Of all the behaviors toddlers exhibit, hitting may be the least endearing. But for many families, it’s par for the developmental course. “It isn’t uncommon for toddlers to hit from time to time or to go through a phase where they’re hitting,” says Miller Shivers, staff psychologist at the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “It most commonly occurs between the ages of one and two.”
Why do toddlers hit?
According to Tovah Klein, who holds her doctorate in clinical and developmental psychology and is director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive,” toddler hitting occurs because the brain is “very underdeveloped” and children this young lack the ability to control their impulses.
“Toddlers aren’t trying to be bad when they hit,” explains Klein. “They’re just eager to explore the world. There’s so much to see and learn, and they don’t like limits — their own or the ones imposed by parents and caregivers.”
In addition to toddler hitting stemming from frustration, Klein explains that the behavior can be a result of any number of big feelings. “Toddlers may hit because they are upset or angry or out of excitement,” she says. “Toddlers sometimes continue to hit to test the limits as in ‘does mommy really mean no hitting?’”
Surprisingly, toddlers also might hit as a way to say hello, according to Klein. “It sounds odd, but as toddlers explore and get excited about other people, hitting is a way to make a connection, to get noticed,” she explains. “They’re not very socialized, so toddlers need guidance to learn other ways to connect.”
Regardless of how innocent their motive, toddler hitting isn’t cute, and it’s a behavior that can seriously frustrate parents and caregivers. Fortunately, there’s a way to curtail it (so long as you’re persistent!). Here’s how to stop a toddler from hitting, according to the experts.
1. Give them something (not someone) to hit
Toddlers need help learning to control their impulses and how to express themselves, and while they figure these life skills out, they need appropriate alternatives. “When a toddler hits another person, it’s best to give them something that they can hit, such as a pillow or a stuffed animal, instead,” says Klein. “When parents and caregivers do this, they should label the child’s feelings and show them what to hit, as in: ‘You are so frustrated, you can hit this pillow!’”
“Stomping feet is another way to get anger out,” Klein continues. “When the child does this, show empathy and understanding, as it goes a long way in helping the child who is just starting to learn how to handle these feelings and accompanying impulses.”
2. Stay calm.
Toddler hitting is a frustrating behavior, but don’t take the old school approach of “giving them a taste of their own medicine.” “A parent should never hit a child back in order to show them what it feels like,” Klein says. “Children look to parents and caregivers for guidance and being hit by the person you trust to take care of you is scary. Also, it will likely backfire, and the child will wind up hitting more.”
3. Don’t tell the child they’re “bad”
Shaming is never the way to curtail negative behavior, so avoid telling a child they’re “bad” when they hit. That said, get the message across that hitting isn’t OK. “A simple ‘I can’t let you hurt (person), but you can hit this stuffed bear’ teaches toddlers how to direct their anger or other feelings,” Klein says. “This is a developmental stage that will eventually pass; the child needs the parents’ help to learn to manage feelings and behaviors. It can take time, but lots of practice will help.”
4. Make sure they’re not learning it
“Parents and caregivers should make sure that the hitting behavior is not being modeled for them in their environment, such as from other family members or video games,” she says. “If toddlers see others hitting, they are going to hit.”
5. Change the environment
A good way to get to the bottom of hitting behavior — and stop it before it starts — is to be mindful of the circumstances under which the hitting typically occurs.
“If a child is prone to hit out of overstimulation, you can change the things in their environment that they find overwhelming,” Shivers says. “For instance, if they’re sensitive to loud noises and crowds, you might think twice before taking them to a baseball game, as it can be a trigger. And if you’re already at a baseball game, try letting them wear noise canceling headphones or put cotton in their ears to muffle the sound or take them to a less crowded area of the ballpark to get a break from the crowd.”
6. Don’t (unknowingly) reinforce it
Shivers explains that a common culprit behind toddler hitting is the reactions that succeed it. “The majority of toddler hitting occurs because it is being reinforced by others,” she says. “When toddlers hit, other kids often laugh or have some sort of reaction. Additionally, adults will reprimand, lecture or respond harshly. All of these interventions draw attention to the hitting and inadvertently reinforce the behavior.”
A solution when this is the case? Don’t respond. “It is best to ignore the hitting and have no reaction or response,” Shivers continues. “Turn your body and don’t face the child when they hit, if it’s hard for you to keep a neutral face and body language when it happens. Ignoring the behavior stops the reinforcement, and in many cases, the hitting, as well.”
7. Offer distractions
If you see your toddler getting frustrated or like they’re gearing up to start swinging, try distracting them. “I could always tell when my son was about to hit his sister when he was younger,” says mom of three Julianne Bishop of Los Angeles. “Before he got the chance, I would blurt out something like: ‘I can’t find my phone! Have you seen it?’ Nine times out of ten, he would forget what he was about to do and run over because I needed his ‘help.’”
For parents and caregivers who take this route, bear in mind, distractions shouldn’t equal bribes. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that, while “intentionally changing [a child’s] focus” from hitting is appropriate, offering bribes, such as candy, to change behavior is not.
8. Take notice of good behavior
Finally, just as you want to stop your toddler from hitting, you also want to foster their good habits — so be sure to pay attention to those, too. “While it’s wise to not to give toddlers too much attention for hitting, parents and caregivers should be sure to give kids ample attention for positive behaviors, as that will help reinforce them,” Shivers says. More time spent saying “good job” instead of “stop that”? Sounds like a plan your toddler can get behind.