Expert Reviewed by Staci Perry, MS Clinical Mental Health Counseling
Having a toddler hitting is hard. It’s unfortunate how it unfolds. One day our cute child is playing with another toddler, and wham! Your toddler hits the other child.
For seemingly no reason.
Or maybe you upset your child because you gave them a blue cup instead a green one, and then your toddler hits you.
It’s easy to feel like we are doing something wrong as parents. I mean, no one wants a toddler who hits. Luckily, this is usually just a passing phase as long as you are appropriately addressing your toddler’s hitting.
Our oldest is currently three, and we luckily only dealt with intense hitting for about a month. Unfortunately, this goes on much longer for some parents.
I have also worked with kid’s that were in state custody for a variety of reasons, so I have dealt with both ends of the spectrum when it comes to a toddler hitting – sometimes for no apparent reason.
We had no idea how to deal with it when our oldest started hitting. I ended up reading a lot of books, and listened to a lot of podcasts. I talked to experts and family members and experimented with different tactics.
How to React in the Moment When Your Toddler Hits
Understanding Why Your Toddler is Hitting
Toddler Experimental Hitting
My Toddler is Hitting Because of a Sensory Processing Disorder
When Your Toddler Hits When They Are Angry
How to Deal With a Toddler Hitting at Daycare
How to Discipline a Toddler that Hits
When to Worry About Your Toddler that Hits
WHY DO TODDLERS HIT?
Toddlers hit for a variety of reasons. The important thing to understand is regardless of the reasoning of your toddler hitting, your child is not hitting you to hurt you.
Before you figure out why your toddler is hitting, it’s important to answer a few questions.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What situations seem to trigger a physical (hitting) response in your child?
- What is it about these situations that is upsetting to your toddler?
- What has been your reaction in the past?
These questions are important and very relevant to the reasoning behind why you have a toddler who hits. Remember, behavior has a purpose. We’ll get more specific about why your toddler is hitting below.
HOW TO REACT IN THE MOMENT TO TODDLER HITTING
Before we get too deep into why toddler’s hit, it is important to know at a high level what you can do when your toddler is hitting. It can be extremely difficult to react appropriately when the arms are flying.
That moment when your sweet child takes their first swing, it’s pretty common that we don’t respond “appropriately”. For us – it took me completely off guard.
You could say I didn’t handle it well.
Nobody is perfect, but you can certainly do better the next go-around. Here are some practical steps you can follow in the moment to make sure you are handling your toddler hitting the right way.
Gently move their arm away from whomever your toddler is hitting and say “hitting hurts, I won’t let you hit”.
Let’s dissect this sentence a little.
Keep in mind that your little toddler doesn’t have a good handle on empathy, so it’s unlikely they will feel sorry for hurting someone. They don’t understand that they are hurting someone!
“I won’t let you hit”
Boundaries are an important lesson for your toddler to learn, and especially in this case. Boundaries not only teach your child about right and wrong, but they also help make your child feel safer.
Some toddlers will continue to experiment and push you until they figure out where that boundary is.
While they want their independence, they also want to feel secure in knowing that you will stop them when what they are doing is no longer safe.
That’s why this line is perfect. Drawing that boundary (“I won’t let you hit”) is effective (and SUPER important). Telling them that it’s painful will give the situation more context.
UNDERSTANDING WHY YOUR TODDLER IS HITTING
Keep in mind that the tactic I’ve described above is a general approach that may save you in the moment from reacting poorly to your toddler hitting. For many toddlers, labeling the impact and holding the boundary will be enough.
TODDLER EXPERIMENTAL HITTING
If you have a toddler who hits someone for no reason at all–this section is for you.
If you have a toddler who thinks hitting is funny, it’s hard to be empathetic of their “exploration” of feelings.
Trust me – I get it.
I remember working with a toddler who would break out in hysterical laughter when he smacked another child who then yelped and started crying.
At the time, I was disgusted that he seemed to get some sort of evil pleasure out of it (maybe that’s a little dramatic–but seriously!)
If this situation sounds familiar at all to you (regardless if it’s your own or another parent’s child) it’s important to remember something.
That toddler is most likely not hitting because they want to cause intentional harm, they are hitting because of the reaction they got.
It really is as simple as that.
Your toddler has to learn about the world through trial and error. They triangulate rewarding behavior by dropping an action into the pond to see where and how far the ripples go.
Where most of that feedback will come from you as a parent, they also want and need to engage with others.
If you give your toddler a great deal of attention after a hitting episode, they are going to be curious to try it again.
