Does your toddler start swinging his fists at the first sign of frustration? Here's how to handle a little slugger.

By Megan Mattes, Karen J. Bannan, Denise Schipani, and Marietta Brill
Updated May 21, 2020
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Few things can make you second guess your parenting skills more than seeing your toddler whack another kid. But while this behavior may be mortifying, it’s not your fault, and it doesn’t mean your child will grow up to be a bully. "I call toddlerhood the ‘hitting stage’ of development because this behavior can be common in children between 1 and 2 years old," says Deborah Glasser Schenck, Ph.D., director of Family Support Services at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale.

Keep reading to learn about the reasons behind the aggression, with tips on how to get your toddler to stop hitting.

Causes of Toddler Hitting

Toddlers may not realize that hitting can hurt, because a sense of compassion isn't completely in place until about age 3. Even if your child grasps the idea, she may not be able to restrain herself—1-year-olds have almost no impulse control. 

"Toddlers don't yet fully understand their emotions or anyone else's, so they don't intentionally hurt someone's feelings," says Edward Carr, PhD, leading professor in the department of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Their reasons for hitting are innocent enough—and they usually fall into one of these categories.

She’s trying to communicate. Like everyone else, toddlers get bored, hungry, tired, and overwhelmed. The difference is they lack the verbal skills to communicate these emotions, which can make them even more frustrated. "Since your toddler's vocabulary isn't fully developed yet, she's more likely to use her body to show her feelings or to strike back in disagreement," says Miriam Schechter, M.D., a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in the Bronx, New York.

He’s defending his turf. You've probably noticed that your child hits more often on the playground or at a playdate. The reason? He's surrounded by a bunch of kids who grab his toys, push him down, or simply invade his space—and they don't necessarily listen when he tells them "Stop!" or "Mine!" Not acting out in anger requires impulse control, which kids don't fully master until they're older.

She’s having a bad day. When your toddler has an off day, he may simply lash out because he's cranky and doesn't have many coping skills. "Even kids who don't hit or bite often can lose control when they're stressed or at the end of a long day," says Dr. Schechter.

He’s imitating someone else. Your child may have seen his older sibling and his pal punching it out, and now he wants in on the action. "For some children, there's a trial-and-error factor," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta. "They see another person hitting and think, 'Hmm, let's see how that feels.'" 

She’s temperamental by nature. Some children—those who are less easy-going by nature—are predisposed to leading with their fists or teeth. "A lot comes down to temperament," explains child psychiatrist Stanley Turecki, M.D., author of The Difficult Child. While some kids will just shrug and move on when someone snatches Elmo out of their hands, others go into street-fighter mode

He’s trying new things. Toddlers like testing cause and effect—"If I do this, what will happen?" They're also using the only tools they have, says Theodore Dix, PhD, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. "They don't have the skills to get what they want in a reasonable way, so they may act pushy or overly defiant," he says.

She needs her space. Toddlers don't have a good grasp of spatial relations. So they often find themselves cornered in a small area, too close to other kids. As a reflex, they try to hit (or claw or bite) their way out.

Solutions for Toddler Hitting

The way you react to your child's lashing out is the key to nipping it in the bud. Here’s a general guideline: Get down on his level, look him in the eye, and say in a calm, stern voice, "No hitting. Hitting hurts." Over-explaining is lost on little ones and may backfire. The more you engage your child in discussion, the more attention she gets from being aggressive.

If he hits again, remove him from the situation and put him in a one-minute time-out, suggests Dr. Schechter. "When you discipline your kid every time he hits, he'll learn that there's no excuse for violence," she says.

Here are nine more tips for how to discipline a toddler who hits.

Pinpoint the reason. Pinpointing the reason why your toddler is upset can be tough at this age: Is she hitting because she's annoyed she can't find her favorite toy? Or does she want a snack? Help her put words to her gestures. If she slaps at the sippy cup of juice because it's not what she wants, for example, respond, "You want milk! Say, 'milk.'"

Prevent a hitting incident. 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.

Try not to lose it. Some kids believe that any kind of attention beats no attention at all. So if you freak out when your child does something wrong, she'll be intrigued ("Wow, Mommy went crazy!") and she'll have incentive to act up again.

Show some empathy. Your child can't really understand her feelings of anger or frustration at this age, but it's still a good idea to label these emotions for her. Try saying, "You must be so mad that Sam took the yellow bus," or, "I'll bet you're angry that Mommy won't let you climb onto the coffee table." At the same time, employing positive reinforcement—such as praising your child when she shares a toy or uses a gentle touch—will inspire better behavior down the road.

Tie kids' actions to other people's feelings. Toddlers have a limited understanding of how their behavior affects others. Your child needs to know how his friend felt when he got hit. Say, "That hurt Sam and made him feel bad." Tell him you know it's hard to share, but hitting someone is not the right thing to do.

Teach problem-solving skills. Use imaginary play to help your child learn positive ways to resolve a sticky situation. You might pretend to be another child who has taken your toddler's favorite toy. Teach him how to use his words ("That's my toy—please give it back"), and if that doesn't work, tell him he should ask an adult for help. Act out these scenes often so that the lessons sink in. 

Implement a distraction. You can ease tension by introducing another toy or game. "Distracting the kids with a new activity is often the easiest way to diffuse a dispute," says Erin Floyd, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Atlanta. If kids are fighting over a toy, give it a minute to see whether they can resolve the conflict on their own. But when it looks like it's going to escalate into hitting, say: "If you can't take turns, I have to take the truck away." And don't let your child keep a plaything that he's snatched aggressively. By making him give it back, you're letting him know that being rough won't get him what he wants.

Monitor his media consumption. It's important to monitor everything your child watches—even cartoons—to make sure the programs don't contain any violence. Researchers have found that children who are exposed to violent images in the media are more likely to be aggressive themselves.

Don’t hit your child. Even if you believe that spanking is appropriate discipline for an older child, you should never spank a 1-year-old. "At this age, your child is developmentally unable to connect your hitting him, however gently, with anything that he may have done," explains Dr. Turecki.

The Bottom Line

Remember that there's no malicious intent when a toddler hits. Your little one means well—she just needs to learn better ways to express her needs and wants, which will happen in time. "Toddlers go through these stages for a month or two," says Dr. Turecki. "Anything that is short-lived is usually nothing to worry about."

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