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Navigating Meltdowns: A Compassionate Approach to Hitting, Screaming, and Biting



Parenting is a beautiful journey filled with joy, but it can also be marked by challenging phases. One such phase for many parents is when their child enters the realm of hitting, screaming, and biting. It can be overwhelming, leaving you feeling helpless, but it's essential to know that you're not alone in this. I've been there, too.

**My Personal Story**

One evening, my son had a meltdown. His trigger? An extra vitamin gummy. He wanted just one more, and when I said no, he reacted. His tiny hand met my cheek, and I felt the sting of his frustration. Being hit can trigger us as parents to react, especially if we have trauma in our history. This type of behavior can make us feel unsafe or out of control.

Knowing this, I had to regulate myself first. I took a deep breath. I had to remind myself that I am safe, this is not an emergency, and my son needs my help. Calming my nervous system down and finding my center allowed me to connect with my son, set a loving limit, and teach him what to do next time.

To be honest, I don't always respond in this way. There have been times where the physical expression has led me to be reactive vs responsive in my parenting. I am continuing to learn and grow as a parent, and the more personal work I do to heal my own wounds, the better equipped I am to show up in these hard moments with gentleness and understanding.

**Is This You?**

If you're a parent who's grappling with this kind of behavior, I want you to know that I truly understand how incredibly tough it can be.

You might feel a profound sense of helplessness as you watch your child in these challenging moments. The desperation to soothe their pain while feeling utterly unprepared can be an overwhelming, lonely sensation.

It's hard not to feel that you've somehow contributed to these challenging behaviors. In those raw moments, you might question your parenting skills, doubting whether you're doing something wrong. The self-doubt can gnaw at your confidence and make you wonder if you're unintentionally fostering these behaviors.

Moreover, you may find yourself wondering "Is there something wrong with my child?” It's a question that pierces the heart of every parent, inducing a sense of vulnerability and fear that can be tough to bear.

To make matters more challenging, there's the added burden of feeling embarrassed or judged when others witness these behaviors. The eyes and opinions of the outside world can weigh heavily on your shoulders, making these moments even more complex and emotionally taxing.

But please know, you're not alone in this journey. Together, we can navigate these difficult waters, embrace the emotions, and support each other as we strive to understand and guide our little ones through this phase.

**The Toddler Brain and Hitting**

Understanding the toddler brain is crucial during these phases. Toddlers are still developing their prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for impulse control. Their emotional and limbic systems often lead to impulsive behaviors. But it's the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, that plays a significant role in processing emotions, especially when toddlers feel threatened.

**The Autonomic Nervous System and Polyvagal Theory**

Toddlers experience intense emotions, and their autonomic nervous system is on high alert. The polyvagal theory explains that when they're activated into a sympathetic nervous system response, it triggers their fight-flight-freeze reaction. In the case of hitting, it's the fight response.

Toddlers don't have the words to express their emotions, so they communicate through their bodies. They're not trying to be aggressive; they're trying to release the overwhelming energy within them.

**Perceived Danger**

Many factors can contribute to perceived danger. It can be an overt threat, such as feeling unsafe in their environment, parents punishing, shaming, yelling, or threatening, and even the covert threat of their parents' own stress, or unmet needs like hunger, thirst, or sleep. These threats activate the survival part of their brain, pushing them into a fight response.

**What Parents Can Do**

While it can be challenging, there are steps parents can take to navigate this phase:

1. **Understand Your Triggers**: Start with understanding your own triggers and regulating your emotions. This will enable you to help your child regulate.

2. **Regulate the Child First**: Use connection to help them regulate. Hold them, sit close, sing, or hum to create a safe space. Often, minimal words are needed until the child is regulated.

3. **Validate Feelings**: Let them know it's okay to feel angry or upset. Offer empathy and understanding.

4. **Set Boundaries**: Make it clear that hitting is not acceptable. Use phrases like "I'm not willing to let you hit." Then, provide an alternative like "gentle hands."

5. **Channel Energy**: Suggest alternative ways for them to release their energy, such as hitting a pillow or screaming into it.

6. **End with Connection**: Reconnect with your child through play, cuddles, or gentle words. Reinforce that your love is unwavering, even during tough moments.

Remember, you're not alone in this journey. We're all navigating the challenging waters of toddlerhood together. With patience, empathy, and the understanding that hitting is their way of expressing intense emotions, we can guide our little ones through this phase with love and support.

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