Gaurav*, 7, is the only son of a couple in their 40s, both of whom have extremely demanding professional lives. His aunt Lata* says that since the age of 3, he has been a difficult child.

Unprovoked: Is your child hitting his classmates?

“Earlier, he used to hit only his mother. Then he started biting, pinching and hitting not just his parents but other people around too. We have heard of classmates who have refused to attend his birthday parties. He is cruel to my dog whenever he comes over and pulls his ears and tail. I don’t think it is because he dislikes animals but it is just that Gaurav is always angry and wants attention. I think he senses that all is not well between his parents and is constantly seeking attention from both," says Lata.

Last year, Gaurav’s father took a year’s sabbatical from work to spend more time with him since his mother found it impossible to handle the child alone.

“When a child between 2 and 4 hits out at a parent, it is a way to express himself. But when this behaviour continues between 4 to 7 years, then it is a learned behaviour. He or she knows that this is a way to seek attention and that is worrying," explains Maya Kirpalani, a clinical psychologist and family therapist at the Jaslok and Bhatia hospitals in Mumbai. “As a parent, you have to teach your child to express his feelings through language and not fists," Kirpalani adds.

There are many reasons why young children are aggressive and hit out at parents, peers, siblings or sometime even other adults such as teachers or caregivers. Hitting is a form of seeking attention, an expression of extreme anger or frustration by a child or simply a result of inconsistent disciplining by the parents. “Just as too little attention is a problem, parents who stand to attention at a child’s every whim are doing him harm too. The child will feel frustrated if he doesn’t get the kind of attention that he is used to in other social situations, such as in school, and can hit at people around to get noticed," says Gouri Dange, a Pune-based psychologist, Lounge columnist and author of The ABCs of Parenting. Abha Adams, a New-Delhi based education consultant, believes there is a distinct correlation between the violent images young children see in video games and on TV, and their own inappropriate violent behaviour.

“Frankly, in eight out of 10 cases, this unprovoked aggressive behaviour in a child is rooted in some family issue. Parents are reluctant to open up about their family atmosphere, marital issues," explains Dange. At times, there may be no overt violence in the house. But an overworked mother and an absent father make for a fairly fraught atmosphere. The child may get the feeling that he is a “big chore" for his mother.

“Whatever the circumstances, no parent should accept being hit by their children. As soon as a child hits you, be firm in your response. Hold their hand, look them in the eye—and depending on their age—very firmly tell them that they are never to hit again because it hurts," advises Adams, adding that teachers need to follow the same course—swift intervention is critical in school—setting boundaries, making the child understand what is acceptable and what is not. “If a child continues to hit other children in class, isolate him. He should be made to understand that his actions will have consequences and he will not be allowed to play or sit next to other children. Also, inform the parents immediately and encourage them to seek counselling with the child," says Madhulika Sen, principal, Tagore International school, Vasant Vihar, New Delhi.

One of the key factors in discouraging aggressive behaviour is to try and get an aggressive child to empathize with others. This can be done effectively by teachers. “Take his hand and help him touch things, people, very gently. Not during a meltdown, but sometime during the day, encourage him to touch a flower, or a fragile object, and explain how a harsh touch can hurt or destroy the object," adds Dange. Teach such a child to express his emotions and feelings in words.

Parents should do the same. “But don’t make all communication about negative emotions and feelings only—I am angry, I am sad. Include positive expressions as well," says Kirpalani.

Both counsellors advise parents whose child hits them or others against hitting the child as a means of instilling discipline. Work on soothing the child. Never slap and chastize him in front of other children or their parents. If you have to deal with complaints about your child, never react offensively or defensively to the person making the complaint or shrug off all blame. “But don’t turn around and yell at your child either. It is advisable to apologize and promise to look into the matter," adds Dange.

Try and include physical games—yoga, martial arts—in such a child’s schedule. Even physical activities such as child-friendly carpentry, where “legitimate" force may be needed to hammer a nail into a board, could be worked into his routine.

* Names changed to protect identity.