How to Manage a Toddler Who Is Hitting

Toddlers can be surprisingly aggressive. Hitting, biting, and kicking are all common behaviors that many will show at some point between the ages of one and three.

Some parents assume that hitting is a phase that they need to endure. However, there are ways for you to manage or even eliminate this behavior. Not every solution will be effective for every child, so it helps to try multiple strategies to see which will work for your toddler. Top approaches to managing toddler hitting include the following:

Remain Calm

It can be difficult to stay calm when your toddler is lashing out. But if you respond with yelling, you could escalate the situation and make hitting even worse. If you're prone to anxiety or anger, take a moment to breathe slowly and think through your reaction. Your goal is to show your toddler that you're in control. Remember, hitting is normal toddler behavior that you can solve — but first, you need to model appropriate conduct.

Teach Your Toddler How to Handle Frustration

In many cases, hitting is simply an outlet of frustration. If toddlers discover different, more effective outlets, they may be willing to turn to these when they are overwhelmed with emotion. 

To begin, teach your toddler words for labeling their emotions. For example, your toddler should know what it means to be angry, sad, and tired. 

Younger toddlers who have learned to sign may have success with using signs for these terms before they learn how to say them out loud.

Keep in mind that, while this method for managing toddler hitting can be effective over time, it won't produce results right away. In the meantime, you may also need to introduce alternative disciplinary or management methods to reduce hitting.

Watch for Triggers

You can't always prevent hitting. However, taking a proactive approach will help you address the unique circumstances that typically lead to problematic behaviors.

Some children, for example, are more prone to hitting when they're hungry. If you notice that hunger is a top trigger, offer your child small, healthy snacks before activities that might frustrate your child. Toddlers are also more likely to resort to hitting or temper tantrums when they're overtired.

Other common triggers for hitting include:

  • Developmental changes
  • Growth spurts
  • Separation anxiety
  • Meeting new people
  • Distracted parents
  • Overstimulation

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Remove Your Child

Sometimes, the best solution for a hitting toddler is a change of setting. When possible, take your child away from the place or activity that is causing frustration. This approach serves as a form of redirection, as well as a consequence when your toddler is unable to play nicely. That also means it's important to be consistent with this approach. Avoid making—but not following through on—vague threats to leave.

Where you go after a hitting episode will depend on the circumstances. When you're in public, the car may be the best option. At home, you can visit your toddler's bedroom or some other quiet place. Ideally, this will be a quiet area where your toddler can take some time to calm down.

In some cases, you may be able to take a brief timeout before returning to the prior activity or location. This will ease overstimulation until your toddler is ready to try again. Sometimes, however, you may need to call it quits for the day. After your toddler has calmed down, it may help to discuss the hitting episode and the related consequences in simple terms.

Hug Your Toddler

No matter which approach you choose for dealing with hitting, it's important that you provide some form of support afterward. This could take the simple form of a hug, which releases the feel-good neurotransmitter oxytocin.

Research suggests that those who are hugged when exposed to conflict feel less upset and are better capable of positively handling challenges. Hugs are calming in the moment and, over time, can help your toddler regulate difficult emotions.

Avoid Physical Discipline

Spanking is an ineffective consequence for toddler hitting and may actually make the problem worse. Research suggests that young children who are spanked by their parents are more likely to show problem behaviors such as arguing or fighting at school.

Physical discipline is also problematic from a modeling standpoint. Toddlers may be confused if they're told not to hit but then see their parents resorting to hitting to make a point. The sooner they see consistency in their parents' message and behavior, the better. Toddlers begin imitating their parents at a young age. Most will follow suit as they realize that their parents use other alternative strategies when dealing with challenges.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 05, 2021

Sources

SOURCES:
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry: "Fighting And Biting."

Association for Psychological Science: "Spanking Linked to Increase in Children's Behavior Problems."
Centers for Disease Control: "What is Time-Out?"
Harvard Health Publishing: "In brief—Hugs heartfelt in more ways than one."
Mayo Clinic: "Temper tantrums in toddlers—How to keep the peace."
Michigan State University Extension: "Young children learn by copying you!"
Paediatrics & Child Health: "Effective discipline for children.”
PLOS One: "Receiving a hug is associated with the attenuation of negative mood that occurs on days with interpersonal conflict."
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Early Childhood Learning & Knowledge Center: "Fostering Emotional Literacy in Young Children—Labeling Emotions."

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