Toddler hitting is a challenge, no matter who they are hitting. The baby sitter, their little baby brother or sister, dad, mom, grandparents.
For the parent, toddler hitting brings out a lot of feelings. Hurt/pain (especially when you really get nailed), frustration (because the behavior won’t stop) and also embarrassment, as other people see your child acting in a way that is so contrary to society’s approved behaviors.
As an initial matter, you should know that toddler hitting is normal, and many toddlers do it. It is not something that you should feel ashamed of. And the truth is, the greater intensity that you respond to the hitting behavior is probably a factor is why the hitting continues to reoccur, despite your best efforts to curb it.
Toddler hitting doesn’t have to be a sign that there is something wrong with your child, that he is not normal, or that you are a bad parent who did something to cause him to hit.
However, remember, toddlers emulate behavior they see.
Kids try out the behavior they observe other people engaging in, whether it is kids their own size or adults. If you are struggling with a child that hits (of any age), the first step to stopping that behavior is to model the behavior you want to see.
Spanking a toddler or other aged child is the choice of the parents. However, if hitting is a problem, and you are spanking your child, think about how confusing that would be for him. Small children struggle to understand concepts of right versus wrong, or ethics/morals. They don’t understand that there are things adults get to do that children do not.
They just notice a behavior, an action, a thing that happened, and then will naturally want to explore that behavior.
If your child is hitting, and has experiences where he is hit for discipline or sees other kids getting hit for discipline, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he would test out that behavior.
Aside from spanking for discipline, kids will see hitting happening amongst older siblings, around the playground, at day care, on their screens. If hitting is an issue, keep an eye on where it is that he is observing these physicals acts to see if you can reduce his exposure to it.
How you react is really key.
Next, after you have addressed the modeling component of changing his behavior, the next thing you need to do is address how you respond to the hitting.
What you do is separate and apart from the energy that you exude as you go about it. Above all, kids need their adults (their leaders) to be calm and in control as much as possible, even in the face of their tantrums and troubles.
When a child hits you, it may “trigger” you. For me, when a child hits me in the face, especially with a toy, I am immediately annoyed, and even angered. It is hard for me to control my face and tone as I deal with them in response.
I’m not saying that you have to be sunny and happy when a child hits you. I think it is appropriate to put on a more serious face to deal with hitting, as responding with a happy face makes no sense whatsoever, and does nothing to convey to the child that hitting is not cool at all.
But I do think that in my own experience, I have better results dealing with my toddlers when I put on a serious but calm face, especially when hitting. I don’t yell, or even raise my voice. Now, if I have to stop my child from hurting someone but using my voice because I am too far away from him to stop him, then I will do that. But once the threat is over, I don’t raise my voice any more.
Further, when the hitting occurs, I maintain that facade of cool and calm, even if I am not cool and calm at all. And I strive to maintain that response consistently, regardless of what they do.
Your calm response communicates loads to your child. Children are constantly testing. They want to see what happens in the world when they do something, good, bad, ugly. Think of their behavior like little experiments. If they run and experiment and get some data, they’ll run the experiment again to see if the data is the same. It the experiment is run several times and the data is the same, they’ll move on to a different experiment. But if the data varies from experiment to experiment, it will encourage them to continue to test things out until the data becomes consistent. This is especially true with emotional responses. How will mom respond if I do this? How will mom respond if I do this?
If you respond calmly to your child’s experiments, he is more likely to move on to something else, though it might be even more aggravating than the hitting.
Now that you’ve got your cool…
The next thing is to set the limit for the behavior. I have been following Janet Lansbury and her book No Bad Kids for years now. She talks a lot of about calm leadership, and about how to effectively set limits when our toddlers are testing us (as described above). When my first son started hitting, I followed her advice, and found it to be really effective.
She advises that when a child hits or tries to hit, the best thing to do is to set a clear limit about hitting. Meaning, letting him know that it isn’t okay to hit. Start with talking to him about it. And if talking to him doesn’t help the situation (and with a young child, we shouldn’t expect it to work), then we follow through with gentle help.
For example, when my son would raise his hands to hit me, I would gently reach out and hold his hand so that he couldn’t hit me, or remove the toy that he was going to use to hit me. I would say “I’m not going to let you hit me.” If he continued to try and hit, instead of escalating the situation by threatening punishments or spanking, I’d tell him again that I wasn’t going to let him hit me, and remove myself from the position of being hit by him.
If he was deep into the game of trying to hit, or his body was completely out of control, then I would try and help him get himself back under control. Sometimes that meant putting him in my lap with my arms around his waist, or putting him into his crib for a bit to get calm so that we could talk about it. Not as a punishment, but just enough to interrupt the train of his brain.
With my kids, if nothing worked to get through to them, then it was time for me to consider why that was. Was he tired, hungry, or over stimulated? In most cases, if my son was out of control and I couldn’t set the hitting limit or move away from him, it was a sign that he was over stimulated and needed a change of scenery, such as going outside for a bit. Or he was hungry or too tired to really control his body.