MY TODDLER IS HITTING BECAUSE OF A SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER
Dealing with a sensory processing disorder is tough.
If your child is exhibiting a lot of atypical behaviors – it’s worth getting into the doctor, as these can be an indication of sensory processing problems. Some of the more common things parents notice things such as an aversion to lights, sounds, or clothing that they claim is irritating/tight.
These toddlers’ temper tantrums are intense, prolonged, and often brought on by stimulation.
A sensory processing disorder is serious, and can often make it difficult for your child to be successful. These children usually suffer from social, emotional, and education problems.
Different mental health issues like depression and aggression can follow, so it’s important to deal with this if you suspect your child may suffer from it.
HOW TO DEAL WITH A SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER AND HITTING
It’s important to understand your toddler’s triggers. If they become very overwhelmed by a trip to the store and THIS seems to trigger hitting, brainstorm what can be done to help them remain calm in these situations.
Perhaps it’s easier for your child to go to the store very early in the morning when they are refreshed and the store isn’t busy. If squeezing a stress ball is calming to them, allow them to bring one in the store.
Once you examine the triggers, this will help you effectively avoid the meltdowns (and the hitting) as much as possible.
Even if you try and avoid situations that cause toddler hitting, there will be times when there is no avoiding situations where your little one feels triggered.
After effectively restraining them and after they have calmed down, it’s time to talk them through the emotions. Help them understand that hitting is not an acceptable response, and teach them the words to use instead.
If your toddler is struggling with speech, practice the facial expressions. Scrunch up your face and tell them that it is an expression of anger. If they are unable to use their words, give them a way that they can express themselves without becoming violent.
WHEN YOUR TODDLER HITS WHEN THEY ARE ANGRY
A toddler hitting parents during tantrums can be difficult to deal with. This kind of hitting feels a little more personal, as you know your child is hitting because they are upset with YOU, not because they are “experimenting”.
The important thing to understand is that your toddler is impulsive and doesn’t know how to express their emotions appropriately.
Because they are impulsive, they are not able to exercise self-control to stop themselves from acting out their feelings.
Toddlers are a boiling pot of emotion, and those feelings are big and scary to your toddler. Knowledge is power, but your little one doesn’t understand what’s going on inside them.
This is an important thing to remember, as it can change your entire approach on dealing with your toddler’s behavior.
Hitting you is a way for them to try and express these big emotions they are having because they don’t know any other way to self-regulate. We all know how comforting it can be to hit a pillow when we are really angry.
This is where thinking about your toddler hitting situationally is helpful. Is your child hungry? Tired? Overstimulated?
All of these things can contribute to your child’s behavior. Remember they don’t know how to handle their emotions right now.
Hitting is a release of energy and a way they are choosing to cope.
HOW TO DEAL WITH A TODDLER HITTING WHEN HAVING A TEMPER TANTRUM
To deal with a toddler who hits parents when throwing a tantrum, it’s important to stay calm.
Being reactive can only make the issue worse, and your child may be prone to hitting again because they want to understand your reaction.
They don’t SEE that they’ve done anything wrong—they are just dealing with their emotions the only way they know how.
As I said before, the first step is to deal with your hitting toddler in the moment. Catch their arm gently, and calmly tell them “hitting hurts, I won’t let you hit”.
Let them calm down. If they are angry, they will be unwilling and/or unable to reason with you (not that reasoning with a toddler is ever easy!)
Unfortunately, these kinds of meltdowns tend to happen in public, so it may mean finding a quiet corner in the grocery store or retiring to an isolated section of the park. Don’t try and talk to them, just be present and available for once they are calm.
If they are being violent to themselves or others, you need to step in. Don’t allow for anyone to get hurt, even though this will likely upset your child even more.
Our three-year-old is deep amid her temper tantrum stage. We have taught her to let us know when she is feeling upset, and she will now let us know that she needs some space if she’s getting upset. (Which by the way – a three-year-old telling you they need some space is pretty adorable!)
When she does end up having a meltdown, she exhibits her anger through screaming. Although she is no longer hitting, she definitely has a great pair of lungs.
We have started to take her into her room and sitting with her. We are present and available once she’s ready to talk.
Remember, a toddler is NOT capable of emotional regulation, so you are NOT doing them any favors leaving them to figure it out themselves. Also remember that forced isolation is NOT appropriate and can end up making your child feel that you only want to be around them when they are happy.
Eventually your angry toddler will calm down.
Once they are calm enough to talk, help talk through the emotions they are feeling. Empathize and say things like “it seemed like you were pretty angry that I wouldn’t let you eat fruit snacks for lunch. I can see why that is hard for you”.
