Even though hitting is normal for infants and toddlers, dealing with it can be tough. Here’s how to stop your toddler from hitting other children and adults.
I was at a loss. My toddler was hitting others for no reason, especially his brothers. Whereas the other two kids would complain, cry or find another solution, he would hit. Other times, he’d hit me during tantrums, unable to control himself. And still other times, he’d hit others and laugh it off.
Already I was thinking of future play dates or social settings where he’d hit other innocent kids. I’d be that mom who’d apologize for her son’s actions while trying to discipline and say, “No, no no!”
Nothing seemed to work. I was stern. I gave attention to the “victim” and not him. But the more consequences I doled out, the more he seemed to lash out.
I needed some answers, and thank goodness I found them. But first, I also learned a few tips about why my son was hitting:
- He’s expressing himself through his body. At this young age of toddlerhood, kids can’t talk or convey feelings they don’t know how to describe. He has no idea what jealousy, frustration or sadness are. He only knows he’s overcome with this overwhelming emotion he’s not sure will go away.
- Meltdowns are okay. Parents sometimes rush to hush up a meltdown or a crying baby. “It’s okay,” they might whisper, or “Stop it!” as they get frustrated. But meltdowns are fine—they’re how kids release their overwhelming feelings. You’ll also want to check out my tips on effective ways to handle tantrums.
How to stop your toddler from hitting others
Knowing that, what are some strategies I used to help temper my child from hitting others?
#1 Show empathy with your child’s emotions.
At first, whenever I saw my one-year-old hit his twin brother, I only saw the misbehavior. And I acted on it: my face contorted into disapproval, I whisked him away, or held his hand.
The result? He got even more frustrated. And he would later hit again.
Instead, I showed empathy. Each time he would hit, I looked at what provoked him to do so. His reasons weren’t unusual: His brother grabbed a toy out of his hand. Or another brother would get too close to his face. Or they would interrupt his one-on-one reading time with me or my husband.
He had reasons to be upset, and those reasons needed to be addressed.
With empathy, I spoke to my one-year-old and related what he must be feeling. “You didn’t like how your brother grabbed that toy from you, didn’t you?” I began. “You were having so much fun with it and he took it away.”
He may not understand what I’m saying, but he’ll get the gist from my tone of voice and body language. At this point, I will have scooped him up, held him, and showed affection. No more with whisking him away in isolation during time out.
He knew I was on his side.
This doesn’t mean we condone the behavior. I’d explain how hitting is wrong, “You felt upset your brother took your toy away, but we don’t hit.”
Nor does showing empathy “reward” poor behavior. If he’s smacking his brother in the face, we won’t just stand there and let him go at it just because he’s upset. We stop the hitting, convey what he must be feeling, set the limits, and redirect or find a solution.
#2 Parent playfully.
“No,” I told my one-year-old after he took to smacking his brother on the head. I thought I had done my job, but he continued to hit, or would hurt himself, or would sit dejected.
“What if we tell him ‘no’ playfully?” my husband suggested. “He’ll still take it seriously, but at least he won’t feel like he’s a bad person.”
So we tried it the next time. I took his hand and swayed it side to side while say, “No, no, no!” He laughed of course… then he stopped hitting. He didn’t even try it again, nor did he scuttle off feeling bad about himself.
But being too strict means kids don’t understand what they’re scolded for, and feel worse for it.
Imagine playing with an awesome toy, then someone else grabs it from you. You have no words to tell the other baby you didn’t like what he did. So you hit the other baby, trying to get the toy back. Suddenly mom gets up and you think she’ll help you out. Except it doesn’t look like she’s on your side. Instead, she’s getting mad at you.
Disciplining immediately loses the opportunity to reassure our kids we love them, even if we don’t love their behavior. For all we know, kids might think the words “No hitting!” means “No getting mad at your brother for taking your toy away!” They don’t understand words so well.
Instead, keep it lighthearted. You don’t have to go dictator on your kids when you can address the issue playfully. Kids learn best through play, after all. And the more playful my reaction was instead of stern and firm, the less my baby would hit his brother again.
Roughhousing is another playful way to address your baby hitting. Babies who laugh release the same energy as when they’re crying. When you notice your baby has been cranky all day, see if he’d like a laughing session with you. It just might prevent the next flare up.
#3 Don’t give time outs.
Are you tempted to whisk your baby off after you see him hit another child? Yes, remove your baby if it looks like he’s about to hit the other baby again.
But don’t plop him in a corner and expect him to “learn his lesson.” He won’t. He doesn’t even know how to describe how he’s feeling, much less analyze his misbehavior.
For all we know, the lesson he’s learning is that feeling upset means time at the corner.
