This playmate is a hitter

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 9, 2009 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,
I have two wonderful neighbors whom I love. They have a son who is now 3.5. I have a daughter who is 2.5. They have played together since birth and are like brother and sister.

As soon as the boy was big enough to walk and run, it became apparent that his energy level was very high. I believe he is completely normal, but very high spirited, and requires a great deal of attention from his parents. He easily becomes very frustrated, also normal, and he hits a great deal to get his will through - normal for his age, but NOT acceptable social behavior.

My daughter gets hit every time they play, it never fails. We are with them 100% of the time, and yet it happens. He gets disciplined in the following ways: he gets a time out, they leave or he gets a serious talk from his parents and then must apologize to my daughter. We try to catch him before it happens, but he is so fast.

This has now been going on since the boy was 2 years old. I have given them 1.5 years to work with him on it. Nothing they do seem to work. I can't stand to see my daughter getting hit one more time, and I will stop the play dates if that is what it takes.

However, first, I would like to bring this up with the parents. This is what I need your input on. How do I talk to them? It is a very touchy subject. The mother has already made it clear to me that I have nothing I should have said, since she 'has a son and they are much harder to raise than a daughter.' She also has said that it is 'very annoying to get advice from mothers of daughters, on how to raise a son.'

In 7 months we are going on a 4-week vacation together. I would love for the kids to be able to just play without violence by then. And for us adults to be good, communicating friends.

There are very few resources out there for people in my situation, and plenty for people in their situation. I am very concerned about what this will teach or do to my daughter.

Please help,
From: Susanne, Brooklyn, NY

Hi Suzanne,

My first reaction is to tell you to distance yourself from these folks: cancel the vacation and stop the play dates.

You ask, what is this is teaching your daughter, and what it might do to her? My answer is, nothing good. It's one thing for a child to have a playmate lash out once in a while, quite something else when it happens every time. She's certainly got to be learning that hitting is an OK way to resolve conflict. It's one thing for her to to see adults once in a while being ineffectual in setting limits on a child, something else entirely when adults are never effective, and especially when her safety is involved. At the very least, she's learning that she can't count on adults to protect her. (As he gets bigger, mustn't his hitting hurt more?) That can have lots of unhealthy ramifications.

Obviously this friendship matters a great deal to you. I would argue that it's time to put your child ahead of the adult friendship and ahead of any hurt feelings. The parents need some professional help to deal with their child, perhaps something as simple as learning to do a good job with consequences and limit-setting, perhaps something more. And -- for your daughter's sake -- you need to opt out.

You ask how to talk to them, but it sounds like she has effectively shut you down. If you want to try one more time, get them a book for Christmas, specifically, "Raising Cain," or any other title by Michael Thompson about raising sons. Tell them you hope they can figure out a way so that their son stops hitting. Until then, playdates are over, and the vacation is on hold.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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15 comments so far...
  1. Sigh - been there! My son has been the one on the receiving end. The hard part for us is that we were friends with this couple before we all had kids. Sometimes that is the worst - people you have a lot in common with as adults and enjoy spending time with may turn out to be different sorts of parents than you are entirely. It can make socializing together as families quite difficult.

    What I decided to do was to put some distance between us and this family - I almost had no choice since it got to a point where my son would actually ask not to go to playdates or parties where this family was going to be. My husband and I see the parents more than we socialize together as families, and that seems to work better. It's been five years, and their situation has not changed. Their kids, one more so than their other two, are very aggressive and always resort to physical violence when they are frustrated.

    This summer at a BBQ, their now five year old tried to punch my six year old son in the face. My son has been taking martial arts classes, and his natural reaction to the punch was to block it...which caused "the hitter" to punch HIMSELF in the face and get a nosebleed. The look of shock on both of their faces was hilarious to me since I saw the whole thing happen.

    This family has lots of other problems. They struggle with potty training, bed time, meal times...their oldest son has been thrown off the public school bus because he beats on other kids. We're not all equipped with the same skill sets as parents, so try to be compassionate friends while you protect your own kids by keeping them apart.

