Does your funny, smart, and sweet toddler turn into a prizefighter on the playground, baring his knuckles whenever anyone threatens her turn on the slide? While toddler hitting may be embarrassing and concerning, toddlers hitting others can be a common developmental phase. Learning why it happens, and how helping your toddler redirect his frustration can stop the behavior. Here, what to know about toddler hitting.
Why Do Toddlers Hit?
While a 2-year-old hitting may have you racking your brain to figure out what you’ve done wrong, relax. Toddler hitting is not an indictment on the way you parent; often, it’s simply a case of your toddler being frustrated, impulsive and unable to voice his feelings.
“Toddlers do not have much control over their emotional impulses and are still developing language skills,” explains Catricia Tilford, MD, a board-certified pediatrician affiliated with Rowedocs Telemedicine Network. “In addition, toddlers are egocentric. They treat their peers like objects and have little empathy.” In other words, if their classmate is playing with their favorite doll, a toddler doesn’t see the classmate as a “friend” — she sees her as an object in her way.
That said, even though toddler hitting is normal, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable — or that you should wait for them to grow out of the behavior. Toddler hitting, which can start as early as around a year, can be stopped even if a toddler doesn’t truly understand why it’s “wrong.”
“Toddlers are capable of learning that hitting is unacceptable well before they truly understand that it’s hurtful,” Tilford says.
It’s also important to partner with your toddler’s teacher, if your toddler goes to daycare or preschool, and let them know if your toddler may be dealing with big emotions at home, which may contribute to aggressive behaviors like hitting, says Julie Kandall, education director at Columbus Preschool in New York City. “Biting, hitting, pushing and other actions that may seem aggressive typically occur when young children, who are not yet able to communicate with their words, are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed or misunderstood,” she says.
Being moved to a new classroom, being introduced to new peers, or having changes at home, like a new baby or a change in a parent’s work schedule, can all contribute to a toddler feeling overwhelmed. “Letting a teacher know about any changes can also help them watch your child a little more closely,” Kandall says.
How to Prevent Toddler Hitting
Because toddler hitting occurs when a toddler has reached peak frustration, it’s smart to learn some of your toddler’s key frustration triggers, so you can help her calm down, talk through herfeelings, and help redirect her attention. Here, some smart ways to prevent toddler hitting.
• Learn to sportscast. “Teach your child to tell you how they feel. Validate their feelings,” Tilford says. How? Let’s say your toddler wants to play with a car her friend is currently using. Stand near them and explain: “Wow, you really want that car, don’t you? It’s frustrating when we can’t immediately get what we want, but right now, Kai is playing with the car. Let’s ask him: When he’s done, can you have a turn? Yeah? Okay, so you’ll get the car when he’s done, but for now, let’s look at the blocks.” This technique, called sportscasting, helps your toddler understand and voice the emotions that she may not yet be able to, and helps her understand that you understand and empathize with her feelings — it’s frustrating to not have a toy you want! — while being able to move past the emotions in a positive way.
• Redirect your child. If a toddler is overly aggressive in pursuit of a single toy or playground activity, it may be smart to take your toddler away from the situation and let him calm down, Tilford says. This isn’t a punishment — it’s just letting your toddler’s emotions naturally ratchet down a few levels. Let’s say your toddler is pushing or hitting to get in front of the line for the slide. Taking him away on a bench and giving him some time to breathe — and maybe suggesting a less crowded piece of playground equipment — may be the best way to handle the situation.
• Follow their cues. Sometimes, overly aggressive behavior, especially in a usually low-key kid, is a sign she may be hungry, tired, overwhelmed, or just over it, Tilford says. Instead of having her try to power through playground politics, taking her out of the situation and letting her have some solo time to decompress may be the best way to cut any negative behavior off at the pass.
• Give alternatives. While hitting is never okay, some kids find physical activity helpful to get out aggression, notes Fran Walfish, PsyD, a Beverly Hills psychologist and the author of The Self Aware Parent. “This may be punching a pillow, punching a punching bag, running around or jumping,” she says. Coming up with a list of these alternatives, and reminding your toddler all he can do, can help your toddler learn to effectively manage his emotions. This can be helpful for an…