Toddler Hitting and Other Aggressive Behavior in Children

toddler crying after hitting someone

Learn the best way to respond to toddler hitting, a very common child behavior problem during the terrible twos and troublesome three stages. Children aged 18 months-2 or 3 years old are just learning ways to express frustration and often react with toddler temper tantrums, hitting or biting.

Although this behavior is common for many children at this age, you may also consider reviewing symptoms of ADHD in toddlers or signs of autism. When accompanied with additional symptoms, toddler hitting can be a sign of a more serious problem.

Typical Reasons for Toddler Hitting

Toddler hitting usually begins to occur when a child is frustrated. This may be due to inability to communicate wants and needs or simply when unable to get something wanted. Unfortunately, it may continue after there is reinforcement by either getting a certain type of reaction from the individual that was hit by the toddler or because the child is curious and entertained by the individual’s reaction. The behavior may also be reinforced by the presentation of a toy or other desirable item after the hitting occurs.

It does not necessarily indicate that the offending toddler has been previously hit by another person or will become an aggressive child in later years, but may be the result of witnessing others hitting at daycare. For toddlers with autism, the hitting may continue for a longer period of time until he or she learns ways to communicate wants and needs.

Some children may be placed in time-out or simply given a stern “No!” and the hitting will subside. For others, this may only fuel their entertainment and cause the toddler to start hitting for no apparent reason simply to gain a reaction from the caregiver or child he/she is hitting.

My son just happens to be the type of child that is very entertained by adult anger and frustration. We have found that when providing consequences it is extremely important to use logical consequences, instead of simply punishment based, that are paired with empathy from us without any signs of anger or frustration.

I don't recommend spanking or hitting a child in reaction to their hitting as this can be confusing. If you tell them hitting is bad, but do it yourself, your actions are contradicting your words. It is also best to have consistent discipline at daycare and in the home. Daycares and preschools are usually not allowed to spank or hit children, so using this method will cause inconsistencies. Sometimes children that are spanked at home may not hit at home, but end up hitting in other environments.

How to respond

It is important to remain calm and use a neutral or empathetic tone of voice when responding to the hitting. If the toddler is trying to do an activity and hits out of frustration, then either teaching the child to say “Help,” or showing them how to work through that frustration and solve the problem in a calm manner is effective.

If child aggression appears to be for no apparent reason and it occurs simultaneously with some laughter or a smile on his/her face, then the child is most likely getting reinforcement out of the reaction from the individual he/she is hitting. There are two ways that the caregiver may react to this type of hitting:

(1) Maintain a neutral facial expression and immediately walk away from the toddler or,

(2) Say something with only empathy, such as “That is so sad.” while walking away and/or removing other individuals from the environment as well as any current activity items from the area.

(3) Stand away from the child without providing any direct attention, but still making sure that he/she is safe for 1-2 minutes. Then, as long as the child is calm, return and resume normal activity.

(4) If the toddler hits again repeat until the child engages in play appropriately. Praise appropriate play and interactions by saying something, such as “I love it when you play nice!”

If hitting is out of anger for not getting what he/she wants, do not give in to this behavior by immediately giving the item wanted. If it is a need, such as food, water etc. wait until the child is calm for at least 5 minutes and attempt to get them to communicate appropriately first.

No matter what, any type of aggressive behavior in children takes time to resolve. Be patient and consistent and you will start to see it decrease over time. You may also be interested in reading the page with great ways to respond to temper tantrums that occur with toddler hitting.

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