childhood had greater reactivity in the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Researcher Jorge Cuertas, PhD, reports,
Preschool and school-age children-and even adults- (who’ve been) spanked are more likely to develop anxiety and depression disorders.
The bottom line is children who are disciplined for hitting using spanking or physical punishment are primed to struggle poorly in the future.
Behavior Modification Mindset Must Go
Behavior modification focuses on changing specific behaviors with little consideration of a person’s thoughts or feelings… The goal is to eliminate or reduce maladaptive behavior.
Here’s the problem. Who defines “maladaptive behavior?” According to Healthline maladaptive behavior includes:
- Angry Outbursts
- Substance Abuse
While on the surface this list of behaviors seems reasonably “maladaptive,” many of them have valuable uses.
When Maladaptive Behaviors Are Healthy Responses
Let’s look at some examples of “poor” behavior that can be healthy responses.
- It’s important to avoid situations that are dangerous or threatening. For a child being bullied at school by children or teachers (yes, teachers are not immune to bullying), their resistance to school is a healthy response.
- Withdrawing to a quiet space is a healthy coping strategy. However, when children do this during a family holiday party, it’s easy for parents to label that behavior as rude. However, that’s often exactly what the child’s nervous system needs.
- Angry Outbursts:
- Angry outbursts though not pleasant, are clues that something’s going on. A child gets in trouble for physically pushing another child. He gets in trouble. However, we later find out that he’s spent the day being teased and bullied by a group of children led by the alleged “victim”.
The point is that if we use a behavior modification parenting lens only looking at “poor outward behavior,” we can end up hurting children in the long term. Why? Because behind those behavior problems are root issues that must be addressed.
Compliance Isn’t A Healthy Goal
Even if an aggressive form of discipline (i.e. harsh words, physical punishment) stops a behavior at the moment, the real issue hasn’t been addressed. This can lead to long-term emotional regulation and behavioral challenges.
For example, a child is told they’re rude when they excuse themselves to a quiet room during a family gathering. They learn a couple of unhealthy ideas.
- Their needs are not valid.
- To ignore how they feel internally to please the adults around them.
- This increases a child’s chance of being victimized and abused.
Clearly, this is not the goal for our kids.
The Irony of Compliance
Here’s the irony. Universally, we teach children to:
- stand up for what’s right.
- Do the right thing
- Don’t jump off a bridge if your friends do it
However, when the goal is behavioral modification only, we set kids up to trust others more than they trust themselves.
This can lead to depression, anxiety, abuse, and other mental health disorders that can impact the rest of their lives. Learn more about the warning signs of child abuse. If you want your child to grow into a healthy, well-adjusted adult, compliance alone may not be the primary goal.
Name Calling Does Hurt
The adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” is completely untrue. Words do hurt. Often more than physical pain. Ask yourself,
When you mess up, what thoughts run through your mind? Where did those thoughts come from? Naturally, in our frustration, as parents, it’s easy to resort to shame-based tirades to change a child’s behavior.
- “Shame on you.”
- “What were you thinking?”
- “Can’t you get it together like your sister?”
- “What’s wrong with you? You know not to hit people.”
Often we think this reaction is better than spanking. However, when kids consistently hear these messages, it can lead to an internal shame-infused narrative. In the end, the messages we send our kids are the ones they take with them into adulthood. What messages do you want your child to carry with them into adulthood?
With that in mind, let’s talk about some of the right things to do to influence your child’s behavior for good.
Brain Development and Hitting Behavior
First things first. What I wished I knew when I started this parenting thing.
Why do kids act out with aggressive behavior such as hitting? Can’t they just choose to respond to frustrations with good behavior? Isn’t aggressive behavior simply a matter of will?
Nope. They can’t. And it’s all because of a little thing called brain development. Here’s what I mean.
Young kids are little human beings whose brains are not fully developed yet. The part of the brain responsible for making wise choices does not develop until the third decade of life. Specifically, I’m referring to the prefrontal cortex. And yes, you heard me correctly. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until approximately 25 years old.
Here’s where the problem lies. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a set of skills referred to as “executive functioning skills.”
Executive Functioning & Aggressive Behavior
You may be asking, “What’s executive functioning, and what does it have to do with my 5 year old who hits his sister?”
Well, friend, executive functioning has everything to do with the different ways your child behaves at any given time. This is because executive functioning enables us to choose positive behavior in the heat of the moment.
For example, executive function skills include:
- impulse control
- emotional regulation
- planning and foresight
These skills are essential for children to choose positive ways to handle disappointment.
Impulse Control & Emotional Regulation
Some specific examples of executive function skills that impact behavioral responses.
- Impulse control and emotional regulation help a child override big emotions to choose words rather than hitting.
- Knowing that hitting mom will not get them the ice cream they want and will lead to greater consequences requires foresight.
