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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dear Dr. Laura: How Do I Deal With a 14-Month Old Who Is Hitting and Slapping

Dear Dr. Laura,

I have a wonderful, beautiful 14-month old girl that has just recently begun hitting and slapping me (her mommy) in the face when she gets upset. I have consistently taken her hand and firmly said, "We don't hit our mommy" or "No hitting mommy" but she still continues to do this. Its worse if she wants something that she can't have or I take something away from her that is potentially harmful however we go through this behavior a couple times a day or more if she's not feeling well i.e. teething. Many times when I tell her not to hit me, she starts crying and her face just crumples up and I feel awful so I hold her and tell her its ok. I'm a first time mommy and I wonder if I'm doing the right thing. Some advice would be greatly appreciated.


First Time Mom

Dear First Time Mom,

You are doing exactly the right thing. Babies are sensitive creatures, and have to handle an overload of intense feelings in the course of their days, from pain (teething) to disappointment (which can feel like the end of the world to them). Their nervous systems aren't developed enough to tolerate these feelings gracefully, thus they often resort to more primitive methods of expression.

You may have noticed that underneath all feelings of human anger are more vulnerable feelings: hurt, fear, pain. All of these make us feel powerless (so imagine how they make a baby feel!) Humans find these feelings so hard to tolerate that we defend against them by feeling anger instead. Babies are no exception. When they feel pain, hurt, or fear, babies get angry, just like the rest of us.

At 14 months, your baby responds to these angry feelings (and the underlying disappointment or pain) by hitting you. When you use "gentle guidance" to say that we don't hit, and her face crumples, that's a great sign. It means that you've gotten past the anger to the feelings beneath it. Feeling and expressing those deeper "bad" feelings is what she needs at that moment, to get to the source of her "acting out" behavior. (That's what "acting out" means: instead of feeling our emotions, we "act them out.")

When your daughter then cries and you hold her, she is expressing those "yucky" feelings in the safety of your arms and your love. She's learning that she can't always have everything she wants (like that dangerous object you just took from her) but she can have something even more important — someone who adores her, and accepts all of her, including those "negative" feelings. That unconditional love is the greatest gift any child can receive, and the foundation of all emotional health.

If, instead, you responded with anger, your daughter would never get to those deeper feelings. Instead, she would stay angry, or possibly (to keep your anger in check) begin smiling at you while she hit you (which is another defense against the painful feelings.) Either way, her hitting would be more likely to continue.

So is there a way to prevent your daughter's hitting to begin with?

Maybe not, but it is likely that you can move her through this phase faster by giving her words for her feelings. Since she understands the message "We don't hit," she is ready to begin comprehending messages like "You are so sad, you wanted that." Follow that empathy with the limit, just as you are doing: "But we don't hit." Give her a chance to express her feelings by crying, offering her comfort and empathy: "You feel so sad and mad." It's perfectly ok for her to cry about her disappointment, as long as you're offering comfort. Sometimes crying is exactly what we need. Distracting her from her feelings too soon sets up a pattern that could be destructive in later life, such as using food, shopping or alcohol to avoid feelings. Once she's "discharged" her upset, show her that her happiness matters to you (which is how our kids learn that we love them, even though we frustrate them with limits): "Let's find a way to feel better. Should we dance to some music? Look out the window? Turn on the faucet and put our hands in the water?"

So the sequence is:
1. Set a limit ("We don't hit")

2. Offer empathy and acceptance of her feelings ("You are disappointed")

3. Let her discharge her feelings by crying with your comfort.

4. Help her explore ways to shift her mood.

If you can do that, you are giving your daughter a foundation of emotional health for life.

Many blessings,

Dr. Laura Markham

Laura Markham, Ph.D., is the Dear Abby of Parenting for the 21st century. A clinical psychologist trained at Columbia University in NewYork, she is the founding editor of the popular parenting website YourParentingSolutions.com.

The Good Dr. Laura is also a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader who assists parents in transforming their relationships with their children (from babies to teens). In addition to Hip Slope Mama, she serves as Parenting Expert for ParentingBookmark.com, Storknet.com, Wellness.com and Pregnancy.org, on which she hosts a regular online chat for moms. Her work appears regularly on a dozen parenting websites and in print.

Dr. Markham has held many challenging jobs but thinks raising children is the hardest, and most rewarding, work in the world. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn with her husband, 12 year old daughter, and 16 year old son. If you have any parenting questions for the Good Dr. Laura please send them to HipSlopeMama@gmail.com.