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Monday, April 9, 2012

Handling Toddler Hitting (By Anshu Basnyat, LCPC)

     When a parent first learns that their child has hit another child, often in a daycare setting, it can be a bag full of mixed feelings.  Some parents may feel frustrated and confused because this is not how they discipline their children at home so why are they exhibiting these hostile behaviors.  Others may be upset because they feel this could have been prevented with proper adult supervision. Yet others, hopefully only a few, may feel that the other child must have provoked it so therefore, it is acceptable.  Whatever the case may be, the first thing a parent has to keep in mind is that this is a developmentally appropriate behavior.  

     A toddler is beginning to understand the outside world on a different level now. In particular, he or she is realizing that their behavior gets a reaction from others. This may be the caretaker, parents, the other child, and whoever happens to witness the social exchange. The hitting toddler views the act as an appropriate social exchange. They do not have the language skills to initiate social interaction, so hitting becomes their primary mode of communicating this desire.  However, this does not mean a parent should ignore or condone this behavior. Appropriate reaction from the parents is crucial to make this a valuable learning experience.

     Parents ought to view these situations as teachable moments and proceed from there. Taking it personally is not constructive and only clouds the teaching part of this developmental stage.  Teaching children takes lot of repetition so patience is paramount. Below are some strategies to consider when appropriately handling your toddler’s hitting behavior.

10 Tips for Handling Toddler Hitting:

1.    Remind yourself this is a developmentally appropriate behavior.

2.    Do NOT take it personally. Get rid of the guilt that you are not being a good parent!   

3.    Model appropriate behavior immediately after the hitting happens. For example, you can say “Hitting hurts. We need to be gentle.” Then, use your toddler, the other child, or a doll to exemplify appropriate, gentle touching. 

4.    Give attention to the child who has been hit by comforting them and encouraging them to tell the child who hit them by saying something simple like “No hitting, it hurts.” By doing this, you are teaching the hitter that they will not get attention for negative behaviors and teaches the victim to be assertive.  Over time, your toddler will learn that hitting will result in an undesirable consequence. 

 5.    Do NOT spank or hit the child to teach them that it hurts or it is wrong.  This only sends a mixed message.   You want them to stop hitting but you show that violence solves the problem by spanking/hitting the child.  For children who do not have the language skills or even for those who do, often “action speak louder than words.” There are additional ramifications to this strategy, but that goes beyond the scope of this subject.  For what it’s worth, many parents resort to hitting because they are frustrated and do not know alternative methods.

6.    Use simple verbal or nonverbal language to communicate your message that hitting is wrong. It is easy to fall into a tirade when you are frustrated, but lecturing is not effective with a toddler and only frustrates the parent more.  In terms of nonverbal language, teaching basic sign language can help your toddler communicate his or her needs.  For example, if your toddler is hitting the other child because he or she wants to play with her then you can teach the sign for “play” to encourage appropriate behavior. 

7.    If you sense that your toddler is about to hit, redirect their attention to something fun. It can be simple as putting your palm out and saying “Giving me five!” or asking them if you can give them a hug.  This not only prevents hitting but it also teaches them alternate, positive behaviors that involve touching.     

8.    Keep track of triggers.  Is your child hitting because they are hungry, tired, angry, etc.? Furthermore, has there been a change in the family such as a move, marital discord, change in daycare provider, etc.? Sign language will also come in handy during these circumstances!

9.    Work with the daycare provider in correcting this behavior. Investigate what triggers your toddler’s hitting and find out how it is being handled at the daycare.  This of course, will require you to spend some time observing your child in this setting.  If it is being handled appropriately, commend the caretaker and try those strategies at home! If it is not being handled appropriately, then this needs to be addressed. Likewise, share with your child’s daycare provider what strategies you have been using at home.  Since this can get touchy, present it in a way that communicates you are trying to have consistency between daycare and home to get optimal results.

10.     Spend quality time that involves snuggling, hugging, holding, etc.  This teaches appropriate ways to use gentle touch.  Furthermore, if your toddler’s hitting is an attention-seeking behavior then this will be especially helpful.  However, you should not engage in these behaviors soon after hitting has occurred because you do not want to reinforce it.  Any other time is great!


  1. Hello Anshu, Excellent Blog. I am thinking of pursing a career in counseling. I would like to kindly request twenty mins of your time for an informational interview. Kindly let me know if this is possible. Best wishes. ROL

  2. @ Anonymous/ROL: Thank you for your kind words and your readership! I would be happy to talk with you about the Counseling field. You can email me ( )to arrange the interview time. Look forward to hearing from you!