The key for parents, of course, is prevention. Observe what spurs your child to smack, slap, or punch, and then act preemptively. "Ask yourself, Does he strike when he's tired or hungry, when he's in a large group, or when he has to make transitions?" suggests Elena Labrada, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Menlo Park, California. Make sure he takes routine naps, pack snacks if necessary, and prepare him for transitions. If your son has hit in the past because he wanted a friend's favorite toy, for instance, ask the other child's mother to put the toy away during visits.
But nothing you do will prevent your child from hitting completely. So when it occurs, it's important not to overreact. Parents who respond by yelling or hitting back, Dr. Labrada says, may be encouraging the behavior because their response suggests that aggression is an appropriate way to solve a conflict and get attention. And in disciplinary terms, it's wasted energy. "A 1-year-old won't make the connection between his actions and yours," she says, adding, "For the same reason, time-outs are pointless for the under-2 crowd."