Adorable giggles, cute mispronunciations, endless rounds of peekaboo, and… toddler thumps…
Raising children brings abundant joy along with confusing challenges. For instance, our darling toddlers may suddenly turn into pint-sized Hulks, directing their small fists at us.
It’s exasperating and puzzling, and yes, aggressive toddler behavior can really sting!
Why is my toddler hitting me
There are various reasons toddlers hit. But the majority of toddler hitting occurs because using their bodies is the only way they know how to express big emotions and communicate with you. Also, the lack of impulse control at this age means that frustration, anger, overstimulation, and needing connection can all come out as hits.
So the culprit behind toddler hitting is not the lack of discipline but a lack of ways to communicate.
Hitting may be disconcerting, but it is a fundamental form of communication at your toddler’s disposal.
Most children learn to talk between 18 to 30 months.1 Pre-verbal children are navigating the world and figuring out how to express their feelings, and often their small hands provide the quickest route to get their point across.
How to discipline a 2-year-old when they hit
While older children and adults may hit to attack, 2-year-olds with limited vocabulary and understanding of the world are more likely to use it to communicate or express themselves.
Recognizing the difference between the two is important.
Treating hitting purely as a toddler discipline problem due to bad behavior can lead to an unproductive dynamic of punishment and escalation.2
But reframing the issue as a communication problem opens up more constructive solutions.
How to stop your toddler from hitting
To stop your toddler from hitting, understand what they are trying to communicate, find out the root cause of the issue, address it, and teach your child alternative ways to express their needs.
Here is some advice on what to do when your toddler hits you.
Step back and take a deep breath
When a toddler hits, it’s natural for parents to see it as an act of aggression or an attack, just like when adults hit each other. This understandably triggers feelings of anger, and we may reflexively strike back verbally or physically. But we know it won’t help.
Instead, when your child hits, the first step is creating physical space and emotional calm. Move safely out of hitting range and take some deep breaths. You are demonstrating how to handle difficult emotions in a challenging situation.
Pause to consider what your child is trying to tell you.
Name and mirror their feelings
Describe and name their feelings. It teaches them the vocabulary to express themselves while also conveying empathy.3
If you can, i.e., calm enough, you can also mirror their feelings.
For example, you can say, “You’re very angry,” with a scrunched face and a slightly angry voice. It shows that feelings can be expressed verbally and constructively without aggression.
Find the root cause
Try to understand what your toddler is trying to communicate.
Review the events leading up to the hitting. What happened? What did they try to do?
Observe their body language. Are they angry, frustrated, or amused?
Emotions are not isolated occurrences but rather ongoing processes shaped by past events.
If your child seems angry or frustrated over an incident that seems relatively minor, there could be a broader underlying issue.
On the other hand, if your child seems to find amusement in hitting, it could be due to previous reinforcement that led them to perceive hitting as a humorous act.
Also See: Toddler Aggression When to Worry
Validate without judgment
Describing a child’s emotions and the reason behind them without judgment is validating. Validation and acceptance are important parts of developing emotional intelligence.
Validating a child’s emotions does not necessarily mean agreeing with their desires or negative behavior. You can empathize with their feelings without approving of the hitting.
For example, if your child is upset because you removed a dangerous object, you might say, “I know you’re really mad that I took that away. You want to keep playing with it. But I can’t let you get hurt.”
This acknowledges their frustration while maintaining the limit.
Over time, children learn to validate their own emotions, understand where they come from, and calm themselves down.4
Use natural consequences, not punishment
Natural consequences arise naturally from the child’s own actions while punishment is imposed on the child to cause them fear or pain.
It’s debatable whether natural consequences or punishments are ultimately more effective in shaping behavior in children.
Some argue that the outcomes are the same – both approaches reduce unwanted behaviors. However, the lessons they teach are quite different.
While punishments teach fear, anger, and obedience to authority, natural consequences impart understanding, self-discipline, and personal responsibility.
Therefore, even though they may potentially achieve similar short-term behavioral compliance, the social, emotional, and ethical lessons children learn about right and wrong, accountability, and relationships differ enormously.
Here are two examples.
“If you keep hitting me, I’ll need to stop this play session because I don’t want to be hurt” is a natural consequence.
“If you keep hitting me, you’ll get a time-out” is punishment.
In these examples, the natural consequence teaches a child how their choices affect others and to have empathy. The punishment teaches them that power dynamics dictate right and wrong.
