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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?

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    Have you brought to his attention the times when he is "annoying" and asked him if it is okay for the person who is annoyed to hit him? I'm not suggesting that you actually hit him, just that you add this argument to your attempt to reason with him. If he disagrees that he is being annoying, ask him who should get to decide what is annoying? Is it the person who is having the feeling or the person who is doing the questionable action? – Francine DeGrood Taylor Mar 22 '17 at 15:00
  • @FrancineDeGroodTaylor No, we haven't tried that. Thanks, great idea! – worried caregiver Mar 22 '17 at 15:43
  • The only thing I can currently think of is that if you hit him (possibly as a form of punishment), he's learning that people can hit others if they don't like something. – Bradman175 Mar 23 '17 at 23:55
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I think Becuzz had a good answer and wonder if you might tell him when he is bothering you. Mention that everyone loses their temper or feels angry but that it is a sign of growing up to learn other ways to deal with aggravation. Tell him you'll touch your own nose when you are feeling angry with something or someone, but that you are not hitting. This way, seeing your reaction and noting your 'sign', he might learn how else a person can handle aggravation and conflict.

How about if he hits Emily, she gets something like to stay up a few minutes later or to choose a TV show -- because she is "more mature"?

Punishment is negative and some children will choose that negative because they are getting attention. 'Bad' attention is better than no attention. I am not saying that you do not praise James or that he doesn't get attention, but perhaps he is looking for more attention. Being a twin means he gets more shared attention than many children do. It's simply a truth of life as a twin. Another way to be positive and show an interest is to ask James his opinion. If Emily interrupts or answers, let her know that this time it is James's turn to speak.

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    These are really good ideas! His dad actually had a problem his with temper (he didn't hit, but he would yell), but he worked on it and he hasn't lost his temper in a long time now. But looking at your post, I realize that he worked on it privately. So from the kids' perspectives, it probably looks like Dad's anger just disappeared and they aren't aware that he is still feeling it. – worried caregiver Mar 22 '17 at 15:41
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It sounds to me like he doesn't get it because, to him, it's justified. Constantly responding with "because they are annoying" or especially "because they deserve it" tells me that he thinks hitting is an ok solution as long as there is a reason.

You have to teach him that these "justifications" aren't valid.

When he responds with these justifications, you need to calmly explain that those reasons still don't make it ok to hit. You need to make it clear that why he hit does not excuse his actions. Then follow through with whatever consequences you have (previously) set forth for hitting.

You need to be consistent with this. If you only sporadically apply consequences / punishment for actions, it loses it's effect. Stopping simply because he cries "unfair" teaches him that the consequences of hitting can be easily escaped and, by extension, hitting isn't really that bad. Stopping because his behavior gets worse teaches a similar lesson, that lashing out gives your child power over you and can stop all undesirable consequences.

Know this won't be an overnight change. It will take some time and frustration for everyone, but you will get there. Stick to it. You can do it.

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    Hello, thank you for answering. We have told him there is no excuse for hitting more times than I can count but he can't seem to understand the concept. We can continue to punish him, but I want him to stop hitting because he knows it's wrong, not because he is afraid of getting "unfairly" punished. – worried caregiver Mar 22 '17 at 14:02
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    @worriedcaregiver I think it's great that you want him to not hit because he knows it is wrong. That really is the ultimate goal. Sometimes doing not hitting to avoid punishment / consequences is a step towards that. There can be more than one reason to do (or not do) something. He can start by wanting to avoid punishment. (This isn't going to go away. As he gets older, natural consequences (broken relationships, etc.) along with local laws will provide reasons not to hit someone.) Later it can evolve to include showing compassion and empathy, etc. Take it one step at a time. – Becuzz Mar 22 '17 at 14:25

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