Dealing with a toddler with hitting behaviors can be challenging and concerning for parents. While this is a common occurrence in toddlers as they learn to navigate big feelings, it's essential to address this behavior promptly and effectively to promote a safe and respectful environment for both the child and others.
By understanding the underlying reasons behind their behavior and implementing gentle discipline techniques, you can help guide your child toward more positive and appropriate ways of expressing emotions.
Let’s explore some practical strategies and expert tips on how to stop a toddler from hitting.
Why Do Toddlers Hit?
Toddlers may hit others for various reasons, and understanding the underlying causes can help address and prevent the behavior effectively. Tackling the why behind the behavior can guide parents and caregivers in responding effectively and teaching alternative, more appropriate ways of expressing themselves and resolving conflicts.
They Are Testing Limits
When a toddler realizes that aggressive behavior and tantrums elicit a strong reaction from caregivers, they may resort to this behavior as a means of gaining attention, even if it’s negative. Toddlers are exploring their independence and boundaries. Hitting can be a way for them to test limits and gauge reactions.
Even if they have learned that hitting is considered “bad,” they are still learning the spectrum of good vs. bad and can be trying to test how far they can push boundaries before getting in trouble.
They Haven’t Developed Self-Control Yet
Many toddlers hit when experiencing overstimulation or sensory overload. If a child feels overwhelmed by a busy or chaotic environment, it may lead to frustration and hitting as their way to cope with the sensory overload.
Since they haven’t learned the skills to regulate their emotions, hitting just feels like a way to express themselves and try to feel better. They let their anger out physically without the skills to control their behavior. They may not even realize how unsafe hitting is without being taught.
They Don’t Know How To Process Big Feelings
Toddlers are highly observant and may mimic aggressive behavior they witness from others. If a toddler witnesses older siblings, family members, or friends hitting when upset or to get something, they may imitate this behavior, assuming it’s the normal thing to do.
Many emotions toddlers experience are new to them. They’re just getting out of babyhood and beginning to have real problems to deal with. Even if these problems may seem minor or silly to adults, it’s the first time our babies have experienced these feelings, and it can be overwhelming.
Since they have all these feelings at once and haven’t been taught the coping skills to work through them, they resort to acting out and releasing anger through the form of hitting.
They Don’t Have the Language Skills To Explain Their Emotions
Frustration is a leading cause of hitting. Toddlers may lack the verbal skills to express their needs or emotions, leading to frustration. Hitting becomes a way to release their pent-up emotions or communicate their discontent, as they have not yet learned ways to manage this new emotion.
At their stage of development, toddlers are often unable to express their complex emotions through words effectively. When overwhelmed by strong feelings such as frustration, anger, or disappointment, hitting can become an instinctive reaction. Unable to articulate their emotions verbally, they resort to physical actions to release their pent-up feelings.
How To Gently Stop a Toddler From Hitting
As caregivers, we want to be mindful of the underlying reasons and provide toddlers with alternative ways to communicate emotions. Start by evaluating the situation at hand and deciding what may be causing this specific behavior.
By encouraging and modeling appropriate communication skills, offering emotional support, and teaching them simple words or signs to express their feelings, we can help toddlers navigate their emotions without resorting to hitting.
Start With Values
When addressing toddler hitting, the first step is to establish clear values and expectations. Communicate to your child that hitting is unacceptable behavior and emphasize the importance of treating others with kindness and respect. Establish consistent boundaries and rules regarding physical aggression, ensuring your family understands the consequences of hitting.
Children often learn best when they can form a personal connection. Many social stories can help them understand from a child’s perspective, such as Leo Deals With Anger and Leo Handles No. These interactive stories model positive behaviors and acceptable social skills to set children up for success.
The goal of this is to help your child understand morals: Striking out physically is wrong. Discuss that hands are not for hitting, and ask how they would feel if they were the one being hit. This can help them understand in child-friendly terms the appropriate ways to demonstrate anger and not get what they want.
Anger isn’t a bad emotion to feel. We can emphasize how normal this is and that everyone feels angry at times. Sometimes, anger can even lead to positive results. What matters the most is how the anger is dealt with and the reaction that is given.
Model the Behavior You Want To See
Toddlers learn by observing and imitating their caregivers. Model non-violent behavior by demonstrating patience, empathy, and appropriate conflict resolution methods. Show them alternative ways to express frustration or anger through calm words, gentle touches, or using "I" statements.
