Why read: If you wonder how to stop toddler hitting using a gentle parenting approach these proven tips will help you without having to use the punishment.
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I watch my 3-year-old son slap my mom in the face at the dinner table and I’m stunned about what I do now.
When I see a tear shedding down my mom’s cheek, I feel my face turning red with the blood flow going up my head. I love my little boy immensely but that’s my mom. And something that seemed so innocent before, is not anymore.
A second later my head is spinning from all the contradicting emotions. I am angry, irritated, but also understanding and empathetic. All at the same time.
So do I let this go, AGAIN?
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It’s Never a Good Time
- He hits someone,
- I approach him right away to have a little talk;
- He starts weeping and saying he is sorry and won’t do that again,
- I can’t stand seeing my son so upset,
- I just gently ask him not to do that again and hope for the best…
The best never comes… Things get worse and worse. Now when I greet people and I’m with my son, I warn everyone that he might hit so stay away. Should I walk around with a sign in my hand saying: “Beware hitting child”?
Why Toddlers Hit?
After several embarrassing moments like my boy pulling another boy’s hair at the playground. Or kicking the same boy’s dad while I was trying to apologize. I knew we needed to make fundamental changes to the way we discipline him to stop all the hitting.
After reading a dozen books on toddler aggression, I realized this is a very common behavior for this age. Many parents deal with the same issues. But interestingly, triggers can be completely different from toddler to toddler.
And while triggers might be different, it all comes to one main conclusion.
|Toddlers get aggressive because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions.|
Toddlers hit, throw things, kick, bite:
- out of anger or frustration,
- to get attention
- when they are tired or hungry,
- when they are overexcited,
- when they can’t express themselves in words.
Helping Your Child Deal with Intense Feelings
Of course, we aren’t robots either. And sometimes we can lose it too. But as adults, it’s easier for us to stay calm and react the right way with our kids. Rather than, the other way round.
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Knowing the Triggers
- Poor diet – this is a very common trigger for kids’ aggression. Avoid processed food, sugar, artificial colors in your child’s diet up until 2 or even 3-years-old (the older the better). This will make a huge difference in raising a calm and happy toddler.
Even a small cookie can make my boy overexcited and aggressive especially in the evening. The easiest way for us to keep him away from all the unhealthy food is not eating it ourselves. All our guilty pleasure sweets that my husband and I crave every now and then are hidden from our son. And we eat those only when he is not home or is asleep.
- Lack of routine – following a set schedule with your kids makes things safe and predictable for them. Routines are especially helpful in the mornings and evenings. Knowing exactly what to do my boy gets ready for preschool without nagging every morning. And we’re usually out of the door without any drama.
- Not enough sleep or being tired – if your child has an off day because of shorter than usual nap it’s the best to postpone the nice dinner at a fancy restaurant. He’ll most likely get overexcited and tired, will be acting out and no one will be able to enjoy their time. As his parent you can predict what’s coming and act accordingly.
- Speech delay – toddlers get very frustrated when they aren’t capable to communicate their needs. If you realize this is the main reason for your toddler’s violent behavior see how you can encourage your little one to speak. Or even seek professional help if needed.
Mistakes Parents Make
So I started to observe my boy to understand where his aggressive behavior was coming from. My son started to speak at a very early age so I knew he was articulate enough to express himself.
But then we expect them to understand way out of their age. Behave well in public places, not express their emotions. We give them a lecture on good behavior one day and expect them to know all about the good etiquette of a gentleman or lady.
Setting the Ground
When you realize things are starting to get out of control and it’s time to address your toddler’s aggression, take a pause and set a proper ground.
Decide on the strategy and get everyone involved. When working with your toddler on his emotional state it’s important to be on the same page with everyone who takes care of your little one. Discuss everything with your husband (wife) so that you both use the same method. This might be more difficult with other caregivers but still, try to get everyone on board.
Be a good model. We serve as an example for our children. If we can’t regulate our own emotions. If we easily get irritated or angry. Why expect something different from the child who sees our emotions go over the board on a regular basis? Fix whatever is bothering you in your life to be the calm and happy parent your child needs.