    Posted by RH December 9, 09 08:13 AM
  1. No need to say a word up front. Just go a different way. The parents of the hitter won't change until some hit child's parents' lawyer sends them a letter.

    In the extremely unlikely event that the hitter's parents call you, just say "you're busy and they should wait for you to call back". Rehearse this out loud so that it comes out easy.

    My bet is that in another year you will be running into other parents who refuse to have anything to do with this mess.

    And remember: The poor kid who has already been given the message that he can live out of control is also a victim. Say a prayer that he learns better at school.

    Posted by Irene December 9, 09 10:26 AM
  1. The boy/girl excuse is garbage. It's about her kid, and his personality, not his gender.

    I have a son who never hit - not playmates, not his parents, nobody. My lovely girly daughter, on the other hand, has taken a swing at both me and her dad when she's really mad about something, and has been WAY tougher to raise so far. We've worked to make sure she knows hitting is unacceptable. Fortunately she seems to be getting the message and maturing, so these incidents are becoming more and more infrequent (she's not yet 2.5, so I'm hopeful that as she gets older, they'll stop all together).

    Bottom line -- your friend needs to stop blaming her son's hitting on his gender, and take steps to learn how to deal with his behavior instead of making excuses. Some kids are tougher than others, but it's not just because he's a boy.

    Posted by DT December 9, 09 10:55 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advise. Your first responsibility is always to put your child (and your family) first.

    On a tangential note, I would add that, (and speaking as the mother of a son with significant ADHD (combined type), a tic disorder and some oppositional issues) it is impossible for parents with "normal" children to REALLY understand both the intensity and frequency of the behavioral challenges that we have to deal with. It is exhausting and unrelenting. For those of us who are doing everything "right" (behavior modification, structure, diet, follow-thru on consequences...) and STILL often have problems, we are DEEPLY grateful to our friends who are understanding and have compassion for our situation.

    This was all just a long way of saying that, if your friend seems to be consistently taking concrete steps to modify her son's behavior, and yet he's still hitting, by all means, remove your daughter from the situation, but try to keep a little compassion in your heart for her honest struggle.

    One other thought: a year's difference in age IS quite significant in young children. Even among the relatively placid kids I've known, at that age the play just isn't very compatible.

    Good luck.

    Posted by amyfaith December 9, 09 10:56 AM
  1. CANCEL the trip!!!!!!!!!
    and limit playdates.
    if they ask why tell them the truth. let them you know still want their friendship but for the time being it would better to just get the adults together.

    Posted by JB December 9, 09 11:21 AM
  1. i love how some people assume that there just must be some neurological issue here...do you know this for a fact?????? no I am willing to bet no. ADHD? Based on info here, how can anyone just come out and say "oh, there must be something wrong with THAT child? BAsed on one so called symptom? the fact that he is a hitter? .... it is normal to go thru such a stage (though I am NOT saying that it should be accepted either.)
    .... But if such an issue is an underlying cause, that is up to parents to pursue and a PROFESSIONAL to evaluate and diagnose or not.
    That being said, I do agree that this LW may want to take a break from letting her child play with this child for a little while. I hope the parents continue to work on the problem and seek advise should they feel it warreanted.

    Posted by j December 9, 09 11:40 AM
  1. There is nothing normal, developmental, or gender appropriate about hitting routinely and regularly.

    I agree that you must protect your daughter, but close adult friendships are very valuable, and if you are close friends with this family, you might take the risk of gently suggesting a parenting strategy to them rather than just an ultimatum: "Stop the hitting or else". A child of nearly four can have pretty complex understandings of his behavior and its impact. I would suggest that they have a meeting with their son and say simply something like this. "You and __ are close friends and I know you like to play together. But, we have a problem and that is that __ cannot play with someone who hits her. When you hit __ you are not being a good friend. Do you think that you can stop this hitting so that you can still play with __?" They could also ask: "I've noticed that this is a pattern with you - this hitting. What do you think would help you remember not to hit?" Then I would make a behavior contract with him -- "I would like to play with __ and I agree not to hit her." Have him "sign" it. Post it on the wall. Then, simply hold to the contract. The poor child needs some guidance, structure and direction -- and perhaps professional help if the parents are not able to make this happen.

