Toddler Hitting: Why It Happens and How To Make It Stop
We’ve all been there: You’ve been enjoying a calm playdate with other moms, and then suddenly the peace is cut short when one toddler hits another — with plentiful shrieks, cries, and whines erupting.
While kids, especially toddlers, often hit each other during playtime, it can become stressful for parents trying to figure out the best way of handling this behavior.
It can feel awkward to be the parent whose child is hitting others on the playground or at day care, and you may be wondering what interventions work best to solve this problem.
On the other hand, your child may suddenly be hitting you, or a sibling, and you may be suffering in private, wondering if you’ve done something wrong.
Rest assured, you are not alone in this worry, and whether your child is hitting you or others, there are clear steps you can take to resolve the problem.
Why do toddlers hit?
They are testing limits
Like many toddler behaviors (chucking applesauce at your work blouse, screaming in high-pitched tones during rush hour traffic), hitting has a common theme: to test the limits of what is acceptable.
What will happen if I do this? Finding out their brother cries when hit with a stick or that beating on a drum is not the same as hitting their mom is all part of their learning process.
They haven’t developed self-control
If you are dealing with a toddler, their impulse controls are basically nonexistent. They feel frustrated or happy or bored, they express that through hitting — no hesitation.
The good news is they start to show positive growth in this area, according to research, between ages 3 and 9 (with more significant development in girls than boys in this area). The bad news is between ages 3 and 9 is a pretty wide range when you’re struggling right now.
They don’t understand it is bad
It’s also true that toddlers sometimes use force without being provoked by others, which supports the idea that they just want to see what will happen, and don’t yet have the moral compass or understanding that they can, but shouldn’t, hurt others.
Scientists have studied this phenomenon in 11- to 24-month-old toddlers and have concluded that in most cases, the children were not in distress at all when hitting others.
They don’t know how to process their feelings
Another reason toddlers resort to hitting, both themselves and others, is because it is their way of handling their “big” emotions.
They feel frustrated, but unlike an adult who may calmly explain the feelings of frustration to their partner or trusted friend, toddlers often don’t have the language capacity or self-control to stop, examine how they are feeling, and react in a way that’s socially acceptable, appropriate, or helpful.
Toddlers may want something, or feel angry, or feel they’ve been wronged by their friend in some way. Let’s be honest, if someone knocked over the huge block tower you’d been building for a half hour, you might want to hit them too.
What should you do when your toddler hits?
Luckily, hitting is not just a “phase you have to deal with” as a parent, and there are concrete steps you can take to prevent, control, and redirect toddlers who are hitting.
While each of the following options may not work for every child, you as the parent can judge which will work for you. And don’t be afraid to explore multiple options through trial and error to see which is most beneficial for your child.
Restrain them physically
Your instinct may be to physically hold your toddler back when they are trying to hit others. If you feel your child is out of control, or that being physically secure helps to calm them down, this could be an option for you.
If your toddler is strong this could be physically difficult depending on your own size, strength, and ability. Physically restraining your toddler should not be painful to them in any way, but rather like a calm and firm hug that prevents them from hitting themselves or others.
You may also want to speak calmly to them, letting them know that you’re holding them because you can’t allow them to hurt anyone. Once the moment has passed you can redirect them to other behaviors.
If your toddler reacts negatively to being restrained, it may be more effective to consider one of the following options instead.
Remove your child from the situation
We’ve all heard it before, maybe from our own parents: “If you don’t stop, I’m taking you to the car (or your room).” Is it effective? For some, yes.
Calmly removing a child from the situation can be one of the best solutions to a hitting problem. Be prepared that you may have to do it more than once for a child to realize that there will be a clear consequence, involving not being able to play with others for a bit if they hit.
Where you take them depends on where you are. The car can be effective if you are in public or at another person’s house. If you are in your own house, choose a calm, quiet location away from other activity to help them refocus.
Once you’re away from the situation, you may want to discuss, reevaluate, and calm down. How much time you spend on each of these depends on many factors, including your toddler’s age and ability to understand and your patience at the moment.
It’s okay take a break and try again and it’s also okay to decide it’s time to call it a day.
It may not have even occurred to your child that there are other ways to deal with frustration, jealousy, anger, and other emotions unless you have explicitly taught and modeled these reactions.
When a friend of theirs grabs a toy they wanted, what are other possible reactions they could have instead of hitting? Make sure you’re modeling behaviors like speaking up, walking away, or telling an adult about problems.
Your toddler needs you to teach them their options, but this takes time to learn and time to reach a developmental stage where this will be effective.
