Even though hitting is normal for infants and toddlers, dealing with it can be tough. Discover how to stop your toddler hitting others.
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 resort to hitting and biting. Other times, he’d hit me during tantrums, unable to control his aggression. And still other times, he’d hurt others and laugh about it.
I was thinking of future play dates or social settings where he’d hit other innocent kids. I feared being that mom apologizing for her son’s lack of impulse control while trying to discipline and say, “No, no, no!”
Being stern and giving attention to the child who was hit instead of him didn’t work. The more consequences I enforced, the more his aggressive behavior worsened. And at this age, constraining him in my arms was no longer an easy task.
How to stop your toddler hitting others
I needed some answers, and thank goodness, I found them. But first, I also learned two key points about toddlers hitting others:
- Toddlers express themselves through their bodies. At this young age of toddlerhood, they can’t talk or convey feelings they don’t even know how to describe. They don’t know appropriate ways to express or define jealousy, frustration, worry, or sadness. They only know they’re overcome with this overwhelming emotion they’re not sure will go away.
- Meltdowns are okay. We sometimes rush to hush up a meltdown or a crying toddler. “It’s okay,” we might whisper, or “Stop it!” as we get frustrated. But meltdowns are fine—they’re how young children release their overwhelming feelings and impulses.
Knowing that, what are some strategies you can use to teach your child more appropriate behavior?
1. Acknowledge your toddler’s emotions
At first sight, you might only see the negative behavior: your toddler hitting another person, which likely prompted you to react. Your face contorted into disapproval, you whisked her away, or you held her hand firmly.
The result? She got even more frustrated and later hit again.
But what if you showed empathy? The next time your child hits, look at the triggers that provoked her to do so. You can see that the reasons aren’t so unusual. Perhaps her sibling grabbed a toy out of her hand or got too close to her face. She got angry that her one-on-one play time with a parent had to end.
She has reasons to be upset, and those reasons need to be addressed.
Show empathy and relate to what she must be feeling. “You didn’t like how your sister grabbed the toy from you, didn’t you? You were having fun with it and she took it away.”
Then, instead of whisking her away in isolation during a time out, you could her him in your arms. This simple act of empathy shows him that you understand her frustrations.
This doesn’t mean you condone the behavior. Once she’s calm and able to listen, you can say, “You felt upset when she took the toy, but we don’t hit. You wouldn’t like it if she did that to you.”
Nor does showing empathy “reward” poor behavior. You won’t stand by and let her continue hitting her sister because she’s upset.
But now you can address what she must be feeling, set limits, redirect, or find a solution—without resorting to anger.
Free resource: Are your current discipline methods not cutting it? Learn 9 parenting strategies that can help you deal with these challenging behaviors.
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2. Show compassion
I heard this fantastic saying that our kids aren’t giving us a hard time. They’re having a hard time. Makes a difference in the way you see their behavior, doesn’t it?
Rather than seeing your toddler as another nuisance, guide him through his difficulty with compassion. He’s not hitting out of malice—he doesn’t know how else to better manage his feelings.
He may have a hard time making wise choices when he’s upset. Nor is he able to develop self-discipline when he’s crying or isolated in time out.
Instead, when he’s too upset to even talk, focus on reducing his anger and bringing him to a calmer state. The goal isn’t to get him to stop crying but to calm down. Because only in that state can he learn anything—beyond that, he can’t process any lessons you’re teaching.
I’ve since learned to keep my mouth shut when my kids are crying and save the teachable moments for when they’re actually able to listen. In the meantime, I offer a hug and focus on calming them down.
Choose compassion and empathy over anger, threats, or punishment. You not only build a stronger relationship, you can also decrease future tears and temper tantrums.
Learn how to get kids to listen without yelling.
3. Don’t give time outs
Are you tempted to whisk your toddler off after you see him hit another child?
Yes, remove him if it looks like he’s about to hit the other child again. But don’t plop him in a corner and expect him to “learn his lesson” in a time-out. He won’t. He doesn’t even know how to describe how he’s feeling, much less analyze his behavior.
For all we know, the lesson he’s learning is that feeling upset means sitting in a corner.
Instead, have a time in. Bring him close to you and reiterate what he must be feeling: “You felt upset when your sister took the toy.” Then explain the proper behavior, “But we don’t hit other people.”
Having a time in doesn’t reward his bad behavior. Rewarding his bad behavior means letting him hit his sister all he wants. Don’t withhold your love as a form of punishment—he needs compassion and your reassurance that he’s not a bad person, even as you set limits.