From my own experience, when my boy was 2-years-old, I somehow turned into this angry, easily irritable person. Since we moved to the US from Armenia with my husband, we’d been renting and changing places almost every year. First, we lived in Boston and changed apartments every year there. Then we move to Silicon Valley. My husband is an IT engineer and would change his job almost every year for more challenging opportunities. And we’d move and change our rental apartment to be closer to his job. During one of those moves, I was 8 months pregnant. Thankfully, our friends helped us with everything – packing, unpacking, cleaning the new place. But I was so sick of this gypsy life. All this brought to very strained relationships with my husband. We’d constantly fight and yell at each other. And having our son in the middle of all that was of course not healthy for his emotional development. So we knew this had to stop.
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What Doesn’t Work
Punishing or Shaming
When our toddlers start to act out and show aggression many of us fear to confront their range. Their tears make us uncomfortable. Especially when this happens in public places or with other people around. So we give in and do whatever they want so that all the crying and screaming stops. I made this mistake myself in the beginning. But here’s the bad news: only 1 or 2 attempts are enough for the toddler to realize that crying and hitting cat get them what they want. It will take much longer to correct this behavior.
Photo by Enrique Saldivar
Things to Try that Do Work
Every child is different. What worked for us might not be the best approach for your toddler. Try using the methods below one by one or better yet a combination of all and you’ll see improvements. The key is to be consistent.
Staying Calm, Firm and Consistent
Never give in! Never punish! Never lose your own control by yelling, hitting or biting back – believe me, sometimes you’ll want to do that too.
This is the method that we used and worked with our son. I have to admit that it took a lot of patience and perseverance from our side. But things got much better after several harsh but firm instances of using consequences.
First of all, we had a serious conversation with him that hitting or hurting anyone in any way is something he’ll have to face consequences for. And that’s because he’s a big boy and understands that as his parents we cannot allow him to hurt anyone, including us. So if we play at home and mommy does something during the play and he doesn’t like it, if instead of using his words, he hits – the play will stop. No tears, screaming or apologizing will help.
The same goes for playgrounds, birthday parties, visiting friends and relatives. There’s one rule: If he hits, we have to leave.
What’s important is that he knows it’s not a punishment. I always come up to him, give him a hug:
“I know you’re upset for some reason and want the things your way. But you know hitting hurts and to keep everyone safe, we need to leave now.”
It was really hard to do this the first couple of times. The frustration and crying were at their peak when we had to leave the playground or stop playing his favorite game because he’d just hit me.
But he learned the lesson. After a few times, he started to hold back his aggression and even praise himself:
“See, mom, I wanted to hit but I didn’t.”
“I’m so proud of you, sweetie. I know it was hard! You really wanted to win. But you can’t win all the time. So you need to learn how to lose too.”
Punching Something Else
Sometimes the struggle will be way out of your child’s ability to manage it. I realized that at times even if my boy really wants to cope with his emotions he’s just too little to do that efficiently and needs to get physical.
So as an alternative, when he’s too upset and just needs to punch something – he knows he can punch the couch, or a pillow, or just run to a different room and get aggressive there by stomping his feet or screaming as loud as he can.
He knows he can’t hit anyone who has feelings as it can hurt – people or animals are out of the question. Everything else – as long as he doesn’t hurt himself – is fine. This helped him blow off the steam on so many occasions.
Introducing a Special Toy
In my quest for different solutions on how to stop toddler hitting, I somewhere came across the idea of a “special toy”. Knowing your child’s interests will make it easy to choose that one, VERY SPECIAL toy that he’ll get only if he stops hitting, biting or whatever aggressive behavior your child is showing. This works particularly well at home when the aggression is directed toward the parents or siblings and happens quite often. So this is how it works.
Choose a nice toy (something your child has been asking for for a long time) and one day explain to him that as a good behavior and not hitting anyone for the whole day he’ll get that special toy to play for an hour. Make a big deal out of it before the day of gifting itself, so that his anticipation grows.
The important thing is not waiting when your child loses control and punish him with not giving the toy. But trying to anticipate the hitting instead. So when you see the frustration or anger growing remind him that if he doesn’t hit or be aggressive he’ll get to play with his special toy.
Reading Kids Books
Children learn so much from picture books. Any topic is always better communicated to a child through a book and a role-play in an imaginary world. Reading books on how to tame your anger and cope with different emotions made wonders with my boy. These are our favorites.