    If these friends cannot listen to advice or modify their child's behavior with support, then your friendship (and nice long vacation) might indeed be in jeopardy.

    Posted by Jeanne December 9, 09 12:22 PM
  1. If you must like the parents so much, get together with them socially without the children. Both sets of parents hire baby-sitters - two baby-sitters, so you're children aren't together when you're out as grown-ups. Or get together when the kids are in pre-school (preferably separate schools).

    Do NOT go on that trip. You're putting your daughter at risk. Or maybe you like that, since you're condoning it by making this trip?

    Posted by reindeergirl December 9, 09 12:47 PM
  1. It's a bit more complicated when it is neighbors, and to me the answer isn't as simple as cancelling playdates. You live next door to them, you like them, and most likely your kids will be in school together, albeit different grades.

    We also have neighbors who are wonderful, but have a child who hits when he gets overexcited. Our neighbors do the same thing as yours in attempting to correct the behavior (timeouts, scolding, etc). I find it much more encouraging than parents who don't even notice bad behavior; at least your neighbors and mine make the attempt to fix the problem. I also know from talking to our neighbors how frustrated they are in getting him to stop. They are acutely aware of the problem and are working on it, as I'm guessing from your description that your neighbors are too. Talking to them right now probably won't do anything except make them more defensive. What has worked for us is limiting, but not canceling playdates. Try shorter and fewer playdates to start, maybe 15 to 30 minutes maximum. Then if the boy doesn't hit during the short playdate, thank him for good playing. If he does hit, then stop the playdate right there and try again another time. Hopefully this is a phase that he will come out of in the next few months. If not, then I would definitely consider cancelling the vacation. Even the most well-behaved children would have a hard time during a 4-week vacation with another family.

    Posted by jean s December 9, 09 02:54 PM
  1. I agree with other posters that you should cut back on the play dates to protect your child. If you consider yourself a good friend of the mother's, then ask her - when the kids aren't around - if she's making progress helping to curb her son's impulses and agression. If none of her own parenting skills are working - since it's been over a year - then suggest that she discuss it with her pediatrician and a behaviorist. I know from experience she can get some professional input on whether this behavior is within normal range for his age, and also some techniques she can use to help him overcome it.

    Posted by joyeuxnoel December 9, 09 03:37 PM
  1. In my experience, children hit when they are unable to verbally express what they need to say. From my observations, this does happen a lot more with boys, just because they are less verbal and more physical than girls. In my child's pre-school class, it happened a lot with the boys and not so much with the girls and I don't think it's that unusual - he just needs a little guidance. The usual mantra is "use your words, not your hands" and the parent needs to help the child do that at first. After a while, the child picks it up and just needs a remninder.

    Posted by toddlermom December 9, 09 04:42 PM
  1. I agree with others who say - limit or eliminate the playdates - and cancel the combined vacation -- that just sounds like a recipe for disaster. I usually opt for the "hang the sign on the problem" approach as the family will no doubt wonder/guess what the problem is anyway if you cancel the vacation or withdraw. One suggestion is to speak from "I" statements (rather than "Your son always hits my daughter, and I can't take it anymore!). Try, "I feel _____ (insert feeling" when your son hits my daughter because I ____ (and your reason)". Try to limit it to 1 simple reason. Because I...don't know how to protect her in those situations...Because I want to intervene but don't want to upset you or your son...Because I value our friendship and don't know how to talk to you about it. You get the drift.

    I had to basically end a friendship with a person whom I had a relationship with prior to having children because her son consistently taunted/upset my son (they were the same age) when they were young toddlers. It was a personal loss for me. Now, we are friendly when we run into each other at the playground or wherever, but our children go their own ways, and the boys are fine with it. And as for that child, he is still out of control -- throwing sticks, rocks in the playground and taunting other children. Only now they're not my children, and that's all you can control. And I have never once regretted my decision to distance myself from this friend and her son.