Learn why time outs don’t work—and what to do instead.
4. Praise your toddler when he’s behaving well
“Let’s not pay him so much attention when he hits,” my husband began. “It’s easy to forget the times when he’s behaving well.” And here begins the tricky part: We give a lot of attention when kids misbehave. After all, we need to intervene, connect, or correct during these scuffles.
But what about the times when they’re behaving well?
The next time you see your toddler playing well, acknowledge how much fun he’s having. Point out how he shared his pieces with his sister, or that you love hearing them laugh together.
We shouldn’t only give attention when kids hit, but more so when they’re doing the opposite. It’s much easier to encourage positive behavior through praise and acknowledgment than it is to correct negative ones.
Get more tips on how to discipline a toddler who hits.
5. Give your toddler alternatives to hitting
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Part of stopping your toddler hitting others is equipping him with the tools to calm himself down. For instance, you can:
- Urge him to use words, not his hands, to sort through his feelings. You might tell him, “You seem mad. When you feel like that again, you can say ‘I’m mad!’ instead of hitting someone.” Label these feelings and he can use his vocabulary to express himself.
- Place his hands on his tummy. My children’s pediatrician recommended teaching them to place the palms of their hands on their tummies. Doing so makes it difficult for them to be mad at the same time. They can also feel their stomach going in and out, and sometimes that extra focus can be all that’s needed to calm down.
- Tell him to take deep breaths. An extra pause is all he might need to stop him from hitting others. Taking deep breaths or even counting to ten can provide this pause in his heated emotions. A fellow parent reported:
“We 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.”
- Read books that address aggressive toddler behavior so he can see what to do instead. Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi is a favorite:
In the span of a few short weeks, my toddler reduced his hitting thanks to the strategies I shared here. I imagine the same can be true with yours.
Start by showing empathy for the reasons he hits, as well as compassion to show him you’re on his side. Avoid time outs, as they don’t provide the opportunity to learn better ways to express frustration. Praise him for the times he does behave well or makes progress toward not hitting.
And finally, teach him the tools to better cope with his emotions, from placing his hands on his tummy to using words.
These steps helped my son understand the importance of not hitting, all while reassuring him he’s a well-loved boy, hitting or not.
Get more tips:
- Consequences for Kids That Actually Work
- Why Your Toddler Is Going Through the 1 Year Old Sleep Regression
- How to Stop Kids from Fighting Every Day
- Toddler Not Listening? 10 Things You Can Do
- Children’s Books about Anger to Help Your Child’s Behavior
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I love reading your blogs! They often help me in handling my 14 months old twin boys!!
One of my twin boys was usually more aggressive and recently started biting his brother whenever his brother took his toy.
Since I read your blog before, I tried to treat him with empathy instead of yelling at him.
He still bites once in a while but I am very confident that he will stop biting soon.
More than that our relationship improved a lot and he became much sweeter and more lovely. I realized that babies are not mean when they do that, but just want to be more loved. And this is probably the same with all human beings, right?
Thank you for your good advices, I hope many mothers can read it, too!
I’m so glad to hear that your little guy has reduced his hitting! I agree that showing that bit of empathy reassures him that he’s loved and his feelings are validated, while learning what’s appropriate and what’s not. And isn’t it amazing how easily the relationship can change from one that’s strained to one that’s based on love and respect? Possibly the best side effect of parenting mindfully.
I’m happy to report that my little guy also continues to reduce his hitting to almost nothing. He has even started saying the word ‘no,’ which, overall, I much prefer than him hitting. I think he feels good being able to communicate his emotions with words than by using his hands.
And thank you so much for your kind words. Your comment reminds me why I blog every day. 🙂
I’ve been dealing with this recently with my 3 year old. We initially would just say “no hitting” every time he hit, but that didn’t seem to stop him. I resorted to sternly looking him in the face and telling him it’s not appropriate then doing a time out. It’s lessened but I feel like a mean mom. I’ll try this time in technique and acknowledging the situation while showing empathy. Curious to see if it’ll work!
And also… it’s nice to see a familiar face when researching these issues! Hope you’re doing well!!!
Nina Garcia says
Tammy, so good to hear from you, friend! And yes, being stern or “mean” can work a few times, but doesn’t really take advantage of the learning opportunities that can happen. He misses out on why it’s not good to hit, or perhaps other ways to express himself besides hitting. Definitely try showing empathy, if for the very fact that it makes you more patient and understanding, while also making him less defensive and more likely to listen. Let me know how it goes! xo, Nina