Especially with young toddlers, redirecting them to do a more appropriate behavior can help them forget about the urge to hit something. For example, with 1- to 2-year-olds, you can hold the hand that they were using to hit and showing them gentle touch.
If they persist, distracting them from the negative behavior with another activity may work. However, it’s important to make sure that hitting is not getting more attention than not hitting.
If every time they hit you’re suddenly willing to play, it may inadvertently increase hitting. Make sure you’re providing positive reinforcement when they aren’t engaging in hitting.
Provide emotional support
If hitting seems to be the result of mismanaging emotion, you can try teaching more options for emotional expression, such as what various feeling words mean, in an age-appropriate way.
How you explain frustration to a 5-year-old may be much different than to a 2-year-old, but both can learn dialogue to express being mad, frustrated, stressed, and other related emotions.
Others literally just need a hug and some emotional support for the big feelings they have.
Prevent hitting before it begins
Observe your child’s behaviors that typically happen in the moments leading up to hitting. What are their typical triggers that cause them to hit themselves or others?
Some children make frustrated noises, for example, almost like a dog growling, while others start whining about the problem. You may see your toddler approaching another child by running towards them, giving you a hint that the hitting is about to be an issue.
By identifying these triggers and behaviors, you’re more likely to be able to stop them before it happens, either by talking them through other options, or physically stopping them from the action.
What should you NOT do when your toddler hits?
Hit or spank
While spanking remains a controversial topic in parenting circles worldwide, research is pretty clear that it can cause more harm than good.
A 2017 study, for example, shows the correlation between spanking and behavioral issues. The authors found that children who had been spanked by their parents at age 5 were reported by teachers to have significantly higher increases in behavior problems — such as arguing, fighting, showing anger, acting impulsively, and disturbing ongoing activities — by age 6 than children who had never been spanked.
In addition, if you’re trying to model positive behavior to help your child avoid hitting, it may be confusing to them if you, yourself, are hitting. Avoid power struggles that involve use of force.
It’s one thing to walk or carry your toddler to their time-out spot, and another to forcefully punish them in time-out. If your child is attempting to leave the time-out you have established, avoid being rough with them and instead calmly place them back in their time-out spot, explaining what needs to happen, when they can get up, and other details.
Yell or react with anger
Toddlers do well with calm, firm reactions, rather than screaming, yelling, and acting out in anger.
Even though the situation can be truly frustrating, taking a second to control your own emotions before teaching your toddler will help them see you as an authority figure who’s in control of their body, voice, words, and expressions.
Base your reaction on other parents
There’s a constant feeling of mom guilt, mom-shaming, and peer pressure in circles of parents when it comes to behavioral choices. Don’t allow these feelings to dictate which choices you make to help your child with their hitting behaviors.
When you find yourself changing your reaction based on your environment or peers, step back to re-evaluate your parenting values through self- reflection or conversation with your partner.
Tips for dealing with toddler hitting
Avoid contributing factors
As with many toddler behaviors, the real problem may not be the behavior itself, but how the child is feeling otherwise.
Are they teething? Did they get enough sleep or is it approaching nap time? Have they had nutritionally sound meals and snacks at frequent enough intervals today, or could they be hungry when they are hitting? Are they frustrated about something else, which could contribute to them lashing out by hitting?
Running through the list of other possibilities can help you resolve the problem if there’s an easy fix like these.
Give opportunities for physical activity
If you’ve ever found your kids to be restless, saying, “They just need to get out and run around,” you already know the truth behind the correlation between physical activity and behavior.
Adults and children alike are happier, healthier, and better able to control behaviors when they’ve had enough physical activity. Allow your child to engage in physical activities like banging on a drum, stomping their feet, running around, jumping, playing on playgrounds, and anything else that will help them move.
Get all caregivers on the same page
What if you, your parents, and your babysitter are all treating the hitting behavior in three different ways? Maybe grandma is laughing it off, saying “no, no,” and moving on, while you are using time-outs. Maybe the babysitter is using different verbiage than you when discussing emotions with the child.
Having a conversation with all your child’s caregivers can ensure you are attacking the problem with the same strategies to ensure a united front and quicker resolution.
It’s okay and normal to feel frustrated and out of control when your toddler hits themselves or others.
Sometimes, children are just experimenting with others’ reactions to their behaviors, and sometimes they are frustrated, tired, or unwilling to share their toys. Approach your toddler’s behavior with a calm demeanor, and make a plan with all caregivers on which course of action you should take.
Rest assured that over time, and with your intentional guidance, this too will pass.
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