How to Stop a Toddler From Hitting

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

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, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Richmond, Virginia, and former chair of the National Parenting Education Network.

Here are some of the reasons that your toddler act aggressively, along with tips from our experts on how to stop the hitting.

Why Toddlers Hit

Toddlers may not realize that hitting can hurt, and that's probably in part because of the fact that they don't fully develop a sense of compassion until about age 3. Even if your child grasps the idea, they may not be able to restrain themselves when they're around other kids (1-year-olds have almost no impulse control). They also don't fully understand their own emotions, let alone anyone else's, so it's unlikely they would deliberately upset someone.

Their reasons for hitting are innocent enough—and usually fall into one of the following categories.

They're trying to communicate

Like everyone else, toddlers get bored, hungry, tired, and overwhelmed. The difference is they lack the verbal skills to identify and communicate these emotions, which can make them even more frustrated.

"Since your toddler's vocabulary isn't fully developed yet, they're more likely to use their body to show their feelings or to strike back in disagreement," says Miriam Schechter, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York.

They're defending their turf

You've probably noticed that your little one hits more often when they're on the playground or at a playdate. This may be because they are around other children who grab their toys, push them down, or simply invade their space—and who might not hear your kid yelling, "Stop!" or "Mine!" The anger or disappointment your child feels is hard for them to rein in.

They're having a bad day

When your toddler has an off day, they may simply lash out because they're cranky and don'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.

angry toddler boy
Sarah Noda/shutterstock.com

They're imitating someone else

Your child may have seen an older sibling play-fighting with a pal and want to do it, too. "For some children, there's a trial-and-error factor," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta. "They see another person hitting and think, 'Hmm, let's see how that feels.'"

They're naturally temperamental

Some children are just born with a personality that's less easygoing, and they like to lead with their fists or teeth. "A lot comes down to temperament," explains child psychiatrist Stanley Turecki, M.D., author of The Difficult Child. Some kids easily shake things off, while others go into street-fighter mode.

They're trying new things

Toddlers constantly ask themselves, "If I do this, what will happen?" That carries over into their dealings with others, says Theodore Dix, Ph.D., associate professor emeritus 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 explains.

They need their space

Toddlers don't have a good grasp of spatial relations. If they are feeling crowded or cornered by other kids in a small area, they may try to hit (or claw or bite) their way out.

How to Stop It

When your child lashes out physically, address the behavior right away. Get down on their level, look them in the eye, and say in a calm, firm voice, "It's OK to be mad/frustrated/upset; it's not OK to hit." That's all you need: Validate the emotion (it's OK to feel their feelings) and hold the boundary (but it's not OK to express their feelings through aggressive behavior).

Lengthier explanations are often lost on toddlers and may backfire because they may learn to equate being aggressive with getting attention. If they hit again, remove them from the situation. You can even hold their hands and say, "I will not let you hit."

"When you discipline your kid every time [they hit, they'll] learn that there's no excuse for violence," says Dr. Schechter.

Here are some other ways to handle a hitting episode.

Pinpoint the reason

Try to figure out what has upset your toddler enough to make them hit. Are they annoyed they can't find a favorite toy? Bothered by someone in their space? Do they need a snack? Give them the words to articulate what they're feeling. If they slap a sippy cup of water off the table because they secretly want milk, help them convey that. You might say, "You want milk! Say, 'milk.'"

Be proactive

Take note of which situations lead your child to hit others, and try to preempt them. Do they strike when they're tired or hungry, when they're feeling crowded, or when they have to leave a friend's house? These are common triggers for kids, says Elena Labrada, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Menlo Park, California.

Sidestep them with a little pre-planning: Make sure your toddler takes regular naps, keep snacks at the ready, and prepare them for transitions. Get creative when you plan ahead, too: If they lash out because they always want their playmate's favorite toy, for example, ask if they can put the toy in question away before the next playdate.

Try not to lose it

Some kids believe that any attention beats no attention at all. If you freak out when your child does something wrong, they may be intrigued ("Wow, Mommy/Daddy went crazy!") and feel motivated to act up to get a reaction.

Show empathy

When your child feels anger or frustration, label these emotions for them. Say, "You look like you're mad that Sam took the yellow bus," or "Are you upset that Mommy won't let you climb onto the coffee table?" Employing positive reinforcement (praising your child when they share a toy, or use a gentle touch) inspires better behavior.

Tie their actions to others' feelings

Toddlers have a limited understanding of how their behavior affects others. Your child needs to understand how their friend felt when they got hit. Say, "That hurt Sam and made him feel bad." Tell them you know that they are having a hard time, but hitting someone is never the right thing to do.

Practice problem-solving

Use imaginary play to help your child learn to resolve sticky situations. Pretend you are a toddler who has taken their favorite toy and teach your child what to say in response ("That's my toy—please give it back"). If that doesn't work, tell your little one to ask an adult for help. Act out these scenes often enough that the lessons sink in.

Distract them

Ease the tension between children by introducing another toy or game. "Distracting kids with a new activity is often the easiest way to diffuse a dispute," says Erin Floyd, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Lilburn, Georgia.

If they're fighting over a toy, give them a minute to see if they can resolve the conflict first. If it starts to escalate into hitting, say, "If you can't take turns, I will put the toy away and we can try again later." Don't let your child keep a plaything that they've snatched aggressively. By making them give it back, you're letting them know that being rough won't get them what they want.

Monitor their media consumption

It's important to be aware of everything your child watches—even cartoons—to make sure their shows don't contain 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

Experts say that spanking is never appropriate, but especially not for a 1-year-old. "At this age, your child is developmentally unable to connect you hitting [them]—however gently—with anything that [they] may have done," says Dr. Turecki.

If you're tempted to meet your toddler's aggressive behavior with spanking, consider how confusing it is to be told that hitting isn't OK and then get hit as punishment.

The Bottom Line

While it can be worrying when your toddler hits someone else, try to remember that there's no malicious intent behind it. Your little one means well—they just need to learn better ways to express their feelings, which will happen in time. "Toddlers go through these stages for a month or two," explains Dr. Turecki. "Anything that is short-lived is usually nothing to worry about."

Additional reporting by Karen J. Bannan ,
and Marietta Brill
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