Getting hit by your toddler or seeing the child hitting other kids can be embarrassing and frustrating for parents. Many parents experience a sense of desperation, and they worry that the child’s aggression is a sign that they may have failed somehow at parenthood.
Shocking as it may be to you as a parent, aggressive behaviour is a normal part of development. Most kids hit their parents or other children at one time or another, but this doesn’t mean that you should do nothing when you see your toddler whack another kid.
It’s important to let your toddler know that aggressive behaviour is unacceptable, and help them understand that they can express their feelings in other ways.
Let’s have a look at what to do when a toddler hits.
Causes of Toddler Hitting
If you’re thinking, “my toddler hits, and I don’t know how to make it stop,” you’re certainly not alone. This is not a sign of your failure as a parent, but there are multiple reasons behind the aggression.
First, toddlers may not realize that hitting hurts the other person, mostly because their sense of compassion isn’t really in place until they are three years old. Some toddlers grasp the idea, but still can’t restrain themselves because they lack the proper level of impulse control.
Thus, because children don’t have a full understanding of emotions, they aren’t trying to hurt someone else’s feelings intentionally when they hit. In most cases, they have some obvious reasons for hitting, usually falling in one of the following categories.
Trying to communicate
Toddlers lack the verbal skills to share how they’re feeling at a particular time, which means they become frustrated when they’re hungry, bored, or tired. As such, they are using their body to express their feelings. As their vocabulary develops, they will eventually stop trying to communicate by hitting other people.
Having a bad day
Toddlers don’t have access to coping mechanisms as older children and adults do, which means that when they have an off day, they may lash out. Stressed toddlers can lose control at the end of the day, and bite or hit even though they don’t generally behave that way. Sometimes, the toddler hits himself instead of someone else, but this, too, is a way of dealing with frustration.
Defending their turf
Toddlers also lack impulse control, so if you notice that your child hits other children on a playdate or the playground. The reason is that he feels his space invaded and wants to do something about it. Because he’s dealing with other toddlers, who also lack verbal skills and may not necessarily listen when they’re told to stop touching toys, for example, your kid may resort to hitting to defend his turf.
Needing their space
This reason is closely related to defending the turf. Because toddlers lack a good grasp of spatial relations, they may often feel too close to other kids or adults, depending on the circumstances. As they feel trapped or cornered, they will try to hit or bite their way out.
Temperamental by nature
Some toddlers are less easy-going than others, and they may be predisposed to fight for what they want first. Some kids don’t tend to react violently when some other kid snatches their toy, while others go into fighting mode instantly. It has to do with their temperament and many toddlers who hit fall into this category.
Toddlers are mastering of testing the boundaries of what’s acceptable, and many of them hit other people to see if they can get away with it. Just like they want to see what happens when they paint the walls with applesauce, they also need to know what happens if they hit their sister with a stick.
What to Do When a Toddler Hits?
Knowing why a toddler hits is one thing, and making it stop is another. The good news is that it’s not necessary to see hitting as a phase that you need to wait out. There are multiple actionable steps that you can take to control toddlers who hit and prevent them from doing it again.
It’s essential to keep in mind that the way you respond to hitting is going to influence how likely the toddler is to hit you or someone else again. The discipline strategies below are easy to employ and can teach your little one better ways to handle their feelings.
Keep your temper
Perhaps the most critical reaction of them all when dealing with a toddler who hits. Shouting or hitting the child won’t change their behaviours. On the contrary, they will become more riled. Moreover, you’ll be providing them with ammunition because they’ll learn new things to try from you, such as shouting to calm someone down. Watching you control your temper is an invaluable lesson and one of the essential steps in teaching toddlers to manage their tempers.
Follow up hitting with logical consequences
As discussed above, toddlers don’t have a fully developed verbal mechanism, so just sitting them down and telling them hitting is not OK is not going to cut it in most cases. The child needs to understand that there are consequences to his actions, so skip trying to reason with them, and take action.
For example, if your little girl hit someone at the playground, take her out, but don’t leave. Sit on a bench nearby and watch the other children play. Explain to her that she can go back to play when she feels ready to without hurting anyone.
Some parents try to explain to their kids that hitting is terrible without following up with consequences. That approach generally doesn’t work because children under three years old learn best by imitating, and over-explaining is lost on them.
