“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.
Why do toddlers hit?
How can I discourage hitting?
- 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.
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.