Have you ever gotten so frustrated you felt like you could just hit someone? In moments of intense emotion, most of us have probably felt that way. As grownups, we have coping skills that help us redirect these feelings — whether that means talking it out, deep breathing, or walking around the block. But toddlers aren’t there yet.
“Toddlers are just like us when it comes to experiencing frustration and anger,” explains Kelly Bourne, pediatric nurse, positive discipline parenting educator, and the author of Pig’s Big Feelings. “They feel their feelings just as strongly as we do — the only difference is they lack the insight and coping skills to navigate their emotions without smashing something.”
Still, it can be upsetting — and even dangerous — when toddlers hit. But parents can arm themselves with information and a skill set to redirect and alleviate the pattern. Here’s our expert-backed primer on why toddlers hit, and what parents can do about it.
Why is my toddler hitting?
Hitting is developmentally appropriate for toddlers. Here are six among the most common reasons they do it:
- They don’t have the communication skills to express their feelings. Toddlers don’t yet have nuanced verbal expression or other coping skills. “Toddlers typically hit because they are feeling overwhelming emotions and don’t yet have the emotional vocabulary to express it otherwise,” explains Connect Point Moms parenting coach Kate Fraiser.
- They want attention. “This can be an attention-seeking behavior from children who don’t know how to properly socialize,” explains Brittany Ferri, founder and occupational therapist at Simplicity of Health.
- Hitting provides sensory stimulation. “Other toddlers may be sensory seekers and are looking for sensory input anywhere they can find it,” she says. “This often manifests as aggression and rough play such as hitting, kicking, jumping, or crashing.”
- They don’t yet have impulse control. “Limited impulse control contributes to toddlers acting before they think, leading to unsafe behaviors such as hitting, kicking, or biting,” explains Kait Towner, a licensed mental health counselor and registered play therapist practicing in Rochester, New York.
- They’re overwhelmed. “During this time, the brain highways that carry information from one area to another might get backed up or overloaded. What often happens is that toddlers will become overwhelmed by sensory information and this can trigger a fight-or-flight response, causing them to react. You may see a toddler hitting if they are too excited, too overwhelmed, or overstimulated,” explains nurse educator Kelly Smith.
- They’re learning proprioception. The word refers to the body’s ability to know where it is in space. “Toddlers are still developing this skill so at times you may see a toddler hitting because someone walked too close to them, or even came up quickly and they were not expecting it,” Smith says. “This is less of a behavior issue and more a development issue.”
What can parents do when toddlers hit?
“Bottom line: Toddlers don’t hit because they’re bad,” Bourne explains. “Toddlers hit because they lack the skills to manage their emotions in socially adaptive ways — so let’s teach them.”
To help, parents can support kids as they develop vocabulary and communication around feelings so they feel hitting becomes less necessary for expression. “What parents or caregivers can do is give them words for what is happening — just guess if you don’t know!” Frasier explains. “For example, you can say, ‘Your nose is all scrunched up and your hands are balled into fists. You look like you feel angry. Breathe with me. You are safe. We can handle this big feeling together.’”
Role modeling is an excellent way to help impart this knowledge. Bourne says, “Our emotions are contagious. If we’re going to be effective in teaching our kids how to deal with tough feelings, we need to check our knee-jerk reactions at the door. Take a breath if you need to, modelling the calm state you want your child to take on.”
Parents should also suggest alternative physical outlets that redirect feelings. Bourne says parents might suggest different options for expression like drawing a picture of what they’re feeling, acting out feelings with a doll, or asking an adult for help. The Moshi app offers audio mindfulness content designed just for kids, which can help toddlers calm and channel these big feelings instead of hitting.
Towner says, “Have your child hit a pillow, stuffed animal, or other soft object. This communicates to your child that all feelings are OK, but that they need to be expressed in a safe way.”
Indeed, it’s important for parents to validate their kids’ feelings, explains New York psychotherapist Lesley Koeppel. “The best thing you can do as a parent is acknowledge what might be going on for your child and their feelings that they are not able to express for themselves,” she says, “The important thing is to simply acknowledge what is going on for them without adding ‘but’ after it. You can say, ‘I know, it is really hard to want a second cookie and not get it.’ Our children will survive without always getting what they want — and will actually thrive. But we need to acknowledge that it isn’t easy.”
Last, parents should try to stay calm themselves in order to help toddlers cope amid big feelings. “Play it cool and keep your response in check,” says Megan Barella, certified positive discipline parent educator. “Simply say what your child can do with their hands — ’hands are for hugging’ or ‘hands are for giving high fives’ — and then offer a hug or high five. Refrain from getting upset, and saying, ‘no hitting’ or ‘I don’t like it when you hit.’”
Why? Barella explains that “these negative statements can inadvertently reinforce the hitting and give your toddler a false sense of power.”
And the approach simply won’t work anyway, Bourne says: “Resist the urge to lecture. Toddlers who hit are usually in a state of emotional overwhelm, so lecturing or admonishing their behaviour is only going to agitate them further.”
When should I consult a professional about my toddler’s hitting?
As children learn to express themselves, they should naturally begin to grow out of the hitting phase. “Though this varies among children, between the third and fifth birthday, a child’s vocabulary and cognition can be mature enough to control impulses and use reasoning to work through situations,” explains parenting coach Shelley Jefsen of Faithful Parenting.
She recommends seeking guidance from a certified parenting coach or pediatrician or even simply picking up an actionable book to help you start resolving the issue instead of waiting for it to pass. “Many undesirable child behaviors will solidify into unhealthy habits if not intentionally addressed for change,” she says.
Bourne adds that “some children may still struggle into early grade school,” and parents shouldn’t hesitate to “seek professional help if you’re concerned your child’s hitting is more frequent or severe than what would normally be expected for their age, or if it is interfering with their school or social life.”
While toddler hitting is entirely normal, it could also come from an underlying behavioral trigger — perhaps stress or trauma — that a pediatrician or pediatric neurologist might discover and diagnose. “Behavior therapists and special educators can help manage behaviors and develop coping skills,” Ferri says. “If not, a pediatrician can give an occupational therapy referral to evaluate for and appropriately address sensory concerns that may be present.
For more ways to help kids relax and reduce anxiety, try these additional calming techniques.