children playing

What To Do If Your Toddler Keeps Hitting Others

What causes a toddler to hit?

Toddlers hitting is more common than it is not. It’s completely normal, but that doesn’t take away the feeling of uneasiness and want to research for more knowledge. Hitting can have different causes, and it’s a good thing to identify what it’s all about.

Frustration

Toddlers go through a rapid and comprehensive learning curve through the toddler years. It’s a time where most things are new, and a will and determination emerge or enhances.

In this period in life, toddlers encounter new things every day and learn multiple things simultaneously. They are in the process of learning a language, understanding how things work, and deciphering why some things are approved, and others are not. Not being able to understand or getting others to know what they want, getting the toy they want, or trying something that grownups don’t allow. It’s frustrating. 

Imagine being in a situation where others don’t speak your language, and you can’t communicate effectively, you are continuously being corrected or don’t understand what’s happening. 

That is your toddler’s everyday life. They are in the process of learning, and it’s been said that all learning involves some level of frustration. Frustration is the feeling of trying without succeeding. 

According to the frustration-aggression theory, aggression is often a result of frustration. Frustration isn’t always followed by aggression, though. But to hinder aggression, one needs to be able to control emotion, something that few toddlers are able to do yet. 

Frustration is a necessary part of every learning process, and childhood is one long learning process.

– Jesper Juul

The Terrible Twos

The Terrible Twos happen in the ages around two to three years of age. It’s a time where their need for independence takes a jump start. They suddenly want to do everything themselves and will not budge, and instead fight their way to gain their independence. When this occurs, frustration is often a result when parents insist on keeping their control. If you want to read more about the Terrible Twos and the reason why there are more conflicts and meltdowns during this time, click here.

Other emotions

Other emotions, such as fear and anxiety, can also result in hitting. It might seem strange, but I want you to keep in mind that toddlers haven’t yet learned to handle strong emotions effectively. These kinds of emotions can be overwhelming, and strong emotions don’t seldomly end up in anger. 

During a visit to a big shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur once I had my two boys with me. The mall was more crowded than usual this day. Before I knew it, my son, then a toddler, let go of my hand and ran away. It was a matter of seconds, and he was gone in the crowd. I took my other son and ran around frantically to find him. Ten minutes later, with fear tugging through my heart, I found him hiding behind a showcase giggling. He was just bored and decided to play hide and seek. As my fear subsided, anger filled me instead and I had to muster all control I had to not yell at him for running away.

With limited resources to solve situations and handling strong emotions hitting is often a go-to solution. Not because it works or because it’s a good way to handle it. But because when people of all ages can’t solve something verbally, they do it physically.   

child playing

Experimenting

Sometimes you can also see a toddler seemingly happy hit someone or something. It can seem strange since most people associate hitting with anger and aggression. Children are small scientists. They don’t learn in a conventional school setting only. They experiment with something and observe what happens. This is due to curiosity and a wish to learn and understand. 

You hit when your needs aren’t met

Generally, children hit or misbehave in our eyes when their needs aren’t being met but are unable to communicate more constructively. This isn’t strange nor abnormal. It’s a process of learning.

Your and other people’s response to your child’s hitting

What is problematic, though, is often adults’ response to a toddler hitting. We tend to feel as bad parents when this happens and feel pressure from others to make it stop. When feeling pressured, we worry more, and it quickly occupies our minds. When pressured, we not seldomly act harsher when dealing with hitting.

Of course, hitting isn’t okay, and no one should accept it, but understanding your own emotions and the stress that you might experience will help reduce the pressure and possible harsh reaction.

It’s also good to know why it’s happening, to have an action plan if hitting happens, and to be prepared for what to say and do to others if it happens. 

How to handle it

What not to do

I’ll start with what not to do when a toddler hits. That is to yell and punish him. Treating a child poorly usually results in the child treating others poorly. It easily creates a downward spiral.

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What to do instead

As you might have understood from the causes of hitting, you might have figured out that the goal is to build your toddler’s self-control. This is a process of learning for many years, and for some, this comes more naturally, while others struggle more with it. Children are different from the start, and they will struggle to learn different things at a different pace.

So my first question is, is your toddler aware that hitting is wrong?

If he isn’t, you need to let him know it’s wrong by telling him so, respectfully. If he is aware of it, then you don’t need to bang it in his head. He already knows. Some adults seem to think that children that do something they aren’t allowed to do don’t understand right and wrong while the problem is that they can’t master to control themselves at strong emotions. If he knows what’s right and wrong, you instead need to help him to constructively manage emotions as well as making sense of his emotions and behavior by naming emotions and explaining the situation.  

Teaching self-control can mean many things with examples as deep breathing, yoga adjusted for children, physical activity, mental imagery, and by you modeling self-control yourself. What suits best is individual and a little bit of trial and error.

So to recap how to handle it:

  1. Is your toddler aware that hitting is unacceptable?
    1. If no, tell him what is acceptable and not
    2. If yes, focus on teaching self-control and naming emotions
  2. Teach self-control
  3. Name feelings and explain what’s happening

What if my toddler hits often

Hitting isn’t acceptable, and of course, others shouldn’t be scared of being hurt when playing with a specific child. If your toddler often turns to hitting, biting, kicking, or pushing others, it’s good to keep close and observe your toddler as he interacts with others. Watch for triggers, what anticipates hitting, and how he acts and behaves. If you see a pattern, you can start to predict when it’s about to happen, interrupt a blow, name his emotions, and have a ready self-control technique. 

Other blog posts & articles

If you want to learn more about self-control, The Emotional Intelligence Course is a great resource. Click the button on the right to read more about it!