When shame makes an aggressive child hit himself

Added discipline or punishment will increase a vexed child's self-aggression, so avoid timeouts.
Added discipline or punishment will increase a vexed child's self-aggression, so avoid timeouts.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW YORK • The child is told he has done something inappropriate - hitting his baby brother. Then, he starts hitting himself. He says he feels bad about his actions.

According to parenting coach Meghan Leahy, many parents have children who resort to such behaviour.

Most kids explode with frustration before they adapt. They hit, yell, scream and throw fits.

But adults explode with frustration too, whether it is a verbal tirade, horn honking or violence.

It stands to reason that many children will too.

A baby brother can create a world of frustration for a child.

Children need to feel connected to their parents or primary caregiver. The baby is taking up a lot of attention (a source of frustration) and is not able to play like a six-year-old (a second source of frustration). Every time the six-year-old hits the baby, he gets mum's attention (which he wants), but it is bad attention (more frustration).

You end up with the final source of frustration that leads to hitting himself: shame.

Everyone runs in fear of the word "shame" but, in this case, it is a sign of maturity.

The older kid feels remorse for hitting his brother and disappointing the parent, so rather than exploding in outward frustration, it is directed inwards at himself.

You do not want your child to resort to self-harm or violence when he feels shame - you want him to express it verbally. This is how you can help him.


First, create conditions where he is less frustrated. Of course, there will always be frustrating incidents for a six-year-old. You are not trying to create a perfect environment. Instead, look for patterns and find where you can reduce the frustration. For instance, is he left alone with his brother too often?


When you tell him "just don't hit your brother in the future", that is not a reasonable request and it invites more failure and shame. Siblings hit one another - they just do. Leahy's advice? Stop saying that.


Have your son make amends when there is an injury. As soon as Joe hits Tristan, say: "Tristan is hurt. Let's get an ice pack for his arm."

Take your six-year-old by the hand and have him help you fetch the ice. You will be dealing with a screaming baby and a worried six-year-old, but these moments are worth it. It helps your older son see that he can "make it better" and that "mum isn't mad".


Spend some quality time with your older son. This does not have to be complicated or expensive, but increase eye contact, smile and relax.

Another strategy is telling and retelling baby stories. Watch your son's eyes light up as you talk about him as a baby. Get out the photos, point to the special memories and tell him how he was the first baby in the house.

As you fill his connection cup, your son will feel safer. He will feel more relaxed and will not feel the impulse to hurt himself as a result of shame.


No matter how bad the day has been, when you tuck in your six-year-old, remind him that you know he loves his brother, that you know he does not want to hurt anyone and that you believe in him. As a parent, it is your job to believe in your children when they cannot believe in themselves. It is not your job to pile on shame.

As you keep working to help your eldest during the day, you will reassure him at night.

This may sound contradictory to the "teaching a lesson" mantras parents hear all the time, but your heart knows that this is right.


Finally, any added discipline or punishment will increase his self-aggression, so stay away from timeouts and sending him away from you. You will feel tempted to do that, but do your best to stay near him during the tough times.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 08, 2017, with the headline 'When shame makes an aggressive child hit himself'. Print Edition | Subscribe