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8 Key Strategies to Stop Toddler Hitting

Updated: 4 days ago




As a parent, it can feel deeply upsetting when your toddler hits another person, whether it’s another child or a family member. Trying to curb this behavior in the moment can also feel overwhelming and stressful. The good news is that there are some proven strategies you can use to address this behavior and help everyone feel calm and secure.


In this article, we'll discuss why toddlers hit, explain how to respond when they do, and look at 8 key techniques for managing hitting behavior in toddlers, so you have the tools you need to guide your child towards more positive interactions with others.


In this article:


Is toddler hitting normal?

Although it's frustrating for parents and caregivers, toddler hitting is a completely normal developmental stage.


Ages

Although children may start hitting as early as 1 year old, toddler hitting occurs most frequently around 2 to 3 years of age. During this stage, children may also engage in other aggressive behavior, such as kicking, biting, and grabbing people or objects.


By the time most children are 4 years old, they will have developed the language skills to put their feelings into words and the impulse control necessary to outgrow hitting (or at least decrease the frequency significantly).


Major life changes

Major life changes can also contribute to a hitting phase. For example, a toddler with a new baby sibling might engage in hitting to seek attention or express their frustration over the changes to their family.


This behavior can seemingly come out of nowhere in a child who has not previously hit or who had moved past the hitting stage.


Why toddlers hit

As toddlers learn to communicate and regulate their emotions, there are a number of reasons why they might engage in hitting or other aggressive behavior.


"Why is my toddler hitting" infographic

Big feelings

Often, toddlers hit because they have big feelings that they cannot yet handle. The world can be a very frustrating place for a little kid—they have trouble communicating their wants, they are frequently told "no," and they are still physically unable to do many desired activities.


However, they have not yet developed self control or the ability to regulate their emotions and may lash out as a way to vent their frustration.


A toddler might also hit if they feel nervous or scared—it's one way for them to feel like they are protecting themselves in a big, intimidating world.


Difficulty communicating verbally

Young toddlers are still learning verbal communication skills and may instead communicate through behaviors. Hitting is one way that children communicate their needs, frustrations, fears, and even excitement.


Pathfinder Health developmental activities for kids

Seeking attention

A toddler who wants their parent's attention may hit because they know that it will elicit a response—after all, negative attention from Mom or Dad is still attention! They lack the language skills to say "Mama, I'm feeling bored and you're not paying attention to me!" so they seek attention in a way that they know will work from past experience.


Emerging social skills

The peak ages for hitting coincide with the age when your child is beginning to have more interactions with other children their age, whether at playgrounds or at daycare or preschool.


Although social interactions are important for their development, it's hard for children this age to negotiate social skills like sharing and taking turns. If they become frustrated by other children, they might react by hitting, biting, or pushing. If the other child hits back, the situation can escalate quickly.


Several toddlers grabbing a toy rolling pin

Copying others' behavior

Relatedly, as children spend more time with other kids, they will observe other toddlers' behavior, both good and bad. If they see other toddlers hitting or otherwise being aggressive, they may copy this behavior themselves.


This can even be true for tv shows! Choose media carefully for your child and avoid shows that depict violence, even cartoon violence.


Asserting independence

During the toddler years, children become increasingly aware of themselves as individuals and interested in asserting some control over their world. They may use hitting as a way to test boundaries and see how their behavior can make others react.


Toddlers can easily become upset or frustrated when their growing independence is curbed by parents imposing necessary rules and safety limitations. They might respond to these restrictions by lashing out or hitting.


Physical needs

Toddlers become more irritable when they are tired, hungry (the dreaded "hangry" toddler), or overstimulated and may lash out to communicate their feelings.


How to respond when your toddler hits

Just because hitting and other aggressive behaviors are common doesn't mean that you should let your toddler push, hit, kick, or otherwise physically hurt another person. Teaching toddlers not to hit is an important part of their social development.


The following steps will help you respond appropriately if your toddler hits.


1. Stay calm

The more frustrated your toddler is, the more important it is for you as a parent to stay calm. This is hard! But it's essential that you not react to anger with anger. Seeing you getting upset can cause your child's emotions to spiral and lead to more hitting behavior.


Father comforting a crying child

If you react with anger, it may also inadvertently reinforce the very aggressive behaviors that you are trying to discourage.


2. Correct the behavior

As soon as you see your toddler hit, kick, or bite, let them know immediately

and calmly that it is not acceptable.

Keep your message short and simple: "No hitting."

Don't bother appealing to a toddler's sense of empathy—they don't have one yet!


Although hitting is never acceptable, you should validate the feelings that contributed to the hitting: "I see that you feel frustrated. You wanted to play with that toy."


This will help your child feel understood and also help them learn how to label their own feelings. Just remind your child to use their words instead of hitting when they feel frustrated.


3. Remove them from the situation if necessary.

A brief time out can provide your child the opportunity to calm down. One minute of time out per year of your child's age is enough (i.e., 2 minutes for a 2-year old).


During this time, try out different soothing strategies. Explain that your child can return to their activity when they are calm and ready to play nicely.


A time out is not a punishment, but it does provide a natural consequence that will make sense to your child—if they hit another child in the sandbox, they will not be able to play in the sandbox.


However, it may be necessary to remove your child from the frustrating situation entirely. If your child is overstimulated by a loud or exciting environment or is consistently clashing with another child over a toy, they are likely to continue engaging in the negative behavior.


How to stop hitting behavior

1. Plan ahead

It may sound obvious, but often the best way to prevent your toddler from hitting others is to avoid putting them in stressful situations that are likely to result in hitting.


For example, it's okay to put your child's favorite toy away before another child comes over to avoid conflict over sharing. Or, if your child becomes aggressive when they are overstimulated, you might want to avoid events that are very crowded or noisy.


