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The Toddler Strikes Back: what to do when your toddler hits

Entering toddlerhood is a fun and exciting time. We get to watch their little personalities really start to come out and shine, they are capable of so much more, and learn so quickly. They are known for their boundless energy and curiosity… and at some point they also tend to start hitting. Whether it's a sibling, a friend, a parent, or a dog, it can be frustrating and triggering for everyone involved. So, why do toddlers hit? And what can we do to help them better express themselves?



Why do toddlers hit?


First, it's important to understand that hitting is a normal part of development for most toddlers. Your toddler is a good kid, even when they hit. They are still learning how to regulate their emotions and communicate effectively. Most of us have had more than 20 years to practice our emotional regulation, and we still lose it sometimes! These tiny humans are in their first few months of training, they need empathy, guidance, and support.


According to behavior analysts, most behaviors can be broken down into just a few categories: Seeking attention, seeking an escape from something, seeking access to something, or fulfilling sensory needs. When they hit, it may be because they are feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, don't know how else to express themselves, or are imitating others. Your child’s behavior is your chance to break out your inner Sherlock Holmes, cause we’ve gotta figure out the WHY behind it. If we don’t understand the why, we end up dishing out knee-jerk responses of frustration or punishment. You want to be more intentional about your parenting, being here is a great first step.


Toddlers are just beginning to learn about boundaries. Everyday is like a giant cause and effect science experiment, testing what they can do, and how others will react. Big reactions elicit a big flow of energy, and whether that reaction was positive or negative, the child is likely to want to recreate that big energy moment. This is true for babies all the way up through teen years, so let’s start now to change how we use our energy.


Creating Safety


The first thing that needs to happen whenever your child hits or exhibits any violent behavior (biting, kicking, throwing things, you name it), is create safety for all parties. This means removing both the aggressor and the victim from the situation or physical space. We cannot address the behavior under threat of another attack.


Creating safety could mean moving the person who got hit to another space, it could mean moving the child who did the hitting, or it could mean moving all parties. If you are holding your child, turn them away from you or put them down to prevent further attacks. Even if the hitting didn’t really hurt, it is important to take that moment of pause and gain space for yourself, so you can take a breath and address the behavior from a calmer headspace. If it takes you longer than a second to get to a calm headspace, that’s okay too, you can’t help anyone when you are feeling triggered.


Once everyone is safe, we can set boundaries and introduce a replacement behavior for your toddler to replace hitting.


Set Boundaries


Hitting is a boundary for me, and for most caregivers. We cannot allow physical violence to continue. We know this, but does your child? Verbalize your boundaries, be specific, and own them as yours.


This can be as simple as saying, “I won’t let you hit me.”


This is not up for debate, it is a firm boundary that you, the adult, will be enforcing under all circumstances. It should be stated as a fact. It is not a request; language like “please don’t hit your brother,” or "let's not hit, okay?" leaves room for pushback. It is not a threat; yelling or threatening punishments push your child’s brain into fight or flight mode, which turns off their prefrontal cortex and in turn, their ability to learn in this moment. Be clear and direct; vague statements like “stop it” and “don’t do that”, leave room for misunderstandings and don't give them room for the next key step, replacement behavior.


Replacement behaviors


There are many strategies that can help toddlers learn better ways to express themselves. The best approach depends on the situation and the why of the toddler hitting in that moment, but here are some replacement behaviors to offer instead of hitting:


1. Use words: This may seem obvious, but one of the most effective ways to teach toddlers to express themselves is by using words. This strategy has 2 parts, giving voice to their emotions and to their desires. They don’t have the language yet to express what they feel or want much of the time. We can help to voice their emotions, desires, and needs and model that language.

  1. Voice their emotions: we can help them by vocalizing their feelings for them using simple phrases like "I'm mad" or "I don't like that" instead of hitting. Model this behavior yourself by using "I" statements to express your own emotions throughout your day. Toddlers need to feel understood, and this helps them to identify their emotions.

  2. Voice their wants/needs: When you figure out the why behind their behavior, we can give them the words they don’t yet have. We do this by providing simple phrases like “toy please”, “down please”, “up please”, “I choose”. Model this by restating these phrases in calm moments such as making simple requests to your toddler or when you do things for them throughout the day.

Kids can’t do a don’t. "Don't hit" doesn't tell your child what they should do to release their big feelings. Give them another option of something they CAN do. You don’t need to bend your boundaries to do this.


Repair


We all make mistakes and hurt others in some way. It is vital that we repair those relationships, and your toddler is no different. If your toddler hits, practice repairing with the person they hit. This can look like asking if they are okay, if they need anything, or apologizing for your child. Forcing children to apologize is not useful and creates resentment and insincerity from all parties. Toddlers have not yet learned how to repair, but the injured person still needs this step to repair their relationship and gain closure. Your job now is to model this process for your toddler and guide them through it. This means apologizing for your child. This means asking the injured person how you can help fix it. This means offering a hug or bandaid or icepack to the injured person. Your child will learn so much more from watching you repair with them than they will from being forced to say an apathetic "sorry" or give a hug! The more you practice, the quicker they will learn to initiate this process on their own, keep practicing and be patient.


What does this all look like?

So what does this look like in action? Regardless of the situation, try to keep your voice level and without much emotion when addressing your toddler. Here are some situations and potential responses.

The toddler hit another child when they saw the child had a toy that looked fun:

Move one or more of the children from the physical space to create safety and check that the child is not injured. Take a deep breath or a moment away if you feel triggered. Address the toddler who hit, “I won’t let you hit your friends. Hitting hurts. I see you feel mad that you can’t play with that toy right now. When you want a toy, you can say “toy please” or “my turn?”. Until they are done playing with it, do you want to read with me or play with this other toy?” If your toddler is still upset, coregulate with them using calming strategies such as breathing, counting, singing, or hugs to get them to a calm state where the repair can be made. Repair might look like you going to the child that was hit and saying “I’m sorry *toddler* hit you, that hurts. What can we do to help fix it?” or if the child is too young to verbalize or have ideas, you can give the suggestion for repair. “Can I give you a hug to help you feel better?”

The toddler hit you while being held in the middle of Target:

The toddler hit the dog unprovoked and looked at you:

The toddler hit their sibling when sibling took their toy:

What other situations have you struggled with?


Hitting is a challenging behavior to deal with, but it's a normal part of development for toddlers. By offering replacement behaviors and modeling positive communication and empathy, we can help our little ones learn how to express themselves in healthier ways. Remember to be patient and consistent, and don't be afraid to seek help if you're struggling. With time and practice, your toddler will learn to communicate effectively and build positive relationships with those around them, hang in there!




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