Don’t attach threats to this, just acknowledge and validate their feelings.
After this, it’s a good idea to let them know again that you will not allow them to hit themselves or anyone else. If this behavior continues – natural consequences should happen.
If your toddler is hitting at daycare, let them know that if they continue to hit, they will not be able to go to daycare anymore. If they are hitting you in public, they will have to go home.
HOW TO DEAL WITH A TODDLER HITTING AT DAYCARE
In daycare, your toddler hitting could mean a one-way ticket out the door—so it definitely has some serious implications.
Spend a couple of days going with your child to daycare (if you can!). I know that’s not a possibility for ALL parents, but it will give you the BEST idea about what’s going on while they are there.
Once you can understand the trigger, you can solve for it.
If you aren’t able to go to your child’s daycare, ask yourself and your daycare provider some probing questions. What’s going on when your child hits another?
Does your child hit when they haven’t slept well the night before? Who else is involved in these situations?
Once you can understand when the behavior is happening, you can decide if it’s something you can do something about.
Also make sure and talk with your daycare provider about how they handle a toddler who hits at daycare. Do they force a timeout? Do they react angrily?
If the daycare provider is unable to discipline your child the way you would prefer, it may be time to consider another daycare. There are other bad daycare provider signs you should watch out for, and bad discipline practice is one of them.
Although you may decide to change daycare providers, keep in mind that some things you do at home are simply not possible in a daycare center. They may not be able to sit with your child during a meltdown until they are calm.
HOW TO DISCIPLINE A TODDLER THAT HITS
If you have a problem with your toddler hitting, the responsibility lands on you to decide how best to discipline your child. Handling this the incorrect way can be incredibly detrimental, which is why you must tread carefully.
Boundaries are important to establish – especially if you’re dealing with a toddler who hits. Be firm and don’t waver with these. If you seem unsure about yourself or change the boundaries, this is only going to confuse your toddler and make an unsafe environment for them.
Example: I will not let you hit me, hitting hurts.
Make sure your toddler knows that their feelings of anger/excitement/frustration are valid.
Even though it’s sometimes hard to take your toddler seriously when they are upset that you won’t let them have a sip of wine, be understanding of why that’s frustrating for them. On that note-it’s important to not make assumptions about how they are feeling.
Example: You seem pretty upset right now. I can see why it’s frustrating that you can’t paint right now, but I will not allow you to hit. Are you angry?
FOCUS ON THE BEHAVIOR
We want to help our toddler learn positive ways to manage their emotions. If you tell your toddler they are a bad child for hitting, they can internalize this.
You can bet that your toddler wants your love and approval, so instead of saying your child is bad, talk about why the behavior is unacceptable and show how much you love and care for them.
ENACT NATURAL CONSEQUENCES
If your toddler is hitting others, it’s important to make sure they understand the natural consequence that goes along with that. We don’t like to spend time with friends that hit us. Make sure your toddler knows that hitting will mean that we have to go home and we can’t play with our friends.
Remember, yelling creates drama which increases the likelihood that your child will hit again. They are curious about your reaction and may try and recreate the situation.
If you don’t act immediately, it’s unlikely that your toddler will be able to connect your consequence with their earlier behavior. If you miss the chance to act immediately after your toddler hits, wait and see if it happens again. If it does, act faster.
There are some parents who believe that we should follow the Golden Rule—to an extreme. If our toddler hits us, we should hit them back, right?
This is absolutely one of the worst things you could do for your toddler. Not only are you teaching them that it’s actually okay to hurt others who hurt us, but you are wrecking the trust in your relationship too.
WHEN TO WORRY ABOUT YOUR TODDLER HITTING
First, keep in mind that toddler hitting is a totally developmentally appropriate thing for your child. Other forms of aggression are also normal, as your child WILL likely express themselves physically when they don’t know how to do so verbally.
If you feel that your toddler’s aggression seems abnormal, start writing down the instances where it happens. How long do the episodes last? What happens during the episodes? What causes the violent outbursts?
Abnormal aggression CAN be a sign of stress, behavioral issues, or genetic problems. It’s not something to ignore, but it’s worth critically examining whether the behavior is actually abnormal.
For most parents, this is a fleeting (if exhausting) time in the life of toddlerhood.
Stay calm, proactive, and positive. Your toddler will likely make it to the other side without (hopefully) many scars to bear.
Have you dealt with your toddler hitting? I would love to hear about what has worked for you in the comment section below.