    Posted by I Empathize December 9, 09 05:12 PM
  1. Jean S and Toddlermom pretty much said it all....that children in that age approximage age group cannot verbalize accurately what they want so they will try to "communicate" if you will in other ways. It doesn't make it acceptable but it is normal behavior individually so like what other posters have stated, as long as things are being done to stop it then the parents can try to determine if their are other factors to determine whether or not they should seek advice from those who have a very good idea what they are talking about...not just some opinonated person who claims to know everything about everything like some people tend to do...Developmentally it is a stage that needs the appropriate actions from the parents consistently, and if it continues, then after exhausting all options, then maybe you can politely explaine that you need to limit contact for awhile

    Posted by ddd December 10, 09 07:53 AM
  1. Another thought here... A 2.5 yr old and a 3.5 yr old should really not be playing together exclusively all the time - don't they have any other friends? They're in totally different developmental stages and maybe that's why the 3.5 yr old is feeling frustrated (and unable to express it). They both need playmates of their own age & gender. That will make each (especially the boy) feel more successful socially. It also shows them how other kids behave/don't behave and helps in terms of things like sharing, conflict resolution and language. I would look for same-age playmates for your daughter and then you won't be so dependant on the neighbors - and maybe the kids will get along better when they do play together.

    Posted by toddlermom December 10, 09 11:08 AM
  1. I have to agree with Barbara here. Cancel the trip, keep your daughter away until he gets over this hitting phase. Hopefully you'll be able to do this and still preserve the friendship.

    Posted by geocool December 10, 09 02:26 PM
 
15 comments so far...
  1. Sigh - been there! My son has been the one on the receiving end. The hard part for us is that we were friends with this couple before we all had kids. Sometimes that is the worst - people you have a lot in common with as adults and enjoy spending time with may turn out to be different sorts of parents than you are entirely. It can make socializing together as families quite difficult.

    What I decided to do was to put some distance between us and this family - I almost had no choice since it got to a point where my son would actually ask not to go to playdates or parties where this family was going to be. My husband and I see the parents more than we socialize together as families, and that seems to work better. It's been five years, and their situation has not changed. Their kids, one more so than their other two, are very aggressive and always resort to physical violence when they are frustrated.

    This summer at a BBQ, their now five year old tried to punch my six year old son in the face. My son has been taking martial arts classes, and his natural reaction to the punch was to block it...which caused "the hitter" to punch HIMSELF in the face and get a nosebleed. The look of shock on both of their faces was hilarious to me since I saw the whole thing happen.

    This family has lots of other problems. They struggle with potty training, bed time, meal times...their oldest son has been thrown off the public school bus because he beats on other kids. We're not all equipped with the same skill sets as parents, so try to be compassionate friends while you protect your own kids by keeping them apart.

    Posted by RH December 9, 09 08:13 AM
  1. No need to say a word up front. Just go a different way. The parents of the hitter won't change until some hit child's parents' lawyer sends them a letter.

    In the extremely unlikely event that the hitter's parents call you, just say "you're busy and they should wait for you to call back". Rehearse this out loud so that it comes out easy.

    My bet is that in another year you will be running into other parents who refuse to have anything to do with this mess.

    And remember: The poor kid who has already been given the message that he can live out of control is also a victim. Say a prayer that he learns better at school.

    Posted by Irene December 9, 09 10:26 AM
  1. The boy/girl excuse is garbage. It's about her kid, and his personality, not his gender.

    I have a son who never hit - not playmates, not his parents, nobody. My lovely girly daughter, on the other hand, has taken a swing at both me and her dad when she's really mad about something, and has been WAY tougher to raise so far. We've worked to make sure she knows hitting is unacceptable. Fortunately she seems to be getting the message and maturing, so these incidents are becoming more and more infrequent (she's not yet 2.5, so I'm hopeful that as she gets older, they'll stop all together).

    Bottom line -- your friend needs to stop blaming her son's hitting on his gender, and take steps to learn how to deal with his behavior instead of making excuses. Some kids are tougher than others, but it's not just because he's a boy.

    Posted by DT December 9, 09 10:55 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's advise. Your first responsibility is always to put your child (and your family) first.