Train Your Angry Dragon by Steve Herman – This book is amazing. All the situations described in the book are very relatable. Plus the great illustrations and rhymes make it so much fun to read over and over again. My son loves the book! We’ve been reading it for over a year and he never gets bored of it.
As a good addition to the book, you can also get a red stuffed dragon toy – like the one in the book – for your little one. Toddlers love role-plays and having a dragon toy to recreate different situations from the book through play is another effective way to help them learn. By the way, all 34 books in the My Dragon Books Series are wonderful and teach a great deal. Check out some of the others too.
When I’m Feeling Angry by Trace Moronae – Another brilliant book (and one of our favorites!) which teaches great calming down techniques for kids. This book is also part of a series of books on different emotions – anger, sadness, happiness, to name a few.
One Last Thing
How About You?
Do you have any other strategies on how to stop toddler hitting? Please share in the comments below.
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Comments & Reviews
I love how much you unpack what is going on behind a toddler hitting. It’s not the same as if I were to hit you adn parents need to be aware of this so they don’t shame, punish and do things that make it worse. I love this post so much!
This is excellent. My 4-yr old has been retreating back to hitting. We have done the leave and we have gone to a quiet place and talked it out. I try to get his feeling and help guide him into best showing them. I have also recognized that there are a lot more incidents when we are off our routine schedule.
I like the idea of the books that discuss anger. However, I think these would be most effective if read before there was a problem with a particular aggressive behavior.
My daughter went through a hitting phase and my son is going through a kicking phase currently. He kicked his teacher at school. When we found out about it upon picking him up, we cancelled our plans to go to Wendy’s (he loves nuggets and fries!) and went straight home. His Dad took him to school the next day after we talked about kicking and he was made to apologize to his teacher. Fingers crossed, but so far he hasn’t repeated the behavior.
Katie Frazier says
So sorry you are dealing with this. My son is 9 months old, and I have yet to experience the toddler stage, but this is helpful information!
Great tips for dealing with toddler aggression. It really is so common and pretty much every parent deals with it. Making sure they have words to express themselves is very important. We encourage our son to tell us he’s angry rather than do some sort of a physical action. The books are great. We have the whole series of the Dino books and my son loves them. We also tried teaching him to calm himself down by counting, singing or just removing himself from the situation to take a break. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But children are always a work in progress.
I have been teaching my son about consequences. When he hits me, i tell him that is not how he treats his mom. I tell him to be gentle. As soon as he touches me gently i give him kisses and make a big deal about it. He is getting it!
Brooke Selb says
We are struggling with our 19 month old and his hitting people as well as random objects when he is upset. Now our 3.5 year old is doing the same thing. We try to lead with love, understanding, and setting the expectations. Thank you for all of these suggestions.
Great post! My toddler is an angry little hitter and we’re working on it. We have a few of those books too.
Good luck and wish you lots of patience, Cate! Let us know how things work out for you 🙂
Parenting can definitely have it’s tough moments. When our first reached that age and stages my husband and I read through the book The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene, it definitely gave us a better perspective from the child’s view point. Great post on a difficult topic btw!
Thank you for the recommendation, Sarah! I’ll check The Explosive Child (https://amzn.to/37fwooO) too.
Jen Towkaniuk says
There are some really great tips in this post. My daughter had a habit of roughhousing with the boys in elementary school and was reprimanded for hitting a boy with a lunchbox that had a thermos inside. I allowed the principal to punish her even though it was an accident. And this is where I see so many parents go wrong. The principal was shocked that I wanted her punished and I was shocked that he considered letting it go. Boundaries are essential to be set, but dang it’s hard as a parent to know how. This post was really useful and I hope it helps a lot of parents get through this part of childhood.
So true, Jen. Probably the hardest thing is to stay calm yourself, take a pause and just be consistent with the actions you decide to take. Sometimes my son drives me crazy and it takes me a lot of power to not smack him in his little face 😅
Laure n says
My son has hit me in the face before out of frustration. I realized that I had to find other ways to help him express himself. I noticed that he only hits when he is so tired or hungry. Sticking to a schedule like getting to bed on time has helped us. Great post.
Ah, that’s the worst when they hit in the face! I had some of those too. Yes, sticking to a routine helps a lot. Thank you for sharing what help you, Lauren!