Get down on their level
A general guideline for dealing with toddlers who hit is to get down on their level to explain that hitting is terrible and that there are consequences for that kind of behaviour. Look your kid in the eye and keep your voice calm as you tell them that hitting hurts, and they shouldn’t do it.
Don’t engage too long in a discussion about hitting because the child will get the message that being not very pleasant brings him a lot of attention, and you don’t want that. Be concise — say that hitting hurts, tell them they won’t be allowed to play with other kids if they continue to hit. That should be enough for toddlers to receive the message.
Try not to lose your temper
If your child hits you, herself, or other people repeatedly, you might feel desperate. This may trigger angry reactions from your part, but do your best to keep it in. Some children are attention-seekers, and they believe that any kind of attention is right. They may be intrigued by your reaction when you lose your temper, and continue with the aggressive behaviour to get that reaction again.
Teach your kid the correlation between actions and other people’s feelings
Toddlers and small children have a somewhat limited understanding of the way their behaviour affects the feelings of other people. As such, it’s essential to explain to them how their friends or siblings feel when they get hit.
Say something along the lines of “That hurt your brother and made him feel bad.” You can also try to explain to the kid that even though you understand it’s challenging to share toys (insert reason for aggressive behaviour here), hitting is never the answer.
Set clear and immediate limits
When your toddler is aggressive, try to respond immediately. Don’t think that it was a one-off and overlook it, as the child will believe that’s acceptable behaviour.
So, don’t wait until he hits his sister for the third time. He should know right away that he did something wrong and that there will be consequences if he does it again. Warn the kid that he won’t be allowed to play with his siblings anymore if he goes on hitting.
Sometimes, a simple warning works. But if it doesn’t, don’t lose your temper. Instead, remove the child from the situation for a couple of minutes. Look him in the eye by going down to his level and explain that what he did is wrong. Then allow him to go back.
When dealing with aggressive behaviour, it’s vital to be consistent, which means that you should follow a single strategy. Try to react to each hitting episode the way you did before. By giving the toddler a predictable response every time, you will be able to set up a pattern that he will come to expect.
Even if the situation changes, for example, your toddler moving from hitting his siblings at home to hitting other kids on a supermarket trip, don’t lash at him because you’re embarrassed by his behaviour. Continue to apply the pattern you established, as changing strategies sends mixed signals. If people are staring and you’re embarrassed, try some light humor instead.
Don’t demand apologies
Demanding apologies from a toddler isn’t an effective way to teach them rules because they don’t grasp the concept very well. Even if they do, their apologies are often insincere, as they do it because you asked them to, not because they felt like it.
Instead of making your kid apologize for his behavior, ask him to repeat what the rules are. Even if he didn’t follow it, he would probably be happy to tell you that he knows the rule is “not hitting my brother.” By asking him to repeat the rule, you send the message that you expect a certain kind of behavior. Doing it every time he didn’t follow the rule, and it will eventually sink in.
Limit the amount of screen time
It could be tempting to allow your toddler to watch cartoons and other shows for young children, but keep in mind that they might be filled with shouting, pushing, and even hitting. Limit the screen time, particularly if your kid has already shown that he’s prone to aggression.
Guidelines differ regarding screen time, but specialists often recommend that kids under two years old should not be allowed to have any screen time at all.
Prevent a hitting incident
It’s not always possible to prevent aggressive behavior, but try to observe what triggers the kid to punch or smack another person and act proactively. The toddler may tend to strike when he’s hungry, tired, or when he’s in a large group and feels overwhelmed.
While it’s not always possible to prevent hitting incidents, make sure your kid takes routine naps if she becomes aggressive when she’s tired, for example. Or if your little boy has hit his friend in the past because he wanted to get one of their toys, ask the other kid’s mother to put that particular toy away when you’re visiting.
What NOT to Do!
When dealing with a toddler who hits, do not yell or display signs of anger, and most of all, don’t hit or spank the child. Not only will it lead to future behavioral problems, but it also sends the signal that it’s OK to hit. Whatever you do, avoid using force when dealing with your toddler.
The Bottom Line
The most important thing to remember is that toddlers don’t hit with malicious intent. They mean well, but lack the means to express their needs and wants properly, and are thus trying to get the results they want by acting aggressively.
A toddler who hits is generally nothing to worry about, as they will eventually stop doing it when they learn how to express their feelings and needs in other ways.
However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take any action at all and wait for it to pass. Follow the advice above, always try to keep your temper, and rest assured that this too will pass.