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Help for Hitting

My son, Jack, was 14 months old the first time he took a swing at me. We were in the middle of a three-hour drive. Jack and I were in the backseat, and my husband, Pete, was driving. Jack began to fuss, and I reached over to comfort him. Whack! -- I felt a light but distinct slap on my arm.

"Did you hit me?" I asked, amazed. Jack's flashing brown eyes and a second swat left no doubt. I managed a weak "No hit Mommy," but my eyes revealed how upset I really was. Jack started to cry, and I comforted him -- happy to postpone for the moment the complexities of handling a 1-year-old's aggressive jabs.

I was caught off guard that day but have since discovered that 1-year-olds can be bold with their blows. "I call toddlerhood the hitting stage of development because this behavior can be common in children between 1 and 2," says Deborah Glasser Schenck, Ph.D., director of Family Support Services at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, and author of Positive Parenting, a Miami Herald column.

Sometimes toddlers lash out for no apparent reason. They may be playing, trying out their physical abilities, or testing people's reactions. Liz Appelson, of Mount Tremper, New York, noticed that her son would hit out of curiosity. "Liam would look at other children while he knocked them and wait to see what would happen," she recalls. "To him, hitting was a great experiment."

Often, though, a toddler's punches pack powerful emotions. "Think of a 1-year-old's world," Dr. Schenck says. "Each day, he's struggling to master new skills and encountering unfamiliar situations." Hitting is a way for a child to express frustration or feelings of being overwhelmed.

"When a 4-year-old has a toy snatched away, he can say, 'That's not fair,' " Dr. Schenck adds. "But a 1-year-old's expressive language skills aren't fully developed."

Toddlers may not realize that hitting can hurt, because a sense of compassion isn't completely in place until about age 3. Even if your child grasps the idea, she may not be able to restrain herself -- 1-year-olds have almost no impulse control. (In fact, this trait isn't usually well-established until about age 5.)

The key for parents, of course, is prevention. Observe what spurs your child to smack, slap, or punch, and then act preemptively. "Ask yourself, Does he strike when he's tired or hungry, when he's in a large group, or when he has to make transitions?" suggests Elena Labrada, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Menlo Park, California. Make sure he takes routine naps, pack snacks if necessary, and prepare him for transitions. If your son has hit in the past because he wanted a friend's favorite toy, for instance, ask the other child's mother to put the toy away during visits.

But nothing you do will prevent your child from hitting completely. So when it occurs, it's important not to overreact. Parents who respond by yelling or hitting back, Dr. Labrada says, may be encouraging the behavior because their response suggests that aggression is an appropriate way to solve a conflict and get attention. And in disciplinary terms, it's wasted energy. "A 1-year-old won't make the connection between his actions and yours," she says, adding, "For the same reason, time-outs are pointless for the under-2 crowd."

Consistency is crucial. Don't, for example, show amusement one day when your child hits and anger the next. Instead, follow these five steps:

1. Stay calm. When you are a good role model, your child learns to be patient under pressure.

2. Voice your empathy. Attend to the person who has been hit (even if it's you), and explain that it hurts. You'll teach empathy and help your child understand the effects of his actions. Andrea Jensen did this when her 16-month-old son, Calvin, began hitting. "I tried to describe the physical pain and also told him that when he hit his little brother, he gave Matthew a boo-boo and made him sad," says the Virginia Beach, Virginia, mother. "This seemed to have an impact on him."

3. Acknowledge your child's feelings, and provide a brief lesson. Though hitting isn't permissible, the emotions that brought it about are. Help your child learn the distinction by calmly articulating her frustration: "I know you want that toy, but we don't hit." You'll reassure her by describing what she isn't yet able to. Remember, Dr. Labrada says, "Lengthy lessons in civility will go over a 1-year-old's head."

It's also unproductive to force your child to apologize, Dr. Schenck believes. Instead, you should offer an apology that can be a model for your child: "Say to the victim, 'I'm so sorry you're hurt.' This will show your child that when you've upset someone else, it's appropriate to voice your concern."

4. Provide a safe alternative. "Use your words" is good advice for a verbal toddler, especially if you provide the script ("Next time, don't hit Ben. Tell him, 'Please share'").

5. Reinforce positive efforts. As with most lessons in life, repetition is critical to success. So look for opportunities to encourage your child with comments such as "Good sharing!" You can also give him a chance to "try it again -- this time without hitting."

Learning not to hit takes time for any 1-year-old to master. Meanwhile, cultivate some patience, a thick skin, and your sense of humor.