I'm helping to raise a pair of 10-year-old twins, who I will call James and Emily. James hits his sister to get his way. If she is sitting where he wants to sit, he hits her to get her to move. If she is singing and he doesn't want to hear it, he hits her to make her stop. This weekend, they were playing Minecraft and Emily found gold. James told her that he would hit her if she didn't give it to him. When we told him it's not acceptable to threaten someone to get your way, he burst into tears and screamed that we were being unfair.
When we tell him not to hit, he replies "But she did [this thing I didn't like]" or "But she deserves it!" He has not been exposed to physical aggression or discipline and he hasn't watched or played anything more violent than Ghostbusters or Donkey Kong.
Emily used to have this same problem when she was about 7. We sat with her and explained that it is never okay to hit someone, and we talked about other ways we can resolve conflict. She understood completely. It took her a while to actually apply it and we had to remind her many times, but she always understood the concept and she hasn't hit anyone for at least a couple years.
We have had these talks with James what feels like a thousand times and he can't seem to even grasp the concept that hitting is wrong. He just replies "But some people are annoying!" or "But some people deserve it!"
We have talked to him over and over about other ways to resolve conflict, and reminded him that he doesn't like getting hurt himself. He just doesn't get it. We have tried punishing him, but it seems to make things worse, and I'm very wary about punishing him for something he can't understand is wrong.
He is completely convinced that it is his right to hit someone if he doesn't get his way and he believes he is being treated unfairly when we don't let him. He does have empathy, because he does run to comfort people who are upset, and will do things like sharing his candy with them. He is even very good at noticing very subtle signs of sadness and asking someone what is wrong and listening to them. But as soon as he wants something or something is annoying him, that empathy disappears.
How can we get through to him that hitting is wrong?