Children don’t have great control over their bodies. They get out of control a lot, and many of their “behaviors” are just being out of control. Sometimes a child might be engaging in behavior you don’t like, while wildly laughing. This might indicate to you that the child is enjoying himself, or is doing it on purpose to get a rise out of you. This is our own adult thinking getting the best of us. Their brains are still-developing, and immature; they are not a mini-Musolini, out to take over and rule. The way a child expresses his feelings is often inconsistent with what is actually going on, and laughing can also be a sign that a child isn’t comfortable with what he is doing and how he is doing it. You’ll often see a child laughing after hitting, because this is the only method of expressing emotion (besides crying) that the child knows how to effectively utilize. I often observe my kids laughing when their bodies are out of control, and I step in to calmly help them get it together.
But in general, when I was calm and set the firm limit of “no hitting” during our play sessions (or at bedtime or any other time), he quickly found something else to do.
Getting too far down the road of frustration
Janet Lansbury talks a lot about how parents let behavior go on too long before trying to do something about it. In a lot of cases, we find ourselves responding to behaviors when we’ve already gotten to that triggered place. For example, my son really has a hard time getting his shoes on in the morning before school. While making lunches, I call out, “Please get your shoes on!” Then while brushing my youngest’s teeth, I call out “Please get your shoes on!” I do this again and again, and by the time I get to the front door to leave, I’m pissed off and yelling because we are late and he doesn’t have his shoes on.
Janet would probably say that while my son should have already put on his own shoes, my angry and frustration that to the level because I let them get to that level. Instead of continuing to try and manage the situation by hollering down the hall, I should have stopped what I was doing and then did what I ended up doing at the end, which was stopping to talk to my son at his level, to get the task done right now.
But instead of stopping for a minute, I let my frustration grow and grow, until I had no other real option but to act like a dragon to let out all of my energy. She talks about cutting off the growth of frustration by handling the situation much earlier.
In the hitting scenario, imagine that you are on the floor playing with your baby. She grabs a stuffie and then smacks you with it. You laugh, but smile and ask her not to do it. Then she does it again, and you smile again, and say something like, “please stop hitting, I’m serious.” It happens again and again, as you hold up your hands to protect your face. Finally, you’ve had enough, and you grab the toy and throw it in the bin angrily and then have a very stern talk with your toddler, who doesn’t even really understand what just happened.
There was no need for that hypothetical parent to let herself go down the hitting road until she was totally frustrated. In the beginning, after the first time she got hit, she should have told her toddler calmly but firmly, “I’m not going to let you hit me. If you hit me, I’m going to stand up and wash some dishes.” Then when the hitting happens, you stand up and go to the kitchen to wash some dishes. If the toddler complains (cries) about you leaving, you can go back to play with her. But if she hits you again, calmly stand up and let her know you are going into the kitchen to wash dishes.
You don’t have to let your kids hit you. And you also don’t have to respond to your child’s hitting behavior with dragon-mom behavior, which tends to leave us feeling uncomfortable and guilty, not to mention that it seems to be pretty ineffective.
What doesn’t seem to work to deal with toddler hitting
I’ve never found corporal punishment to help with toddler hitting. I also think that time-outs at this age are pretty worthless, because it makes more work for the mom and the child doesn’t really get it anyway. Taking toys away at this page doesn’t do much, and putting the child in her crib alone does little either.
Another thing that seems to be completely ineffective at this age is trying to guilt or shame the child about his hitting. If anything, it just seems to make them more uncomfortable and confused about the behavior, if they understand at all what you are trying to convey to them.
The only thing that I have experienced to be effective in raising three kids through the toddler hitting stage is being super calm and confident about the hitting experiments, and to enforce set limits quickly before things get out of hand.
Wrapping Up/Tips Summary
Hitting is challenging, especially when you have a toddler who just doesn’t quite understand what’s going on all the time. Here’s a summary of the tips that are laid out in a more narrative form above.
- Model the behavior you want to see. If there is hitting in your home, it will help to stop exposing your child to it. Spanking your child for hitting is not going to solve the hitting problem.
- Stay calm. The more you react and the stronger you react, the more your child is going to hit.
- Speak to your child about hitting, even if you don’t think your child is old enough to understand your words. (Kids understand way more than you think).
- Set clear and simple limits and enforce them in a calm, gentle manner. You can use your hands to protect yourself and to stop him from hitting, but don’t do it in an aggressive way.
- If your child continues to hit you during a play session, calmly remove yourself from his space so that he can’t hit you.
- If the hitting in the session continues despite the fact that you have moved away from the child, try changing the situation, such as going outside for a bit or moving to another room.
- If nothing else works and the hitting in the play session continues, consider that the child might be overstimulated, tired, or hungry, and end the play session.
What other methods have you considered for dealing with toddler hitting? Feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments section down below.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a full-time mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer screen when the kids are occupied or sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.