How to Discipline a Toddler Who Hits

Frustrated because your child won’t stop hitting others, especially you? Learn exactly how to discipline a toddler who hits, all without losing your cool.

How to Discipline a Toddler Who HitsI was that mom at the park, the mom who practically had to wrestle with her toddler’s flailing arms because he was throwing a fit. It wasn’t cool that I was pushing his brother on the swing while I left him on his own—and it was enough to drive him to start hitting me.

With three boys, he was the only one who resorted to hitting. Usually, he’d hit when he was throwing temper tantrums, and only toward certain people (ahem: mommy).

Using words wasn’t the issue, either—he was completely verbal and could speak in clear sentences. This was no toddler who only knew a handful of words, yet he turned to hitting to express frustration and hurt.

And other times, it felt like he was hitting others for no reason, or for simple things that didn’t warrant that kind of reaction. Hitting became one of the triggers that drove me crazy, especially when I felt like I had tried everything to stop him.

How to discipline a toddler who hits

If you can relate, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Better yet, this story has a happy ending.

Perhaps you’ve tried explaining to your toddler that “we don’t hit,” only to have your words fall on deaf ears. Or maybe you’ve put him in time-out as a “punishment,” except you wonder whether this even helps his impulses and self-control.

Because no matter what you try, he goes right back to hitting. Maybe he hits other kids at the playground or is acting out at daycare. Not only are you worried because nothing calms him down, but his aggressive behavior seems to be escalating.

Is it just a phase? You wonder. Am I being too lenient? What if I snap and… hit him back?

You see, I learned that however effective it is to talk to your toddler about hitting, sometimes it’s not enough, and we don’t do it at the right time. I’ve also learned that isolating them in a time-out only worsens the problem. And I was never a fan

Instead, I relied on these several tactics to get to the bottom of the issue. It’s not just about getting your toddler to stop hitting, but to replace his negative behavior with healthier ways to communicate. And it’s not about getting sucked into the emotional drain of it all, but to truly see the role you play as the parent.

Fellow mom Jessika Graff shared on Facebook her success after applying these tips:

“I have to tell you that I have not been hit in over a week since reading and applying your tips. Again, your blog is my parenting angel and I’m so grateful for all that you’re doing for us moms.”

If you’re wondering how to discipline a toddler who hits, you’re in the right place. Give these tips a try, and you can also see a difference in your child’s misbehavior:

Alternative to Time Out

1. Don’t talk or teach just yet

How often have you seen your toddler hit and immediately launched into all the reasons why you’re not supposed to hit? Meanwhile, he’s flailing his arms, tugging your hair, and is far too upset to even hear a word of what you’re saying.

Sometimes we go about it backward. We explain all the reasons we don’t hit or better ways to communicate when none of that is even getting through to our young children. These are all important lessons we need to teach, except there’s a problem.

At that very moment, your toddler is operating from his right brain, the emotional side—not his left brain, the logical one. And since language skills fall on the left side of the brain, he can’t process or make sense of anything you say.

Instead, connect with his emotional side. Focus on calming him down first, before you discipline or explain. Rely on non-verbal communication skills: body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and your general mood. Hug him, encourage deep breaths, and show that you understand how he feels.

Only once he has calmed down can he be in a better place to learn about appropriate behavior. Otherwise, you’re wasting the opportunity to teach when you’re trying to do so during one of his fits.

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2. Focus on your response, not your toddler’s behavior

When we think of toddlers hitting and biting, our first reaction is to correct the behavior. After all, we can see that hitting is inappropriate, no matter how valid their frustration may be. So, we focus on stopping the behavior—the quicker, the better.

Except there’s one problem here: we forget to examine our reactions.

Parenting is more about the parent, not the child. When we focus on the behavior, we tend to do so at the expense of forgetting to examine our own. After all, how often have we felt anxious, said a hurtful comment, or yanked their arm to get them to stop hitting?

These may seem like natural reactions, and that’s because they are. They are your subconscious habits reacting to the situation. But they don’t make for a good example to our kids, much less encourage them to calm down and stop hitting.

Instead, focus on your response first before taking any action. Lean into compassion. Be a safe, welcoming space for your child. Help her feel understood—that you know why she feels the way she does.

As I say in my parenting workshop, How to Get Your Child to Listen:

“Compassion doesn’t mean being ‘soft’ on your child. Being ‘soft’ or enabling the behavior means letting her continue talking rudely to you, or allowing her to keep hitting her brother. That’s being soft and permissive.”

This isn’t your typical parenting advice, but I promise that the calmer you get, the quicker she can calm down as well.

3. Have zero tolerance for hitting

Recently, I overheard a mom tell her son, “Oh, don’t hit her, honey…” in response to him hitting his baby sister. Her tone of voice made me think that this wasn’t the first time it had happened and, given the casual way she’d told him not to hit, it likely wouldn’t be the last.

For hitting to stop, you must have zero tolerance for it. On one hand, you don’t want to overreact with anger or anxiety. But on the other, you can only expect your toddler to stop hitting if you make it clear it’s not allowed.

The mom in this instance did a good job of staying calm, but she also needed to communicate that a line is crossed when her child hits others.

How can you communicate this without overreacting or being mean?

  • Remove your toddler from the situation
  • Look him in the eye as you communicate
  • Constrain his arms with compassion
  • Don’t take it personally (yes, even if he laughs)
  • Say, “I won’t let you hit… (me/your sister/another person/the dog, etc.)”

