Dealing with the hitting phase

“Not my child.” Is there any parent who never said anything like that, and then was forced to reconsider once their actual walking, talking, opinionated toddler came along? Before you’re coping with a tiny ball of emotion who might not have the verbal skills to tell you what’s wrong yet, it’s easy to say that your child would never wail their way through a restaurant. Dump their dinner on the floor. Hit somebody.

Hitting, kicking, and biting are at the top of a lot of parents’ “my child will never” lists, but the truth is that toddlers have a strong desire to be independant, but lack control over their emotions, instincts, and language. As a result, it’s common for toddlers to have episodes of aggression. Aggression usually peaks around age two, and can develop right next to a growing adventurous spirit, when a toddler’s communication skills can’t always keep up with what they want to do. The good news is that when a toddler has an aggressive moment, it generally isn’t any kind of reflection on their parents. The bad news is that it’s pretty common, and if it hasn’t started already, there’s still a good chance that it might.

Why do toddlers hit?

There are a lot of specific reasons toddlers get upset, from “He stole my toy!” to lashing out when they’re over-tired and hungry. But why do some toddlers cry, while others let it go, and yet others start throwing punches? This answer might be a little bit more complicated – a toddler might not know how to channel their feelings in any other way besides physically, for example. They might not fully understand that hitting can hurt, only that it gets a reaction, and they might not know of a better way to get attention.

In general, toddlers often hit because they have feelings too big for their bodies, and they want to do more things than they know how to talk about in words yet. Specifically, though, figuring out why your toddler might be hitting is going to be the mystery you solve that lets you figure out how to start to address this phase and, hopefully, bring it to an end.

How can I discourage hitting?

There is no one way to discourage toddlers’ flailing limbs that works for every family, because different toddlers lash out at different people for different reasons. There are a few strategies that work better for certain situations than others, though.
  • If they want your attention: Depending on your child’s temperament, there are a few different ways to deal with hitting as a way of getting attention. Some children, especially younger toddlers, react well to having their energy (and sometimes their hands) redirected. Saying “Give me a high-five instead!” might not feel like enough, but it can be effective as long as it’s paired with a teaching moment, to show your little one that it’s important to use gentle hands with the people in their life. On the other hand, some children may do better with a short time-out after explaining why their behavior was not okay, especially one that’s given quietly and alone, without a big emotional outburst. The idea behind the time-out is that hitting to get attention should not reward the behavior with attention, so some parents interpret that as a cue to leave the room themselves, ending playtime, instead of a traditional time-out. Whatever you do, it’s important to note that hitting back, yelling, or telling a child they are bad won’t teach them not to hit. Instead, it’s important to explain to them why their behavior was not acceptable.
  • If they are lashing out when they are angry: If hitting is how they are channeling their anger, it’s also helpful to redirect that anger. When anger makes children feel agitated, giving them something physical to do can be an effective kind of redirection, like encouraging them to stomp their feet or run around outside when they have some extra anger to burn off. That’s only a first part of teaching your toddler how to channel their feelings, though, and by narrating emotions, and encouraging them to express themself in words, or even by drawing an angry picture, you can help them transition to more positive ways of showing you their anger. Parents and other caregivers can be role models for more positive ways to deal with anger by channeling negative emotions into actions and conversations, instead of lashing out or yelling.
  • If they hit other children: If your toddler is turning their hitting on other children some of the same strategies apply, but it’s also most important to keep other children from getting hurt. Parents can prevent further hitting by calmly but immediately removing their child from the situation before explaining why hitting is not okay. The more predictable a parent’s response is to negative behavior, the easier it is for a child to know what they have done wrong, and what to expect. Parents can also encourage empathy by paying attention to the child who has been hit, instead of to the child who is doing the hitting. This shows that hitting won’t be rewarded with attention.
Hitting episodes don’t last forever, and parents who stand firm against them can help move past them even sooner. It’s easy to feel confused and embarrassed when your child lashes out on the playground, but it’s a normal phase, and staying calm and consistent about your response to it can help to head it off. Other ways to discourage hitting include noting acts of aggression you and your child see in the world around you, talking about why they’re wrong, and what could be done differently. Lots of outdoor playtime also gives children the chance to work off extra energy.

If you’re concerned about hitting, your child’s pediatrician may be able to work with you to figure out strategies for dealing with hitting, or pinpoint an underlying cause.

  • Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian. “Aggressive Behavior in Toddlers.” Zero to Three. ZERO TO THREE: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, February 1 2016. Web.
  • Laura Markham. “21 month old hitting other kids.” AhaParenting. Dr. Laura Markham, 2016. Web.
  • “Q&A: Toddler and Hitting: My Son Hits and Pushes Other Kids.” The Next Family. The Next Family, April 29 2011. Web.
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