Instead, have a time in. Bring your baby close to you and reiterate what he must be feeling: “You felt upset when your brother took the toy.” Then explain the proper behavior, “But we don’t hit other people.”
Having a time in isn’t rewarding his bad behavior. Rewarding his bad behavior means letting him hit his brother all he wants. Don’t withhold your love as a form of punishment. At this point, he needs compassion and your help to reassure him he’s not a bad person, even as you set limits.
For more info, read why time outs don’t work—and what to do instead.
#4 Don’t blame.
Your child is a baby. This doesn’t excuse poor behavior, but many of the things kids do are still appropriate for their age. Hitting is, unfortunately, a way for babies to express their frustration. Teach him hitting isn’t acceptable, but don’t blame for stirring trouble as if he knew what he was doing.
Your baby may hit for valid reasons: He felt hurt or confused when someone took a toy. Or when someone interrupted his one-on-one time with mommy. Or when someone knocked into him and he didn’t like it.
It was just his reaction that was wrong, and in time he’ll learn hitting is wrong. But he’ll learn it quicker when he feels reassured his feelings are valid and he isn’t a bad person. That you still love him.
#5 Praise when playing well.
“Let’s not pay so much attention to when he hits,” my husband began. “It’s easy to forget to notice him when he’s playing well.” And here begins the tricky part. We give attention when kids misbehave. We need to intervene, connect or correct during scuffles.
But what about the times when they’re behaving well? When I see my twins playing, sharing and laughing, I acknowledge how much fun they’re having.
We don’t only give him attention when he hits, but when he’s doing the opposite.
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Step-by-step tips to handling your child hitting others:
I found some fantastic advice from Dr. Laura Markham on the same topic and picked out a few favorites:
- Stay calm. Your child hits because he feels scared and overwhelmed with emotion. Don’t raise your voice—if you don’t soften your emotions, neither will he.
- Apologize to the crying child. Once the other child has calmed down, put your arm around your child. Then, face the child he hit, and apologize on your child’s behalf: “We’re sorry he hit you. He felt bad about losing his toy. We hope you feel better now.”
- Show your child how the other person feels hurt. Now turn to your child and say, “She feels hurt. Hitting hurts.” You’re trying to develop your child’s empathy without blaming him.
- Remove your child. Explain that hitting hurts, and it seems it was too hard to play with others. Encourage time alone to calm down.
- Let him cry (or laugh)—it’s good for him. Crying lets him release the overwhelming feelings he had a moment ago. If he doesn’t cry, make him laugh. Otherwise, if he doesn’t cry, he’ll likely keep hitting.
- Explain his emotions. During this time, explain his emotions: “You must have felt mad when she took your toy. That couldn’t have felt good.”
- Show him better ways to express his frustration. My baby may not understand exactly what I’m saying, but it doesn’t hurt to reinforce the idea. Tell your child, “Next time, you can say, “Stop!” or “No!” or you can call Mama and I’ll come right over.
How to teach your toddler not to hit
Part of stopping your child from hitting is equipping him with the tools to calm himself down. This is what has been working for us:
Encourage using their words
Encourage your child to use words, not his hands, to sort through his feelings. For instance, you might tell him, “You seem mad. When you feel like that again, you can say ‘I’m mad!’ instead of hitting someone.”
Place his hands on his tummy
My children’s pediatrician recommended teaching children to place the palms of their hands on their tummies. Doing so makes it difficult for them to be mad at the same time. Children will also have a chance to feel their stomach going in and out, and sometimes that extra focus can be all that’s needed to calm down.
Take deep breaths
Sometimes we just need that extra pause to calm down before we’re able to talk about our emotions. Just a tiny moment to keep us from going crazy. Taking deep breaths or even counting to ten can provide this space in his heated emotions. An SSBE reader suggested:
“We also try to teach our son to take a deep breath when he’s angry or frustrated. He’s started doing it on his own now without prompting and seems to cut back on (albeit not eliminate) some outbursts.”
Where we are now.
In the span of a few short weeks, my toddler has reduced his hitting, perhaps because of his age.
I show more empathy and have “time ins.” I respond more playfully and acknowledge the feelings that prompted him to feel angry in the first place. These steps have helped him better understand which behavior is appropriate, all while reassuring him he’s a well-loved boy, hitting or not.
Get more advice about how to stop your toddler from hitting:
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Deliberately Disobeys
- How to Stop Your Child from Whining and Speak Politely Instead
- 12 Children’s Books that Reinforce Positive Behavior
- How to Stop Siblings from Fighting and Teach Conflict Resolution Instead
- The Surprisingly Simple Question You Should Always Ask Yourself before Disciplining Your Child
One Effective Word to Get Kids to Listen
Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen? Learn the ONE effective word to get them to listen and follow instructions. Download my FREE handout and worksheet!