We teach people how to treat us. This is especially clear if you find that he tends to hit you but not, say, your spouse. He has somehow learned that it’s okay to hit certain people but not others.

When you have zero tolerance for hitting, he knows that no matter how frustrated he gets, there’s always another way to communicate.

4. Label (and encourage) all feelings

It’s easy to assume that your toddler wants to hit, especially when he’s verbal and can communicate well. But there’s a difference between being able to speak in sentences and identifying his big feelings.

In other words, just because he can speak in complete sentences, doesn’t mean he’s equipped to process how he feels. (Some adults still struggle with their emotions!)

How can you combat this? Show empathy and label all his feelings. Catch him in whatever moment he may feel, and simply put a word to it. You might say:

  • “You’re so happy you won the prize!”
  • “You feel sad that your snacks fell on the floor.”
  • “It’s okay to feel mad about losing your toy.”
  • “Everyone feels disappointed, too.”

Not only should you label emotions, but you should also encourage all of them. Don’t withhold your affection or attention because he’s upset or having a bad day. Make sure he knows you’re there, no matter how he feels or behaves.

Read these children’s books about feelings.

Children's Books about Feelings

5. Don’t rush your toddler out of his feelings

In an ideal world, we always feel happy and content, but difficult feelings like sadness, anger, and anxiety will come and go. We can’t force kids to hurry up from feeling sad just as we wouldn’t others to do that to us.

Don’t rush your toddler through challenging emotions. Instead of trying to distract or cheer her up as quickly as possible, let her feel sadness in all its entirety. Not only can she learn that it’s normal to feel sad, but she can also get to experience how it comes and goes on its own.

Get more tips about dealing with your child’s sadness.

how to help your sad child

6. Praise your toddler for choosing better ways

One of the best ways to stop challenging behavior is to praise positive ones. Except most of us think that kids should only be praised when they’re calmly using their words and treating others kindly.

But what if, instead of hitting, your toddler restrained himself and yelled, “I’m mad!”

While yelling isn’t the ideal way to express frustration, she made a huge leap by yelling rather than hitting. Unfortunately, most of us overlook that huge step and focus now on why she shouldn’t yell.

Instead, praise her (once she’s calm) for that simple switch. Don’t expect a complete change—even incremental steps deserve praise.

7. 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.

8. Give your toddler alternatives to hitting

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.
  • Read books that address aggressive toddler behavior so he can see what to do instead.

Frequently asked questions

Why do toddlers hit 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.


Learning how to discipline a toddler who hits is a challenge even for the most patient mom. It’s especially difficult when nothing seems to work, or worse, his behavior is escalating.

Don’t lose hope. Apply the tips you learned here, starting with focusing on your behavior first, rather than on your toddler’s. The calmer and more intentional you are, the calmer he can be as well.

Then, focus next on calming him down, rather than talking or teaching just yet. The lessons can come later—once he’s calmed down enough to even be receptive to what you have to say.

Have zero tolerance for hitting, including teaching him how to treat you. Being casual about hitting only reinforces the idea that it’s okay to do so. Label all his emotions so that he can begin to use words as well as know that these feelings are normal.

And finally, praise his positive behavior, even if they’re incremental steps rather than the ideal situation. He knows he’s on the right track, and can be better motivated to behave in similar ways in the future.

I’m happy to report that hitting is no longer a problem in our family as it once had been. I may not need to alternate pushing them on a swing, but I know they won’t resort to hitting if I did.

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  1. I’m in tears this is so helpful thank you so much.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I’m glad the article resonated with you, Shawnae!

  2. What about hitting at pre-school? We have given consequences at home and talked about how hitting is not okay, what to do when he feels upset or angry instead of hitting. He didn’t hit for one day and then went back to it. I sort of feel like his teacher needs to apply these tips or the consequence has to be immediate. He doesn’t remember by the time I pick him up and shows no remorse.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Katie, I agree—we should do what we can at home, but it has to be a team effort with the teachers as well.

  3. What about when you constrain and try to stay calm but your toddler tries to then kick and head butt you? I am trying so hard to be patient but I am getting so emotional because I feel nothing is working and he is just so aggressive. He will chase me around the room and try to hit me when he’s so upset and I will try to remove myself and keep calm but he won’t stop. And he will try to hit some family members

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Nicole! I can imagine how frustrating it is when you’re trying to constrain your child only to get kicked and headbutted. One thing that can help is to not really engage with or talk to him when he’s behaving this way. Offer non-verbal reassurances like rocking him side to side, rubbing his back, or at most saying “Shhhh…” or “Mama’s here…” in a repetitive, calming way. Let his anger pass through and only when it’s gone can you talk to him about his behavior.

  4. My biggest struggle is knowing the best way to teach my 3 year old it is wrong to hit & kick. He only does it to me & his father, normally before nap or bedtime but often when he needs changing and doesn’t want to. We’ve tried time out, time in, ignoring, being stern – nothing seems to work and he even laughs when he does it sometimes. He is very strong willed, a little behind with talking, but getting there, and generally a very happy, loving, sociable, adventurous boy. But he is also fierce and hard to manage. Any advice would be appreciated.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      It’s definitely rough when kids hit or kick, especially when they only do it to us. That said, that can also be a sign that it’s a power struggle between you (versus, say, a fear of going to bed). I’ve found that treating it “matter of fact” and giving natural consequences helps a lot in these situations. You’re not outright ignoring the behavior, but you’re not making it THE issue, either. I also think it helps to show empathy for what they’re upset about, like saying, “I know it’s no fun to end the day—I’d feel upset too if I had to stop doing what I liked.”