Also See: Discipline vs. Punishment
Do not reinforce
When a behavior results in positive consequences, it gets reinforced, making it more likely to recur in the future.5
Therefore, avoid inadvertently reinforcing your child’s hitting.
Giving in to your child’s demands when they hit is one way to reinforce aggression in children.
Similarly, laughing or finding it funny when your child hits can also serve as positive reinforcement, potentially leading to an increase in aggressive actions.
Address the root cause afterwards
Once you’ve managed to calm your child amid the situation, reflect on the underlying cause of your child’s behavior.
What is the fundamental issue at hand? Was it avoidable?
Some common and preventable causes of toddler anger are insufficient positive attention, hunger, and fatigue.
Another potential cause for anger in toddlers is the feeling of constant restriction or denial. If a child is repeatedly told ‘no’ and feels their actions or desires are continually being curbed, this can lead to a build-up of frustration.
If this is the case, try to balance setting necessary boundaries and allowing the child some freedom to explore and express themselves.
Identifying these potential triggers and taking proactive measures to address them can reduce instances of anger and aggression.
Be a good role model
The followings are part of being a good model.
Do not spank – It’d be hard to teach your toddler not to hit if you use physical aggression to discipline.
Accept feelings, positive or negative – Your attitude shapes how your child views and processes their feelings. Accepting their feelings doesn’t mean you agree with their reasons for being upset or give in to their demands. It means you don’t judge them for having those emotions or think they’re wrong to feel that way.
The feelings exist and are real to your child, regardless of the reason. You can acknowledge them while still setting limits and guiding behavior in toddlers in a positive way.
Healthily express your own feelings – Show your child how you use words to express your feelings in daily life.
Regulate your emotions – At times, parents of children who are hit may struggle with regulating their own emotions. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Show your child how you struggle with it and then manage to control your feelings.
Make the best use of the opportunity
Make this a valuable lesson, but not in the heat of the moment. When a child is distressed, attempts to teach logic and reasoning are ineffective.6
Help them explore and practice alternative ways and positive behavior to deal with their emotions the next time they feel compelled to hit.
Teach your child anger management skills to help the child deal with anger and frustration.
How long does the toddler hitting phase last
Hitting often emerges when toddlers become more mobile and curious. But frequent aggressive behavior is not just a passing phase that will go away without intervention.
If hitting is ignored or met with harsh discipline aimed at only suppressing it, the behavior is likely to persist, or mental health issues may appear.
Toddler years are a critical window for emotional development. A chronic tendency toward hitting often intensifies over time without constructive intervention. Parents of toddlers are also likely to become increasingly frustrated and use harsher punishment, which provokes even more hitting, turning this into a coercive cycle.7
This type of interaction can evolve into serious conduct problems that are much harder to correct later.
Therefore, toddler hitting should not be dismissed as just a passing phase.
Repeated episodes of escalating emotions and hitting could create a habit, preventing your child from learning to manage their own emotions and behaviors.
If managing this issue becomes too overwhelming, seek help from a child psychiatrist or clinical child psychologist as soon as possible.
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- 2.Erath SA, Bierman KL. Aggressive marital conflict, maternal harsh punishment, and child aggressive-disruptive behavior: Evidence for direct and mediated relations. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2006:217-226. doi:10.1037/0893-3126.96.36.199
- 3.Brownell CA, Svetlova M, Anderson R, Nichols SR, Drummond J. Socialization of Early Prosocial Behavior: Parents’ Talk About Emotions is Associated With Sharing and Helping in Toddlers. Infancy. Published online April 26, 2012:91-119. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7078.2012.00125.x
- 4.Shenk CE, Fruzzetti AE. The Impact of Validating and Invalidating Responses on Emotional Reactivity. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Published online February 2011:163-183. doi:10.1521/jscp.2011.30.2.163
- 5.Perone M. Negative effects of positive reinforcement. BEHAV ANALYST. Published online April 2003:1-14. doi:10.1007/bf03392064
- 6.Topping K, Dekhinet R, Zeedyk S. Parent–infant interaction and children’s language development. Educational Psychology. Published online July 2013:391-426. doi:10.1080/01443410.2012.744159
- 7.Mence M, Hawes DJ, Wedgwood L, et al. Emotional flooding and hostile discipline in the families of toddlers with disruptive behavior problems. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online February 2014:12-21. doi:10.1037/a0035352