I just received a need for help with a 3-year old boy. My friend said that her son has always been very physical (likes to rough house, etc) and when frustrated or mad, tends to hit, flail or even bite. She and her husband used to ignore the behavior and just redirect, but that has stopped working.
I specifically remember when, around 3, my son started hitting me when he would get frustrated. Kids at that age have such emotions, and are starting to process so much, but they don’t know how to express themselves yet. And they certainly can’t reason through the problem.
My first suggestion was that she should no longer ignore the behavior. A 3-year old needs to learn that hitting is not OK, and therefore some mild, but firm discipline is in order. And secondly, never retaliate. Never spank, pat or even playfully hit back. This just shows your child that his role model hits as a solution. So you hit your kid, he hits his baby sister. Or worse, a kid at school!
There are 2 phrases I learned from our wonderful preschool director. (They are cheesy and sooo not me, but they work!)
1. Find my eyes and
2. Use your words.
Over time, these phrases will really help you nip any inappropriate behavior. And will also help when teaching appropriate behavior and manners.
Let's say you tell your son to do something and instead he hits you. You need a special (stern, calm and not loud) voice, and you need to make eye contact and so does he. "MAX,” pause, pause, wait for him to look at you. If he doesn't, say his name again. Kids have a hard time hearing you/concentrating when they are doing something else, or caught up in aggression, so if you say their name and pause, often, they WILL look up. That little pause can do wonders. If he doesn't look up after a couple of tries, say, "Max, find my eyes please." And don't say anything until he does. Once he looks up, give him one command (“we do NOT HIT.” OR “it’s time to come to the dinner table.”)
And now that my son is almost five, I use this phrase a lot because we are teaching him manners - when we recently ran into a family friend at Whole Foods and she was asking William questions and he started answering towards the bottom of the cart. Or every morning when he is dropped off at school, I whisper in his ear, "remember, find Mrs. Smith's eyes and say good morning."
Anyway, once he has found your eyes, you continue in your stern voice "WE DO NOT HIT." Now that might be enough, you decide. Or maybe you say that hitting hurts people and he needs to please use his words instead. If not, or if he throws a tantrum, I have found counting to be MAGIC. In fact, there is a book called something like 1, 2, 3 Magic.
You would say, in your stern, but not loud voice, "Max, you need to calm down, not hit, whatever, or I am going to count." And then I repeat it "Max, if you don't stop hitting, I am going to count to 3." (The first time I just say I am going to count, then the second time I say "to three." Then, if he doesn't calm down, you say "Max, I am going to count to 3, if you don't stop hitting by the time I get to 3, you will have a timeout." Or have to go to your room, etc. And our MOST DRASTIC, is taking away books at bedtime.
Then, you must immediately start counting. Don't ever threaten to count, and then keep threatening it. DO IT. And I would say 95% of the time (still), my son stops what he is doing before I get to four (I count to four now since he is four.)
Then, you thank him and redirect him. "Thank you for not hitting, let's go color." OR, “thank you for brushing your teeth, let’s go put our PJ’s on and pick out some books!” And you'll have to do this a million times before it sinks in.
And if you DO get to 3, and you want to do a timeout, it has to always be in the same spot. I would pull a chair over to a corner of the kitchen and tell him he has to sit there for 3 minutes, and then set the microwave timer. The key is that there is no talking during timeout. So if he tries to talk to you, ask if it’s over, etc. say "no talking during timeout" ONE time, and never say anything else to him. If he gets up, you walk over, put him back, and then go back into the kitchen and continue to fake organize the pantry, or in other words, stay close to him so you know if he is doing the timeout, but look busy so he doesn't bother you. Be a robot during timeout.
This all might sound crazy to you, or too stern, but trust me, NIP ALL THIS NOW. Discipline gets sooo much harder as they start to reason, manipulate, play with other kids, etc. Get rules in place so he knows you are the boss. And just figure out what works for you. If he doesn't care that you put him in a timeout, then take away books at bedtime. All of this will be painful on both of you at first, but eventually, it works! Just remember, you are doing your child a disservice by not giving him structure, routine and rules. Mild discipline is a GOOD THING.