You can also generally set your child up for success by making sure that they get enough sleep and have snacks available when they feel hungry. Preventing crankiness is a great way to avoid hitting!


Of course, you cannot—and should not—avoid all situations that might be frustrating to your child. But minimizing these situations where possible can give your child a chance to practice being calm and create positive associations with activities instead of negative.


Pathfinder Health parenting tips


2. Be a good role model

As a parent, you are your child’s main role model. They are always looking to you for guidance and watching how you move through the world.


Even when you don’t realize it, you are modeling coping behaviors for your child. Seeing you deal with anger and frustration in a calm and productive way will encourage them to do the same.


For this and other reasons, you should never hit or spank your child for any reason. When you do so, you are teaching them that hitting is an acceptable response to another person's actions. In particular, spanking as a punishment when your child hits another person only reinforces hitting behaviors.


3. Teach calming techniques

You can also talk to your child about the specific methods that you use to handle your own frustrations and practice some strategies together. These might include:

  • Breathing exercises (even toddlers can learn how to do “belly breathing,” which encourages them to take deep breaths)

  • Finding other physical outlets for frustration, such as stomping feet or hitting a pillow

  • Teaching words to describe feelings (e.g., "I feel mad because...")

Teaching your child how to self-regulate might be one of the most important lessons you give them.



4. Provide a calm area

A nice addition to calming techniques is a special "calm area" of your house. This is an area that your child can retreat to if they feel overstimulated or frustrated and need a few calm, quiet minutes alone.


This area can be very simple—it might include a couple of pillows, a favorite stuffed animal, and a few books.


Tell your child that they can go to their calm area anytime they feel upset. When your toddler calms down, praise them for choosing their calm area.


5. Reward good behavior

Positive reinforcement is generally more effective than negative in curbing unwanted behaviors.


Instead of shouting at or punishing your child when they hit, praise them for good behaviors, such as playing well with others, using gentle touch, exercising self-control, or using a calming strategy.


Consistently reinforcing positive behaviors can help your child learn the appropriate ways to communicate and interact with others.


6. Encourage plenty of physical activity

Toddlers are bundles of energy, constantly seeking ways to explore the world around them. If they don't have an outlet for that energy, they can become restless and let their energy out in negative ways, such as hitting.


So make sure that your toddler has plenty of opportunities for physical activity throughout the day, whether it's running around outside, participating in a dance or movement class, or playing with toys that encourage them to move their bodies.


Happy toddler runs outside while his mother follows

Plenty of exercise will also help your child sleep well at night, which will help them maintain a more regular mood overall.


7. Preempt hitting behavior before it starts

If your child is playing with other kids or is in another potentially challenging situation, watch their facial expression and body language closely. If you notice signs of distress or frustration, step in and help to mediate the situation by talking to your child about how they are feeling and what they can do about it.


If you can prevent a toddler from hitting, you can show them other ways of dealing with conflict and reinforce positive behaviors.


8. Be consistent in your response

Try to be consistent in how you correct your toddler's behavior. When you react the same way each time, your child builds brain connections that will help them anticipate your response in the future and regulate their own behavior accordingly.


It's important to also make sure that other family members and caregivers follow the same strategies.


When to be concerned

Usually, hitting is just a phase. However, sometimes aggressive behavior is severe or lasts long enough that it disrupts the family's life, for example if the child is not able to play with other children, regularly loses control in public places, and often gets in trouble at daycare or preschool for aggressive behavior.


Consult with your pediatrician if your child:

  1. Suddenly begins hitting or acting aggressively with no discernible cause

  2. Acts more aggressively than usual for more than a few weeks

  3. Likes to play games with violent themes

  4. Hurts themself

  5. Hits because they seem to need high-intensity sensory input to feel calm

  6. Attacks you or other adults

  7. Begins hitting or acting aggressively after a traumatic event or major life change

Your pediatrician may recommend speaking with a child psychologist. They might also refer you to an occupational therapist, as your child could be seeking sensory stimulation.


Frequently asked questions

1. How do you punish a toddler for hitting?

If your toddler hits, intervene immediately and calmly but firmly tell them that they cannot hit. Remove them from the situation for a brief time out of one minute per year of their age. Never spank your toddler as punishment—this only reinforces hitting behavior.


2. How do you discipline a toddler for hitting?

Discipline should be about teaching a child the correct way to behave. You can teach a child not to hit by being a good role model yourself, helping them learn calming techniques, and praising them when they use self control and deal with frustration positively.


3. How do I stop my toddler from hitting my baby?

If your toddler hits a baby sibling:

  • Intervene immediately once they show aggressive behavior

  • Don’t reward hitting with attention—instead give attention to the baby

  • Clearly tell your toddler that hitting is unacceptable

  • Give a brief time out

  • Praise your toddler when they are gentle with the baby

  • Make sure you have one-on-one time with your toddler

4. Why is my toddler hitting and biting me?

Because they don’t yet have the verbal skills to describe their feelings, toddlers may lash out physically until they learn to regulate their own emotions and use words to express their frustration, anger, or need for attention. Hitting can also reflect hunger or fatigue.


5. How do I get my toddler to stop hitting siblings?

If your toddler begins to be rough with a sibling, try distracting them with a different activity that is apart from their sibling. If they hit, clearly but calmly correct them and provide a time out. Being separated from the family shows that hitting will not be tolerated and has consequences.


The Takeaway

Toddler behavior can often be challenging—they have so many big feelings but little impulse control! Although it can be hard, remember that hitting is a normal part of their development, one that they will outgrow. If you stay calm, model appropriate behavior, discipline consistently, and reward good behavior then you will provide the good example that your child needs to learn how to move through the world.


Bio of Dr. Paul Patterson

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