Without such skills, your kid’s more likely to hit you across the face when you refuse to allow ice cream for breakfast. This is not to excuse your aggressive behavior but to help you develop healthier expectations of your child’s behavior. This will serve you well the next time your child reaches out to hit you in frustration.
The 3-Part Brain & Behavior
A quick overview of the brain will lay the foundation to help you better navigate your child’s behavior. Just geek out with me for a minute. I promise it’ll be worth it.
The Lower Brain
The brain is designed in three parts that function from the bottom up. The lower section includes the brain stem and is connected to your spinal cord. It’s responsible for:
- heart rate,
- and blood pressure to name a few.
These things must happen automatically which is why we don’t have to consciously “think” about making our heart beat. The lower brain does that for us. Thank God!
The Mid Brain
Above the brainstem and lower brain area is the mid-brain which contains the limbic system. This area of the brain is responsible for responding to memories and emotions. The limbic system houses a tiny mass of grey matter (about the size of a bean) called the amygdala.
That little amygdala is responsible for our fight-flight-or-freeze response which is designed to keep us alive in the face of danger. This means that in the face of a “perceived threat”, the amygdala’s job is to tell the brain to release adrenaline and other chemicals throughout the body.
Why? Because to stay alive we either need to:
- Fight (hitting, anyone?)
- Run (Flight)
I’m sure you’ll agree that staying alive is a very good thing! Hang on to this. The limbic system (amygdala) is what’s triggered in ourselves and our kids when they hit us.
Learn more in Barely Surviving to Outright Thriving.
The uppermost part of the brain is the cortex area and it’s the last part to fully develop. The cortex makes up the entire outer area of the brain.
(You know, it’s the part you “see” when you’re shown a typical model of the brain.) Among other responsibilities, the cortex controls conscious thought.
- when you’re working on a math problem,
- planning dinner,
- or scheduling your week.
These activities are all controlled by the cortex which allows you to consciously process this information. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the prefrontal cortex (right behind your forehead) is the area responsible for executive functioning.
Again, executive functioning skills allow us to choose appropriate ways of behaving. Think of this area as the “executive” of your brain (the responsible one). Remember, this area of your child’s brain will not be done developing until the age of 25.
Bottom Up Brain
Ok, here’s where it gets even more interesting. The brain works from the bottom up. So, if a child doesn’t feel safe. They can’t access the upper part (cortex) of the brain.
Why? Because the brain’s job is to keep us alive first and foremost.
So, your child’s lower brain feels threatened or unsafe, all of its energy must go to the parts of the brain that will keep the body alive. There’s no room for conscious thinking. You must stay alive. That’s all that matters according to the brain.
Now, hang tight with that. As we move forward, think,
- “Three parts of the brain. Bottom-up. Stay alive.”
Let’s dive into how to handle a child’s behavior through that lens.
Video: 3 Part BrainTutorial
Four Steps to Discipline a Child Who Hits
As a result of years of navigating my child’s aggression, I’ve come up with a 4-step process to calm a dysregulated child. (For now, just think of dysregulated as “feeling out of control.”)
The four steps to calm or reregulate a child are:
- Emotional Vocabulary
- Appropriate Physical (Sensory) Input
- Remove the Audience
Let’s walk through each step and apply it to help you with a 5 year old who hits.
1. Relationship First
The most important thing in effective discipline is a mindset of Relationship First. This is critical in the heat of the moment, but also in the daily of parenting. In the moment of your child’s meltdown, you must tell yourself, “Relationship First”.
This means that you lower your body to be in line with your child’s body. It’s important to make yourself physically smaller to reduce your child’s fight-flight-or-freeze response. Remember, if that amygdala perceives you as a threat, it’s going to be activated. Making yourself smaller tells that part of your child’s brain that you’re not a threat.
Stop the Eye Contact
Here’s where a lot of people get it wrong. Often, adults try to lower themselves to a child’s “eye level” to make eye contact. However, with many children, eye contact is extremely intimate and stimulating.
Do not force eye contact with a dysregulated (out-of-control) child. You mustn’t demand it from a child who’s already made it very clear that eye contact is challenging for them. (For example, Autistic and other neurodiverse children are known to avoid eye contact. )
Children are very good at giving us communication and clear limits of what they need. Listen to them. Behavior is information.
Felt Safety First
The main reason you need to prioritize connecting with your child even when they’re acting poorly is this. Your child needs to know that you’re their safe place. It doesn’t matter that YOU know you’re safe. Your child (or their lower brain) must know this with 100% certainty.
According to the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, every human being needs to have a sense of security and safety. She uses the term “felt safety.”
Felt safety is when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so that your children can feel in a profound… way that they are truely… safe with you.Dr. Karyn Purvis, p. 48, The Connected Child
In the end, your parent-child relationship is the number one parenting tool you have. Make this your priority. Your child will only be small for a short time. Eventually, you’ll have to rely on your relationship capital with your child.
Influence Through Relationship
That means the only way you’ll be able to INFLUENCE your child so they want to listen to you is through a safe loving RELATIONSHIP.
