- Toddlers hit when they are unable to control their impulses or express their feelings well enough with language
- Toddlers can also hit when unprovoked, for example, when exploring consequences and testing boundaries
- Learning your toddler’s triggers and tells can help you prevent hitting
- When your toddler hits, you can choose to restrain them safely, remove them from the situation or offer comfort
- Smacking or reacting with anger is what not to do when your toddler hits
Has your toddler been hitting, scratching, pinching or kicking?
It can be worrying, frustrating and sometimes downright embarrassing. And you might have been given a host of advice from those around you, like “just pinch them back” or “don’t worry, they all do it.”
But, it isn’t one of those things you just have to “put up with until it passes” and you certainly shouldn’t react aggressively in order to get them to stop doing it.
Instead, there are strategies you can use to teach them hitting (and other acts of aggression) aren’t appropriate behaviour and set them on the right track for future interactions - with their peers, siblings and you.
Why do toddlers hit?
You could say that toddlers are more prone to aggressive behaviours like hitting for a few reasons. Firstly, toddlers lack the ability to control their impulses . This ability is something that develops over time. Often, they really just can’t help themselves, and it’s not because they have the will to harm others, it’s purely developmental.
Secondly, toddlers are only just starting to develop empathy . It’s hard for them to understand how their hitting might hurt someone else, because they can’t really share in the feelings of others yet.
Finally, toddlers might not be speaking well enough to communicate what they want. Even the most tuned-in parent doesn’t get it right all the time. You know that feeling when you’ve just told your partner something important and they didn’t listen at all, so you have to repeat yourself? It’s frustrating, right? Well, toddlers don’t have all the tools that you do to deal with their frustration. So, sometimes they lash out.
You can see that often toddlers hit in frustration or in an attempt to get what they want.
But, sometimes hitting can seem like it’s unprovoked. There might not be an apparent reason for why they are hitting or otherwise acting aggressively.
Interestingly, a study found that unprovoked hitting could be a result of exploring consequences, or experimenting in others words. For example, what happens when they hit their little brother? Or, what happens when they use more force than is necessary when playing with a friend?
Toddlers test boundaries as part of their development. In these instances, they are testing the boundaries of physical touch. Luckily, these unprovoked acts tend to decrease in the toddler’s second year .
What are your toddler’s triggers and tells?
The first part of learning what to do when your toddler hits requires you to look at instances of hitting more deeply.
Can you pinpoint situations when your child usually hits? For example, do they hit out if someone else picks up their lovey, or do they hit you if you pick them up because they aren’t following your instructions (like holding your hand on a walk)? If you can’t recall right now, try making a list each time it happens for the next few days and see if you can identify some common triggers .
As well as triggers, your toddler might have an obvious “tell.” Does your child do something that precedes the hitting, like growling or getting a certain set to their jaw? See if you can identify it, and you might be able to spot instances of aggression coming.
This little bit of foresight may give you the opportunity to intervene before the hitting begins - whether to redirect them, talk through their emotions or physically remove them from the situation.
Now, let’s look in-depth at some strategies for preventing and controlling hitting.
How to prevent your toddler hitting
At every opportunity, you should be modeling alternative (and non-violent) ways of dealing with frustration so that your toddler can see them in action. Don’t just “do” though, also explain it to your child as it happens.
This isn’t something that will click into place for them overnight. But remember you’re playing the long game. So start working on it now to prevent hitting in the future - and you can also use one of the more immediate strategies below in conjunction.
What to do straight away when your toddler hits
There are several options when it comes to dealing with hitting as it happens. Choose what you believe is most suitable for your child’s temperament and your parenting style.
Safely restrain them
When your toddler is violently lashing out, you may wish to physically restrain them in a firm embrace. This must only be done in a calm manner to prevent them hurting others or themselves.
You should quietly explain why you are doing it so they understand what is happening and give a simple explanation of why their behaviour is unacceptable . You might say “in our family, we do not hit.”
Always model patience, be firm and look them in the eye. Once they have calmed too, release them gently and redirect them to another activity.
If they are hitting because they are struggling to deal with their big emotions, you can offer to comfort them. A big hug may be the release they need. And the more you show your support for them and build a deep bond, the more success you’ll have in teaching them how to process their feelings.
Remove from the situation
This one is best if your toddler is hitting their peers in a public setting. It may seem drastic, but leaving a situation sends a clear message to your toddler that hitting isn’t acceptable behaviour and halts it immediately.
Be sure to explain to them exactly why you are leaving. In some instances you may not have to leave entirely, but can seek privacy to deal with the hitting , particularly if it is part of a tantrum. If your toddler is melting down in public, the last thing they (and you) probably want is to have all eyes on you as you deal with the situation. Seeking privacy therefore helps in three ways:
- You don’t have to deal with embarrassment or the expectations of others as you help your child through their tantrum.
- Their dignity doesn’t suffer any further than it already has.
- Physically removing your toddler from the situation triggering their tantrum may help them calm down faster.
Re-direct rather than control
Perhaps most useful with younger toddlers, redirecting can help distract them from their urge to hit. Gently take the hitting hand, demonstrate “gentle hands” and then move them onto another activity or toy. It’s important to make sure that hitting isn’t getting them more attention than they get for positive behaviour though. Otherwise this may reinforce it.
What are the contributing factors to toddlers hitting others?
There are often contributing factors for when a toddler will turn to violence . If you can address these general wellbeing requirements, you may find their hitting naturally decreases.
- They need your attention and aren’t getting it.
Do you find yourself a little too distracted by electronic devices? It happens easily enough. In this case, your toddler may escalate their own behaviour to draw your attention away from the devices.
- They need more active displays of love.
Try giving more hugs! Even arm to arm or leg to leg contact when sitting beside them can help to build deep bonds.
- Unpredictable days.
Toddlers need structure to ensure their needs are met (for playing, eating and sleeping) but also to help them feel safe. Factors like hunger, tiredness and boredom can have enormous repercussions on toddler behaviour.
- Not giving them a say/too much choice.
Giving small yet reasonable choices can help toddlers exert their independence and feel like they have some control over their world, without overwhelming them with too many options. For example, you could ask “would you like bananas or strawberries?” “Would you like to wear the brown shoes or the blue shoes?”
- Not getting enough physical play and fresh air.
Toddlers need 3 hours of physical activity each day , with at least some of that spent outside. They have plenty of energy to expend, so need the opportunity to do it in a healthy manner.
What not to do when your toddler hits
You should never use anger or forceful punishment to control your child. Research has shown that “ spanking predicts a deterioration of children’s externalizing behavior over time.” In fact, one study found that “among white non-Hispanic children spanking frequency before age 2 is significantly and positively associated with child behavior problems at school age.”
You should also not let other people’s expectations get in the way of how you want to parent your child. You need to be consistent in what you do when your toddler hits so that they learn it is unacceptable.