How To (Gently) Stop A Toddler From Hitting

Psychologist Claire Grayson and mindful parenting coach Tejal V. Patel are here to help.

Originally Published: 
A boy contemplates while his mother holds his hands and explains life to him.
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At some point, every parent feels like they're living with a tiny tyrant. And for most of us, the first time that feeling takes hold is during toddlerhood. You're still trying to learn how to self-regulate, and now you're dealing with a tumultuous toddler. It's a wild ride — especially when it happens. You know the scenario. Your angel baby starts throwing their blocks, leaving you convinced they'll send one sailing through a window. So, you gently tug one from their dimpled hands, telling them, "No more blocks until you can be gentle." Suddenly that meaty little hand is flying towards your face and making hot, cracking contact with your cheek. Or perhaps your pre-bedtime cuddle session has simply turned into a WWE match with lots of flying fists. If this sounds familiar, you likely have many, many questions. Most pointedly, why toddler hitting happens and what you can do about it.

Once you recover from the sting of your toddler's blows (who knew something so tiny could hit so hard?), the natural tendency is to guilt-shame-panic spiral. How did your kid pick this up? Are you the world's worst parent? Where did you go wrong? How did your sweet babe turn into such a tantrum-throwing demon seed? You've taught them to "be gentle" and "soft and slow" since they were just babies grabbing at fistfuls of cat fur. And now they're hitting?

First things first, take a breath. Count to 10. You should know that you're absolutely not alone in experiencing this or subsequently doom-Googling whether you're raising a little psychopath. To help you get a handle on, well, all of those things, Scary Mommy tapped psychologist (and mother) Claire Grayson with Personality Max and mindful parenting coach Tejal V. Patel to share some expert insight. Here's what they had to say about curbing a toddler's Fight Club tendencies.

Is toddler hitting just a phase?

"I want to request all the mothers out there relax," suggests Grayson. "I know sometimes it's hard, but with the right guidance and support, you can do this."

Grayson says yes, hitting is just a phase, for which "there may be many reasons." She explains your child might:

  • Be looking for their boundaries and testing their limits.
  • Lack self-control (something that typically comes with age).
  • Not understand that it's a bad thing.
  • Not know how to process and express their feelings.

Of course, it can be hard to focus on the deeper underpinnings in the immediate aftermath of your toddler walloping you. However, taking time to unearth the "why" can help you better address the situation.

How long will this phase last?

"It depends on your child, so you have to be very careful as a parent," Grayson explains. "But usually when children start grasping things like it's not acceptable, they understand."

Think of the hitting phase like every other new stage you've been through with your baby and toddler. As they figure out how to express themselves better and learn that hitting is not OK, they'll find better ways to communicate with you and new ways to gain control over their situation.

How do you stop a toddler from hitting?

While all the experts will tell you that the best way to curb your child's hitting is to avoid big reactions, there are additional steps you can take. It's also important to remember that what works for one family or one child may not work for the next. "There is never a one-size-fits-all solution for every child and family," shares Patel. "Experiment and find what solution works best for your child." Her suggestions?

Change the Scenery

"A lot of meltdowns happen due to sensory overload — feeling overwhelmed because of bright lights, loud sounds, being too hot, cold, tired, or hungry. When a child is melting down, taking them outside to a quiet place away from people, sounds, and where the meltdown happened can help," Patel explains. "If you are in your home, creating a calm-down corner with relaxation toys and books is a great alternative to time-outs."

So, observational awareness plays a huge part. "It's essential for parents to be mindful of our kids' clues that they are potentially going into meltdown mode," notes Patel. "It could be whining, clingy, nagging, or not being able to handle simple 'no's. If we are aware, we can often change the scenery before the meltdown happens when we know they are starting to get dysregulated."

Offer Emotional Support

"Children don't know how to self-regulate when big emotions visit; they learn this through our co-regulation. You can't just tell kids to take deep breaths and expect them to calm down," shares Patel. She says the best way to teach your kids calming strategies like deep breathing and counting is to model the behavior yourself. "When you hug them, you should take deep breaths in and out, and the only thing you should say is, 'You're safe, I'm here for you.'"

Set Firm Boundaries

"In the moment of big emotions, kids need to feel emotionally and physically safe. If your child is hitting, step back and create physical space, put your hands behind your back, crouch down and say, 'Hands are not for hitting. Hands are for hugging.' Or say, 'I will not let you hit me. That hurts my body.' Create physical distance from your child instead of restraining their hands, which may feel forceful to some children," suggests Patel.

Find Teachable Moments (Once Everyone Is Calm)

When have you ever learned a lesson from someone saying, "I told you so," while you're still processing your mess-up? Probably not often. Yet, you've probably caught yourself or your partner doing this. Parents ought to know better, right? Toddlers have a longer memory than you think: There's no need to try to teach a lesson while your child is still upset. They won't process it then.

"I do my teachable moments right before bed when my child and I are calm so that the conversation isn't hijacked by either of our big feelings," Patel says. "With toddlers, I read the book Hands Are Not for Hitting and bring up the situation earlier in the day. 'Remember when you hit Mommy when I wouldn't let you watch another show? Hands aren't for hitting. That hurts mommy.' With older kids, you can brainstorm other solutions of how they can ask for help with their words instead of using their hands."

Make Sure All Caregivers Know The Protocol

It's hard for your little one to understand the problem of hitting others if the parents, grandparents, and babysitter aren't handling it the same way. While one caregiver may give a stern no, another may ignore it or laugh it off. So have a conversation beforehand, to keep everyone on the same page.

Redirect To Gentler Touching

Introduce your child to gentle touch. The hand they were going to use to hit someone should be grabbed softly and gently stroked. This will help show them what kind of touch is acceptable and what isn’t.

What should you NOT do when your toddler hits?

When your toddler is hitting, they are already in a state of aggression. So it is important to be intentional and calm about the way you react.

  • Do not hit back or spank. You don't want to match your toddler's violence with more violence. As a parent, you want to set a good example for your children, so if you hit them back, it can be a confusing response for them and contradict what you're trying to teach them. So try to keep your cool and give them a different punishment instead.
  • Do not yell or react with anger

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