INFLUENCE through RELATIONSHIP. Again, this will be especially important with older children and teens.
Lay the foundation of a healthy safe relationship based on unconditional love as soon as you can. (On a practical note, this may mean carving out intentional one-on-one time with your child.)
2. Emotional Vocabulary
One of the common reasons children hit and show other forms of aggression is that they lack the language to communicate their internal experiences.
We have to remember that children are experiencing new thoughts and emotions every single day. Additionally, they’re having physical sensations that accompany these new feelings.
So, it only makes sense that behavior is their primary form of communication. If you want to replace aggressive behavior with proper behavior, it’s essential to give your child the tools they need to better communicate internal experiences.
One of the most helpful tools you can provide your child is language or what I refer to as EMOTIONAL VOCABULARY.
Use Your Words
It’s very common for adults to respond to a child’s poor behavior with this statement.
- “Use your words, Johnny.”
How are children ever going to use their words if they don’t have the words to express what they’re experiencing?
When your 5 year old hits you, that’s your clue that they’re experiencing some form of distress that they don’t have the words to describe.
Hard Work for Parents
This is when you do the hard work of providing your child with intentional language that can replace the hitting behavior. For example,
- “Are you feeling frustrated because Mommy won’t let you eat ice cream for breakfast? It’s hard when I don’t get what I want. I feel frustrated sometimes too. Are you feeling frustrated?”
- “I wonder if you’re feeling sad because you want to play with your big sister and she doesn’t want to play right now. Are you feeling sad?“
As simple as this may seem, providing your child the words to express their internal state is a massive tool in their emotional regulation toolbelt.
Further, the ability to articulate feelings is a way to increase your child’s social development. As you incorporate emotional vocabulary into your family culture, your child is better equipped to do the right thing next time. Specifically, to “use their words.”
3. Appropriate Physical Input
The next step is specific to an unmet need that can drive a child’s to hit others. Specifically, hitting is often related to a child’s proprioceptive needs.
However, regardless of whether your child has a diagnosis, know this. Every single child has sensory needs.
Every human being has sensory needs because we’re all human beings created with multiple sensory systems.
While we know about the five senses we learned about in school, there are a few others not so well-known.
Hitting and The Sensory Systems
One of those systems is your proprioceptive system. This system is associated with deep pressure or what’s often referred to as “heavy work.”
Kids who have an ongoing issue with hitting are often seeking proprioceptive input without even realizing it. Proprioceptive input releases feel-good chemicals such as serotonin which calms the brain and the body.
A perfect example of proprioception for moms is a massage. Massages offer deep pressure or input that releases those calming chemicals.
Behavioral clues that your child’s brain seeks proprioceptive input include:
- hitting or whacking people out of nowhere
- running into walls
- banging into people or wrestling
- generally being heavy-footed and “rough”
If your child’s behavior matches these, offer your child appropriate behavior options that provide proprioceptive input.
Some ideas include couch sandwiches, deep hugs, or push-ups. For more ideas, check out 47 Emotional Regulation Activities.
Video: A Reason Kids Hit & What To Do About It
4. Remove the Audience (Shift Attention)
The fourth and final step is to remove the audience. Specifically, if your child is struggling to calm down, one helpful option is to move your child to a different room for privacy.
You don’t move a child to a separate room to punish or shame them.
You’re doing so to help them regroup out of the view of onlookers such as other family members. And it’s important to make this clear to your child.
Here’s the logic. Which scenario would create more embarrassment and shame?
- Run into a glass door?
- Or run into a glass door in the middle of a party with a slew of witnesses?
While many parenting strategies of long ago found shame useful to stop aggressive behavior in the short term, the long-term mental health implications are devastating.
Regardless of your child’s age, providing them with the dignity of privacy is a good idea.
Removing the audience can also mean shifting attention off your child and onto a distraction or preferred activity.
Recap: Disciplining Kids Who Hit
Whether it’s a younger child acting aggressively or a 5th grader lashing out physically, it’s not fun. But, take comfort in knowing you’re part of a club of millions of other parents who’ve navigated this before you.
And guess what?! They made it.
As I mentioned earlier, understanding how the brain impacts behavior can equip you with better ways to respond without engaging in fruitless power struggles. Once this sets in, you’ll never be surprised, shocked, or “disappointed” by your child’s challenging behavior again.
Download the FREE Behind the Behavior Cheat Sheet below for a guide to the 4 steps outlined earlier. Print a copy for your child’s teacher, grandma, and other caregivers.
Your turn, Friend. Thoughts? What’s working with your kiddo? Would love to hear from you.
Download the Behind the Behavior Cheat Sheet!
About the Author:
Lindsay is a trauma-informed educator with a Master’s Degree in Teaching. Her mission is to support moms to equip neurodivergent kids (ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Anxiety) to thrive as exactly who they’ve been created to be. Wait until you hear the story that led to it all…