We talked recently about what parents can do if their toddler bites people, whether out of curiosity, frustration, or a need for attention. While some toddlers bite for those reasons, others may turn to hitting. A slap across the face from a toddler probably won’t hurt as much as a bite on the arm, but it’s still pretty mortifying, and it’s a behaviour you want to try to curb as quickly as possible.
But before we talk about how to curb it, let’s talk about why toddlers hit in the first place.
Why toddlers hit
Some toddlers hit for the same reasons that other toddlers bite — they are feeling a surge of emotion they can’t control or communicate, they want your attention, or they’re testing out cause and effect (if I use my body in this situation, what will happen next?). Toddlers also may hit when they are overwhelmed or feel like their space is being invaded, such as when another child snatches a toy from them or crowds them, as children are apt to do.
Some kids also have sensory sensitivities or a need for higher-than-average sensory input, which may make them more likely to push, kick, or hit others. If they’re sensitive to being crowded by other children, it is helpful to remove them from overstimulating situations. If they seem to need extra sensory input, they may benefit from regular massages or tight hugs.
And, as Parents.com points out, it could also simply be that the child is temperamental by nature:
Some children — those who are less easy-going by nature — are predisposed to leading with their fists or teeth. “A lot comes down to temperament,” explains child psychiatrist Stanley Turecki, M.D., author of The Difficult Child. While some kids will just shrug and move on when someone snatches Elmo out of their hands, others go into street-fighter mode.
OK, so now that they’re hitting, what do we do about it?
How to react in the moment
Getting hit by your toddler (or seeing them hit someone else) for the first time can be jarring. But remember, it is developmentally normal, particularly in children who are too young to communicate their emotions or have yet developed the ability to fully empathise — it does not mean your child will grow up to be a bully or abusive toward others.
To start, we know that hitting the toddler back is never the right response — that sends the message that hitting is how we deal with anger or frustration, which is the opposite of what we want to teach them. Instead, it’s your job to model non-aggressive ways communicate, handle conflict, and process big emotions, and that starts with a non-aggressive home environment.
When they do hit, respond immediately and calmly (but firmly) with simple language, like, “No hitting; hitting hurts.” If they are hitting another child, remove them from the situation with a reminder that we don’t hit because hitting hurts. You might choose to implement a time-out for a minute or two so they can calm down, and then encourage them to apologise to the person they hit (they may also want to offer a hug).
If they’re old enough to understand, you can talk through in simple turns what happened and how they can have a re-do: “You were frustrated because Joey took your toy from you. It’s ok to feel frustrated, but it’s not ok to hit. Joey will give you back your toy, and you can tell Joey you’ll share it with him when you’re all done.”
If you’re holding them and they hit you, immediately put them down so they begin to learn that you will not allow them to hit you. Help them put words to what they’re feeling while also maintaining that boundary: “You feel mad. It’s ok to feel mad, but I won’t let you hit me, because hitting hurts.”
Encourage the behaviour you want to see
Whatever the reason for your toddler’s hitting, whether it be related to a lack of impulse control, big emotions, or sensory sensitivities, they likely need two things: the words to communicate their needs or feelings, and alternative ways to react in the moment. We can teach our kids to use words like “stop” if another child is bothering them and reinforce the idea that they can walk away, take a break, or ask a parent or teacher for help.
We should also reiterate that hands are for helping, not for hurting. Talk about all the ways hands are helpful — they can open doors for other people, they can put away toys, they can help carry the grocery bags. Point out all the times when your child is using their helpful hands, (“Wow, your hands are being so helpful right now!”) and lavish on the praise when you see them resolving conflict in positive ways or hear them naming their feelings or needs. They want your attention, and they’d rather have the positive variety, so loads of positive reinforcement is key.
Until you’re able to get the hitting fully under control, pay attention to their triggers. Once you’ve pinpointed whether they hit more often when they’re overstimulated, tired, or haven’t had enough physical activity, for example, you can better predict and avoid those situations. If you can’t avoid them entirely, you’ll know the times it is most important to hover so you can quickly intervene if they do hit — or head it off by prompting them to communicate with words or sprint a couple times back and forth across the playground to release some pent-up energy.
And finally, if you’re doing all of this and they are continuing to hit — particularly once they get to about age three or if you notice the behaviour increasing rather than decreasing — it may be time to talk to their paediatrician. Their doctor might have other tips for you to try or may recommend talking to another professional, such as a child developmental psychologist, who can provide further ideas for your specific child and their needs.