    On a tangential note, I would add that, (and speaking as the mother of a son with significant ADHD (combined type), a tic disorder and some oppositional issues) it is impossible for parents with "normal" children to REALLY understand both the intensity and frequency of the behavioral challenges that we have to deal with. It is exhausting and unrelenting. For those of us who are doing everything "right" (behavior modification, structure, diet, follow-thru on consequences...) and STILL often have problems, we are DEEPLY grateful to our friends who are understanding and have compassion for our situation.

    This was all just a long way of saying that, if your friend seems to be consistently taking concrete steps to modify her son's behavior, and yet he's still hitting, by all means, remove your daughter from the situation, but try to keep a little compassion in your heart for her honest struggle.

    One other thought: a year's difference in age IS quite significant in young children. Even among the relatively placid kids I've known, at that age the play just isn't very compatible.

    Good luck.

    Posted by amyfaith December 9, 09 10:56 AM
  1. CANCEL the trip!!!!!!!!!
    and limit playdates.
    if they ask why tell them the truth. let them you know still want their friendship but for the time being it would better to just get the adults together.

    Posted by JB December 9, 09 11:21 AM
  1. i love how some people assume that there just must be some neurological issue here...do you know this for a fact?????? no I am willing to bet no. ADHD? Based on info here, how can anyone just come out and say "oh, there must be something wrong with THAT child? BAsed on one so called symptom? the fact that he is a hitter? .... it is normal to go thru such a stage (though I am NOT saying that it should be accepted either.)
    .... But if such an issue is an underlying cause, that is up to parents to pursue and a PROFESSIONAL to evaluate and diagnose or not.
    That being said, I do agree that this LW may want to take a break from letting her child play with this child for a little while. I hope the parents continue to work on the problem and seek advise should they feel it warreanted.

    Posted by j December 9, 09 11:40 AM
  1. There is nothing normal, developmental, or gender appropriate about hitting routinely and regularly.

    I agree that you must protect your daughter, but close adult friendships are very valuable, and if you are close friends with this family, you might take the risk of gently suggesting a parenting strategy to them rather than just an ultimatum: "Stop the hitting or else". A child of nearly four can have pretty complex understandings of his behavior and its impact. I would suggest that they have a meeting with their son and say simply something like this. "You and __ are close friends and I know you like to play together. But, we have a problem and that is that __ cannot play with someone who hits her. When you hit __ you are not being a good friend. Do you think that you can stop this hitting so that you can still play with __?" They could also ask: "I've noticed that this is a pattern with you - this hitting. What do you think would help you remember not to hit?" Then I would make a behavior contract with him -- "I would like to play with __ and I agree not to hit her." Have him "sign" it. Post it on the wall. Then, simply hold to the contract. The poor child needs some guidance, structure and direction -- and perhaps professional help if the parents are not able to make this happen.

    If these friends cannot listen to advice or modify their child's behavior with support, then your friendship (and nice long vacation) might indeed be in jeopardy.

    Posted by Jeanne December 9, 09 12:22 PM
  1. If you must like the parents so much, get together with them socially without the children. Both sets of parents hire baby-sitters - two baby-sitters, so you're children aren't together when you're out as grown-ups. Or get together when the kids are in pre-school (preferably separate schools).

    Do NOT go on that trip. You're putting your daughter at risk. Or maybe you like that, since you're condoning it by making this trip?

    Posted by reindeergirl December 9, 09 12:47 PM
  1. It's a bit more complicated when it is neighbors, and to me the answer isn't as simple as cancelling playdates. You live next door to them, you like them, and most likely your kids will be in school together, albeit different grades.

    We also have neighbors who are wonderful, but have a child who hits when he gets overexcited. Our neighbors do the same thing as yours in attempting to correct the behavior (timeouts, scolding, etc). I find it much more encouraging than parents who don't even notice bad behavior; at least your neighbors and mine make the attempt to fix the problem. I also know from talking to our neighbors how frustrated they are in getting him to stop. They are acutely aware of the problem and are working on it, as I'm guessing from your description that your neighbors are too. Talking to them right now probably won't do anything except make them more defensive. What has worked for us is limiting, but not canceling playdates. Try shorter and fewer playdates to start, maybe 15 to 30 minutes maximum. Then if the boy doesn't hit during the short playdate, thank him for good playing. If he does hit, then stop the playdate right there and try again another time. Hopefully this is a phase that he will come out of in the next few months. If not, then I would definitely consider cancelling the vacation. Even the most well-behaved children would have a hard time during a 4-week vacation with another family.

