behavior development parenting

What do I do when my toddler hits me?


I get this question A LOT from parents.  And for good reason:  toddlers hit...frequently!  I remember the first time my son hit me.  He was 18 months old.  We were in the middle of some back and forth vocalization when, BAM, outta the blue he hauled off and smacked me. It was a long time ago so I don't know exactly how I responded but I know it wasn't in a way that helped in any fashion.  It probably involved a loud voice, some harsh words and maybe even a smack on his hand.  I don't say this proudly...I'm just being real with you.  I had no idea what the hell I was doing in the early years.

As an Early Childhood Interventionist and Social Worker, I have seen many parents over the years respond to being hit in a similar fashion.  And, like me, after the fact they acknowledge that they would like to find a better way.  

Before I go on, I must say this:  If you are a parent who feels that an eye for an eye (or, in this case, a smack for a smack) is the best way to get rid of hitting, I hope you hear me out.  I often hear "well, that's how I was raised and I turned out just fine." Just because that's how you were raised doesn't mean it was the best way.  My parents, your parents -- they didn't have access to the volumes of research done on the matter. They did the best they could with what they judgement here.  It was a different time.  It always amazes me how quick we are to use the advances in technology to make our lives easier and more efficient, but we do the same with the ever growing insights on what parenting interventions have the most promising outcomes for our children.

So let's talk a bit about the why of toddler hitting.  In my experience, hitting falls into two different categories:

  • Cause and effect hitting
  • Emotional hitting

Let's start with cause and effect hitting.  The story I shared about my son is an example of cause and effect hitting.  He wasn't angry.  He had no malice or intent to hurt me.  Something in his little brain just said 'hit her in the face and see what happens.'  Of course, my response just led to more hitting and giggles on his end.  I always tell parents that if a behavior leads to an outcome (whether that be positive or negative) it serves a purpose.  My reaction inadvertently reinforced the behavior. From a brain development standpoint, toddlers are going through a process called tertiary circular thinking.  This means they are using cause and effect, trial and error to understand their world.  So when you see your toddler repeating behaviors, it isn't because they are intentionally being naughty or trying to challenge you, it's because they are trying to figure out whether doing A (in this case, hitting) will always result in B (the consequence).  This is why CONSISTENCY is key!  When we do not consistently respond with a consequence or limit, toddlers will continue to test until they do.  So, by failing to be consistent in our responses to challenging behaviors, WE are the one causing them to continue.  

Let's move on to emotional hitting.  This one is pretty cut and dried.  Your little one is overwhelmed with big feelings and lashes out.  Our job in that moment is to help be the calm in their chaos.  To help them regulate those big emotions in a safe way.  I will refer you to a YouTube video I did on tantrums and meltdowns which outlines a cool down method in these instances.  You can watch it here.

As I type this, I need to add one more reason that toddlers hit:  they are seeking sensory input.  By this I mean, they are looking for input into the muscles and joints in their arms and hands.  Their brains are saying 'your arm needs input, hit whatever is closest.'  In this case, you still want to give a consistent response, but also look for ways to provide that sensory input to help your child fill that need, eg, throwing a heavy ball, pushing a wash basket filled with heavy books, etc.

Here is what we DON'T want to do when our toddler hits:

  • Hit them back:  The research is clear on this -- while it may diminish a behavior temporarily, there will come a point where it is no longer effective.  Our goal is to help our children understand that hitting is unacceptable.  How do we teach that if we hit them?  Telling them 'we don't hit' as we hit them is just plain confusing.  And I'm here to tell you, do as I say, not as I do DOES NOT WORK as a parent.  Young children learn more from our actions than our words.  Besides, our ultimate goal should be to teach them a more positive way to express their emotions and/or to interact with people.  Our kids need tools for their toolbox that they can use as adults.
  • Talk.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Piggybacking on what I mentioned a moment ago, young children learn more from our actions than our words.  In my MANY years of working with toddlers, preschoolers and their parents, one thing I have learned is that less talk during big emotions and/or the discipline process is more effective.  When we talk too much, we run the risk of 1) overwhelming and already overstimulated sensory system or 2) providing reinforcement for the behavior to continue.  Less is truly more with young children.

Okay, so let's move on to the five step response to toddler hitting:

  1. Make a sad face when they hit you 
  2. Put them down IMMEDIATELY
  3. Walk away for 1-2 minutes
  4. Re-engage with your child in a happy, positive manner, e.g., 'there's my sweet boy!  Let's go play outside.'
  5. If they hit again, rinse and repeat.

I'm going to be upfront and honest, the hardest part of this technique for most is 1) not getting angry (mostly because we are often caught off guard when we are hit); and 2) not talking.  Give yourself some grace as you try this technique -- it's not always going to be easy and and it's not always going to be perfect.  Being a parent means constantly trying to make ourselves better so we become the people we want our children to be.   

There are several benefits from using this technique:

  • This one I've already mentioned, kids learn more from our actions than our words. Putting them down quickly and moving away from them sends a clear message that they did something that didn't work.
  • Making the sad face helps them to tune into facial expression and non-verbals, an important skill to cultivate
  • Re-engaging in a positive, happy helps reinforce that when they are not hitting you will hang out, play and shower them with your love and affection.
  • You are modeling self-care.  The old adage 'you teach people how to treat you' is absolutely true.  When you let your child know that you keep yourself safe by not engaging with people who hit, they learn to do the same.  When they go to school and a peer hits them, they will have learned from you that this is not okay and that they shouldn't engage with people who behave in that way.  

As I said earlier, I don't expect that this strategy be the right fit for every parent.  I am merely sharing what has worked for me as a mom as well as many of the families with whom I have worked over the years.  I hope you found this information helpful!   If you are struggling with challenging behaviors with your child, be sure to download my Tantrum Tamer Tip Sheet.  It is filled with strategies to help try to AVOID power struggles and the resulting tantrums from the get go.  You can access it here