Toddler Hitting: What to do About It

Ahhhh, toddlers. Such cute things that seem to do no wrong. . . until they burst into a temper tantrum at 100 MPH and start hitting you like there’s no tomorrow. That–not so cute. So, what can you do about it? How do you teach a little person who can barely express what they’re thinking to not hit–whether they’re hitting for fun or because they’re mad? Breezy Mama turned to child expert Frances Walfish, Pys. D. for some answers. . .

Note: Keep in mind that these answers pertain to children 1 – 3 years of age.

Let’s start with the basics–why do toddlers hit?

Toddlers hit for a number of different reasons.  They include:

Anger – Toddlers need to be socialized.  This includes teaching appropriate verbal expression of angry feelings.  All children, especially boys, need a gross motor outlet to expel aggressive impulses.  When your toddler hits you or someone else it’s best to offer him language and specific words that he can say and to say “No hitting people.  You can hit this pillow,” while offering a pillow, cushion, or mattress he can punch.

Initiating social interaction –  Some young toddlers hit to engage another child or adult in social relating.  In these instances, parents need to teach their child appropriate alternatives for getting someone’s attention.  Say to your child, “You can say play with me or look at me.” and Sally will want to play with you.

Underdeveloped language skills –  Some children are still developing their language skills.  They do not yet have fluid use of the English language.  This can cause frustration and in their impatience the child may strike.  Teach appropriate words and phrases as acceptable ways your child can communication instead of striking out.

My friend’s daughter hits her when she doesn’t get her way—no more milk for example. What should she do in the situation and how can she stop this for future?

Your friend should quickly take hold of her little daughter’s hand and firmly say,  “No hitting people… Mommy is going to hold your hands to keep you safe and Mommy safe.”  This will likely trip off her daughter having a full blown tantrum.  At this point, your friend should drop to the floor and sit (Indian style criss cross applesauce) holding her daughter in her lap facing away from Mommy so no one gets hurt.  Mommy should say,  “When you stop pulling on Mommy, I will let you go.”  All of this must be said and done with warm, supportive empathy for the struggling little girl.  This containment allows your child to have a furious, raging tantrum while being contained by Mommy and being taught how to calm and settle herself with an accepting, supportive parent.

When toddlers are playing in a group together, and your child hits another—how should we handle it?  Remove her from the situation?

Point #1 is that toddlers need close supervision when playing in a group.  If the child is under the age of 3 years, I would not expect them to have mastered sharing, delayed gratification, and taking turns.  They should be practicing these as goals but can still become quickly angry if things do not go their way.  Best way to handle it is for you the adult to say,”No hitting people”, then speculate out loud why you think your child hit.  You might say something, “Johnny had the red ball and you wanted it.  You hit Johnny instead of saying, ‘Can I have the red ball?”  You are learning to take turns with your friends.”

I’ve read that it’s pointless to have your child (at this age) say “sorry” to the person they hit. But, I want to make sure the other mom knows that I know the behavior was wrong. Any suggestions—do we correct the toddler in front of the mom and child or do we (the parent) just apologize to them ourselves?

The reason it is not helpful to have your child say “sorry” right then and there is because it has no meaning to your young toddler.  It is much better to have your child use words that have meaning to them.  For example, have your child say “I hit you and you got hurt.  Next time I will say Can I have a turn and I will not hurt you.”.  This is teaching your child accountability.  That is the main teachable opportunity in this vignette.  Yes indeed, you have this corrective dialogue with your child in front of the mom and child.  It’s fine for you to say your child is learning to use appropriate words and not hit.  You are sorry her child got hurt.

When one sibling is constantly hitting the other, is it appropriate to let the sibling defend themselves?

Typically, I do not endorse this idea although I would not be opposed to allowing the victim sibling to defend himself.  Instead, I find it much more effective if the parents follow-through with a stinging consequence for a short period of time that hurts the violating sibling.  For example, I treated a family (several) exactly as you describe.  They were with other families at a beach club dinner party.  When their older son hit the younger one in a repeated pattern, these parents said all the right words (“That’s not okay – you can’t hit your brother”). but they did not follow-through with a consequence.  I advised next time this happens to have a pre-arranged agreement that one parent SWIFTLY takes the child who hit home, while the other parent remains with the child who got hit at the fun beach party.

What is the appropriate punishment for toddler hitting?

Toddlers do not need punishment.  They need lots of supervision, guidance, and learning to calm themselves when they get filled with powerful feelings.  When your toddler hits do the following:

  • Take hold of her hands and say, “No hitting people”
  • Offer empathic verbal clarification of why you think she hit and what she was wanting and feeling
  • If holding her hands trips off a tantrum, sit criss-cross applesauce style on the floor and contain her rage by holding her in your lap facing away from you until she settles.  Immediately praise her for learning to calm herself down.

A toddler is so young, they don’t understand what hitting is—and how it hurts. How do you explain this to them?

