Revisiting the punched pillow: 4 ways to keep a toddler from hitting

Revisiting the punched pillow: 3 ways to keep a toddler from hitting
A few weeks ago, my toddler was hanging out at his grandma’s house when he started getting frustrated. He got so cranky that he started banging on the table. Immediately I told him, “You seem upset, but I won’t let you hit the table. Here—hit the pillow instead.” He obliged and started pounding on the pillow, but to no avail—he was still clearly upset and not calming down. My husband eventually picked him up and said, “We’re going home.”

My toddler doesn’t normally hurt himself or other belongings, but when he resorts to doing just that, I had been telling him to hit a pillow, the couch or even the carpet. I needed an alternative to redirect his frustration from causing himself or anyone else harm, and so far this seemed like a genius idea. However, my husband and I talked about pillow-hitting after this incident, and he brought up a point I hadn’t even considered: Is hitting anything even any good?

I responded, “But don’t you always hear that it’s good to punch a pillow to release frustration?” To which he said, “I don’t punch pillows or anything else when I’m upset.”

Neither do I. In fact, when I get upset, punching anything is the last thing on my mind. I wouldn’t want my toddler to react to frustration by punching pillows or throwing toys. So how is a toddler—or anyone, really—supposed to cope with anger?

  • Remove him from the situation, especially if he was on the brink of further hurting himself. Sometimes being in a separate room can help calm him down and even save him from potential embarrassment by being disciplined in public.
  • Encourage him to use words, not punches, to sort through his feelings. Maybe once he had calmed down a bit more, I could have said, “It seems like you felt mad. When you feel like that again, you can say ‘I’m mad!’ instead of hitting the table.” Rather than advising him to punch pillows, my toddler can use words to vent.
  • Have him place his hands on his tummy. His pediatrician recommended having him place the palms of his hands on his tummy, and that apparently doing so makes it difficult for him to be mad at the same time. He’ll also have a chance to feel his stomach going in and out, and perhaps that extra focus is all that’s needed to calm down.
  • Encourage him to take deep breaths. SSBE reader Off Duty Mom suggested:

We also try to teach our son to take a deep breath when he’s angry or frustrated. He’s started doing it on his own now without prompting and seems to cut back on (albeit not eliminate) some outbursts.

Sometimes we just need that extra pause to calm down before we’re able to talk about our emotions; a tiny moment to keep us from going bonkers. Taking deep breaths or maybe even counting to ten seems to provide this space in his emotions.

Moving forward, we’ll be more mindful about helping our toddler sort through his anger. Rather than resorting to physical reactions, we’ll encourage the use of words to express frustration, perhaps taking deep breaths and removing himself from the situation to calm himself down.

How do you help your kids cope with anger and prevent hitting?

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12 thoughts on “Revisiting the punched pillow: 4 ways to keep a toddler from hitting

  1. We use the “I’m mad” technique. I always encourage using your words as a way to express emotions, sometimes I’ll help prompt. If she’s in meltdown mode I’ll ask her to put her hands in her armpits and jump up and down, this usually makes her laugh. Sometimes I’ll ask her to go to her room and hug her stuffed animal until she calms down. I’m excited to try ‘hands on tummy’!

  2. I’ve been talking to my toddler and encouraging her to use her words, and it’s been helping tremendously. Sometimes though, she does want to hit something…so I will definitley be using the tummy idea. Also…thank you for pointing out that removing a child may save them the embarrassment of public discipline. Most times, when my daughter is upset, the VERY LAST thing I want to do is to reprimand her in front of others, because I know how much she doesn’t like it (she can be self-conscious). Discipline isn’t always the answer, helping our children sort through their feelings as safely as possible should be the goal.

  3. These are great ideas. Baguette isn’t hitting, but who knows? I do want to teach her that all of her emotions are normal and acceptable–it’s just that not all methods of expressing them are acceptable.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. Reading over the post, I forgot to include that it’s important to let him know that *all* emotions—even the negative ones—are normal but, like you said, there are acceptable ways to express them. Thanks!

      • I remember my mom saying that she didn’t like to be angry (or something) because it was a “bad” emotion. I said, “No it isn’t. It’s an emotion. They aren’t good or bad. It’s what you do with it that’s good or bad.”

  4. You know, we actually got a punching stand from a sporting goods store that the boys used for awhile, but when they got old enough to run cross country, all of that dissipated. I think it’s different for boys than girls, especially when testosterone levels begin to surge. Frustration and anger are hard to manage at a young age. While I was in comfortable with the idea of hitting anything, a punching bag was preferable to brother. Boys have more of a tendency to behave like lion cubs, rolling around and hitting to test their strength and mettle. But when they get old enough for heavy exercise, ie a hard bike ride, a good run, swimming laps; those at really great things that calm. At a young age, I think they have to have a way to vent. Thanks for sharing such a hard topic! It eventually will get better.

  5. I think when boys are older (particularly boys, although it may be the same for many girls) it is vital that they work off energy and aggression in a positive way.

    I have found with little ones that scribbling with a big pen on a piece of paper is very therapeutic – literally just drawing how angry they are. I think Supernanny has also used a balloon before, blowing it up in anger and then letting it go, sort of metaphorically letting out the pent-up feelings.

    • You and allthingsboys both mention the importance or even necessity for kids to physically release frustration. Even into adulthood, I know that sometimes people use exercise to vent and work off that energy, so I can see how that still applies to kids as well. I like your idea of scribbling their frustration—I might try that with my toddler, assuming I could get him to hold a crayon in anger! I also like Super Nanny’s idea of blowing up a balloon for when he’s older.

      I’m also glad to hear from allthingsboys that it’ll get better 🙂 *phew*

  6. I try to have my daughter use her words to explain how she feels. I also let her know that it’s ok to be upset and that there is nothing wrong with feeling emotions. She just needs to learn to express herself adequately by telling me what’s wrong, not by acting out.

  7. Thanks for sharing – love your posts! Mushroom has just started having temper tantrums – mostly hitting and biting. I have tried picking him up/putting him down, a mini time-out (he doesn’t really understand this), and ignoring him. He can’t talk yet so I know its mostly frustration that he can’t communicate his needs. He responds well to distraction (especially if we go outdoors if we are inside) but not always. Next time he gets mad in the house I will try the hands on tummy technique!

  8. Your suggestions are great, thanks for sharing. Livi isn’t at that age yet where we can ask her to do something to calm herself down. For now we try to redirect her attention and remove her from a situation. We also show her empathy by talking quietly but at the same time we try to explain that hitting and biting are not acceptable.

  9. Some people just need to let out their physical aggresion. I do think it is important for your children to see you angry and see how you handle it. “I’m angry because, so I’m going to.”

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