By consistently modeling peaceful behavior, you provide a positive example. Remember, they’re always watching and learning from you; be intentional when these learning opportunities arise! Have follow-up conversations about how you felt and how you chose to react to re-enforce the point you were making.
Praise Non-Violent Reactions
Encourage and acknowledge your toddler's non-violent reactions to frustrating situations. When they express their emotions without resorting to hitting, offer specific praise and recognition. By reinforcing good behavior, you reinforce the idea that peaceful communication is both valued and rewarded.
Oftentimes, when dealing with hitting, we are more focused on what our child is doing wrong than what they’re doing right. It’s understandable — this is a stressful time, and we want to find a solution as quickly as possible.
Don’t underestimate the power of positive reinforcement, though. It’s just as important to praise the correct behavior as it is to correct the negative.
Give Immediate Feedback and Redirect
When a toddler hits, provide immediate feedback. Crouch down to their eye level, maintain a calm demeanor, and firmly but gently explain why hitting is unacceptable. Use simple language to help them understand their actions' consequences and how they hurt others.
After addressing the behavior, redirect their attention to a more appropriate activity or suggest alternative ways to express their emotions, such as using words or engaging in sensory play.
Consistency, patience, and positive reinforcement are key when addressing toddler hitting. By combining these strategies, you can help your child develop healthier ways to manage their emotions and interact with others.
What To Do When a Toddler Hits
When you’re in the moment, let’s talk about some specific steps to take. Consistency helps them learn that hitting will always elicit the same results.
Remove the Child From the Situation
When a child hits, the immediate response should be to remove them from the situation. This ensures the safety of others involved and creates a space for the child and those affected to calm down. Take the child aside, away from the triggering factors, and allow them to regain composure.
After removing the child from the situation, pivot their attention to a different activity or space. Engage them in a positive and distracting task that can shift their focus away from the aggressive behavior. Turning their energy toward a more appropriate and constructive activity can help prevent further instances of hitting.
The behavior has to be dealt with promptly, but a calm child will better understand what you’re teaching them. Purposeful redirection to help them calm down can ease their big emotions and provide an opportunity to talk through the behavior.
Guide Them Through Self-Regulation
Self-regulation refers to the ability to manage and control one's thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in various situations. It involves having the skills to regulate one's responses to internal and external stimuli effectively. Self-regulation is an essential skill that contributes to emotional well-being, social interactions, and self-control. It develops gradually throughout childhood and even continues to evolve into adulthood.
Assist your child in developing self-regulation skills by teaching them alternative ways to manage their emotions. Encourage deep breathing exercises, counting to ten, or using words to express their feelings. Help them recognize and label their emotions and guide them in finding healthier outlets for their frustrations.
Sensory toys can come into play here. Having a calming sensory item or activity on hand can give an anxious, overstimulated, or overwhelmed child immediate comfort and also teach them a way to self-regulate when needed.
This can be something classic, like a favorite sensory Stuffed Animal, or as purposeful as a Weighted Sensory Mat. Both provide sensory stimulation to calm emotions. You know your child best and can learn through trial and error which sensory items help soothe them down in different situations.
Review the Situation and Discuss Alternatives for the Future
Once your child has calmed down, discuss the hitting incident. Talk about the impact of their actions on others and encourage empathy. Discuss alternative strategies for handling conflicts or expressing themselves, such as using words, seeking adult help, or engaging in problem-solving. Encourage them to reflect on the situation and brainstorm better choices for the future.
It can help to refer back to the social stories mentioned above and provide different acceptable options. You may ask your child which alternative option they would choose if given a chance to do it again to help them analyze and decide the appropriate way to react. This is a learning process, and just as math, reading, and writing are taught and practiced, behavior must be, too.
Stay Calm Yourself
Remain calm and composed when addressing a child's hitting behavior. Reacting with anger or frustration may escalate the situation further.
An escalated adult can never de-escalate an escalated child. Model self-control and patience as you guide them through the process of understanding their actions. A calm and collected approach helps create a safe and nurturing environment for the child to learn and grow.
Conclusion: Hitting Behavior Explained
After assessing the reason behind your child’s hitting, choose the appropriate route to take and the skills to teach them. When we provide our children with a toolbox of appropriate behavior, they no longer have to rely on the physical release of emotion. Handling hitting this way is a win-win; we’re stopping the negative behavior we don’t want to occur while helping our children be more independent and emotionally aware.
Parenting comes with a multitude of unique challenges, but you’re not alone in tackling them. Check out the Big Heart Toys Article Collection for more relatable parenting tips and tricks!