    Posted by jean s December 9, 09 02:54 PM
  1. I agree with other posters that you should cut back on the play dates to protect your child. If you consider yourself a good friend of the mother's, then ask her - when the kids aren't around - if she's making progress helping to curb her son's impulses and agression. If none of her own parenting skills are working - since it's been over a year - then suggest that she discuss it with her pediatrician and a behaviorist. I know from experience she can get some professional input on whether this behavior is within normal range for his age, and also some techniques she can use to help him overcome it.

    Posted by joyeuxnoel December 9, 09 03:37 PM
  1. In my experience, children hit when they are unable to verbally express what they need to say. From my observations, this does happen a lot more with boys, just because they are less verbal and more physical than girls. In my child's pre-school class, it happened a lot with the boys and not so much with the girls and I don't think it's that unusual - he just needs a little guidance. The usual mantra is "use your words, not your hands" and the parent needs to help the child do that at first. After a while, the child picks it up and just needs a remninder.

    Posted by toddlermom December 9, 09 04:42 PM
  1. I agree with others who say - limit or eliminate the playdates - and cancel the combined vacation -- that just sounds like a recipe for disaster. I usually opt for the "hang the sign on the problem" approach as the family will no doubt wonder/guess what the problem is anyway if you cancel the vacation or withdraw. One suggestion is to speak from "I" statements (rather than "Your son always hits my daughter, and I can't take it anymore!). Try, "I feel _____ (insert feeling" when your son hits my daughter because I ____ (and your reason)". Try to limit it to 1 simple reason. Because I...don't know how to protect her in those situations...Because I want to intervene but don't want to upset you or your son...Because I value our friendship and don't know how to talk to you about it. You get the drift.

    I had to basically end a friendship with a person whom I had a relationship with prior to having children because her son consistently taunted/upset my son (they were the same age) when they were young toddlers. It was a personal loss for me. Now, we are friendly when we run into each other at the playground or wherever, but our children go their own ways, and the boys are fine with it. And as for that child, he is still out of control -- throwing sticks, rocks in the playground and taunting other children. Only now they're not my children, and that's all you can control. And I have never once regretted my decision to distance myself from this friend and her son.

    Posted by I Empathize December 9, 09 05:12 PM
  1. Jean S and Toddlermom pretty much said it all....that children in that age approximage age group cannot verbalize accurately what they want so they will try to "communicate" if you will in other ways. It doesn't make it acceptable but it is normal behavior individually so like what other posters have stated, as long as things are being done to stop it then the parents can try to determine if their are other factors to determine whether or not they should seek advice from those who have a very good idea what they are talking about...not just some opinonated person who claims to know everything about everything like some people tend to do...Developmentally it is a stage that needs the appropriate actions from the parents consistently, and if it continues, then after exhausting all options, then maybe you can politely explaine that you need to limit contact for awhile

    Posted by ddd December 10, 09 07:53 AM
  1. Another thought here... A 2.5 yr old and a 3.5 yr old should really not be playing together exclusively all the time - don't they have any other friends? They're in totally different developmental stages and maybe that's why the 3.5 yr old is feeling frustrated (and unable to express it). They both need playmates of their own age & gender. That will make each (especially the boy) feel more successful socially. It also shows them how other kids behave/don't behave and helps in terms of things like sharing, conflict resolution and language. I would look for same-age playmates for your daughter and then you won't be so dependant on the neighbors - and maybe the kids will get along better when they do play together.

    Posted by toddlermom December 10, 09 11:08 AM
  1. I have to agree with Barbara here. Cancel the trip, keep your daughter away until he gets over this hitting phase. Hopefully you'll be able to do this and still preserve the friendship.

    Posted by geocool December 10, 09 02:26 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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