Dear Tzippora,

My four year old has started hitting me. I have explained to him that this behavior is completely unacceptable, and that we need to say what we want with words, and not with hitting. His response to "Tell me what you want" was "I want to give you a smack!" He knows it is wrong, but that hasn't stopped him. What more can I do?

Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated Mom,

It sounds like you are responding in appropriate ways by being very clear that this is an unacceptable behavior and encouraging your son to express himself in words rather than with hitting. Yet it is still not working. Rather than becoming resigned to an entirely unacceptable behavior, your question "what more can I do?" is the right one to be asking at this point. The Torah absolutely forbids children to hit their parents, because it erodes the whole foundation of parental authority.

Sometimes children, especially young children, cannot actually identify their feelings and express them in words. In such a case, we need to help them out by naming their feelings for them. Tell your four-year old "It looks like you are angry at me right now. You are allowed to be angry at me, but you are never allowed to hit me. Let's talk about what you can do when you are angry to help you calm down."

Such a response helps your child to connect the sensations he is feeling with their proper interpretation. Anger is a difficult emotion for all of us, and it is never too early to begin teaching your children anger management skills and appropriate responses.

Activities that may help a four year old calm down are coloring, riding his tricycle or bike, looking at books, or having you read him a story. Make a list together, and write his ideas down for him on a chart that you can hang in his room. You can even leave room to put stickers next to the appropriate behaviors, and each time he utilizes one of these behaviors instead of hitting, you acknowledge his growth by putting a sticker on his chart.

When he has calmed down and regained control of himself, you can encourage him to tell you what triggered his anger as well. Were you working on the computer, or talking on the phone, and didn't respond to his repeated attempts to get your attention? Did something deeper trigger his anger, like a new baby, or a new project which has made you less available to him? It wasn't clear from your letter whether this hitting behavior is directed primarily at you, or directed at everyone equally. This is a question that is important to explore for yourself.

In either case, these suggestions should help you to redirect his anger and help him manage it appropriately. We all get angry. The goal is not to forbid your child to get angry, but rather to help him control himself when he does.

Learning a new skill, especially one that involves self-mastery, is hard. In the meantime, whenever he loses control of himself, firmly remind him that he has crossed a line, and now needs to go to his room for a time-out. Continue to refuse any request that is accompanied by hitting.