I agree that toddlers are too young to understand that hitting hurts.  Archaic discipline techniques preach to hit your child back so they feel it.  That only teaches your child to hit harder or seek out smaller kids to repeat this unwanted behavior.  Follow the 3 bullet points above and your child will learn that hitting is simply unacceptable.  Zero tolerance.  As they are older they will understand that it hurts.  The key here is to respond to your child’s hitting with empathy and support.  This will teach your child to be kind and empathic toward others and not want to hurt (hit).

My daughter plays with her older brothers light sabers, and goes around the house, hitting all of us (whereas my son pretends). Obviously, she’s too young to know what “pretending to hit” is—how can we explain this?

For your daughter it is simple.  Contact of her light saber with a person’s skin loses her light saber.  In other words, say “No touching people”.  If (and when) she does, you take it away for a little while (a couple of hours).  That said, I would like to suggest a couple of additional things.  Your daughter is too young to play this game.  You don’t mention the age of her older brothers, but there are some games that are for older children.  We are now in the territory of boundary/limit setting.  To take it one step further, you would be wise to create a boundary space for the light saber game which I am very familiar with.  For example, you could say the light saber game is to be played ONLY in the playroom.  If that’s too small a space, you can say ONLY in the playroom and living room.  Running around the entire house only winds your children up and makes it more challenging to wind down.

When your toddler hits you because she thinks it’s funny, how should you handle it?

You follow the same 3 bullet points listed above.  Your narrative language of interpreting why you think your toddler hit you should include, “No hitting people.  You think it’s fun.  I think you want to play with Mommy.  Let’s find a way to play that feels good to two people – you and Mommy.”  You are introducing your toddler to reciprocity – give and take.  When there are two people it must feel good to both.  P.S.:  That goes for you and your spouse, too!!!

Anything you’d like to add?

I would like to offer one additional point to your piece.  That is the Transitional Object.  Long before toddlerhood, we hope a transitional object has been introduced to your child and a strong attachment has been developed.  Transitional Objects (T.O.) are exactly that.  These objects (including pacifier, thumb, soft cuddly blanket or stuffed animal, or Mom’s worn tee-shirt) are made available to your infant and toddler to promote your child learning to self-soothe and self-calm without attachment to Mommy’s skin.  During the months of infancy, babies need contact with Mommy’s skin through holding to help them calm down.  As your child grows past age 6 months, we begin to expect a reasonable capacity for self-soothing.  For example, sleeping through the night with the help of a Transitional Object can be a goal.

In addition to making the T.O. available to your child at sleep, nap, and feeding times, try offering it when your child is angry, sad, scared, hurt, and at all times that he needs comfort.  It is there as a supplement source of comfort, second only to Mommy – the main supplier of comfort and soothing.

About Dr. Frances Walfish: Frances Walfish, Psy.D. is the foremost Beverly Hills child and family psychotherapist. Her caring approach, exuberant style, humor, and astute insights have earned her a sterling reputation among colleagues and national media alike. A frequent guest on top-­tier TV programs, including NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and KABC-­TV in Los Angeles, and often appearing in major publications such as Parents Magazine, Family Circle and Woman’s Day, Dr. Fran continues to lead the field with her expert insights and innovative strategies for parents, children and couples.

Her upcoming book, The Self-­Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond with Your Child from Palgrave Macmillan’s/St. Martin’s Press is scheduled to launch December 7, 2010. William Morris Endeavor and Lake Paradise Entertainment are presently collaborating with Dr. Fran to produce a television series offering therapeutic guidance and help to families in America. More information on Dr. Fran can be found online at

To pre-order Dr. Fran’s book on Amazon, click here.

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  1. I personally don’t feel that restraining my son when he’s throwing a tantrum is the best method. I think this would make matters worse, especially since usually he’s angry because of something I’ve done or said (or not let him do or have). I’ve found sitting him on the “time out chair” and letting him hit a cushion to vent his anger works best. I do praise him for when he calms himself down but sometimes this can take a while. I’ll come to him every two minutes (he’s 2 and a half) and ask him if he’s calmed down now. If he says no I will carry on with doing other things. If he says yes I’ll praise him for calming himself down and let him go and play. Most of the time this only takes about 5 minutes, but sometimes can take 20, 30 or a couple of times, when he was feeling particularly stubborn, even more!

  2. Agreed, I can’t see how containing a toddlers tantrum with physical force will do anything but teach them repression and possibly aggression. What are you saying to them? Your tantrum – your feelings – don’t matter and I’m going to use my stronger, larger body to force you to do what I want. So, how can they rationalize that it’s okay for mom/dad to do that to me, but I can’t do that to others? #1 rule with kids, don’t do it if you don’t want them to do it. If you don’t want your cute kid bear hugging another kid to get them to stop, then don’t do it to your kid. That seems like common sense. I agree we ought to help children express anger in healthy ways that don’t hurt others, but that way doesn’t seem to be it. If I tried that with my son, I’d get head but in the face and be missing teeth by now. It’s analogous to a straight jacket for psychiatric patients. I think a padded room is a lot more humane except in extreme cases. If your kid is an extreme case, stop reading unqualified blogs and unsubstantiated opinions and get some real help.


  1. […] Because Dan is a Google genius, he found this post on Breezy Mama that deals with toddler hitting. I’ll try it. You try it. We’ll compare notes. Though I […]

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