A listener reached out to ask about dealing with the toddler hitting phase. They wished to remain anonymous when asking the following question:
How to Deal with Toddler’s Hitting Phase
“How do we handle the hitting/being “mean” phase? My little one started smacking when he would get upset that I wouldn’t let him do certain things and now he’s just doing it for fun. I tell him no and he just laughs. I’m trying my best to break generational curses and do the gentle parenting thing – but I’m stumped at this point.”
Solidarity in Motherhood
Toddlers and their big feelings are super challenging for us to navigate. They don’t have the vocabulary, experience, or coping skills yet. And they rely on us to help walk them through these big emotions.
We will be using gentle and respectful parenting techniques when dealing with toddler hitting.
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The Parent’s Experience in Dealing with Toddler Hitting Phase
First, we need to regulate ourselves as parents. We need to know this behavior is developmentally normal. This phase is something all toddlers go through. Honestly, if your toddler didn’t have meltdowns or handle their emotions in inappropriate ways, I’d be concerned.
It helps to really understand and accept that this behavior is both expected and developmentally normal for all toddlers. That can help remove any shame or guilt we have. And we can let go of the feeling that we are doing something wrong. We don’t have to take the blame for their normal and expected behavior. It’s not our fault. We didn’t necessarily do something wrong.
Taking the blame for your toddler’s normal reactions and feelings can place that shame, guilt, and doubt into your heart. This can come out in many ways for us parents, especially while we are in the heat of the moment – mid-tantrum, frustrated, exhausted, and potentially triggered. This will not help the situation at all.
In fact, because our children feed off of our energy, our responses and reactions can make the situation worse. The good news here is that we also have the power to make the situation better with our energy and response. If we are able to calm ourselves down, we are able to help regulate our child’s emotions better by creating a calm environment. This also helps our child to feel more secure by seeing that we are not panicking or freaking out.
So, if you find yourself in this moment, remember my message to you: This is developmentally normal and expected. Repeat this to yourself even when your child is not in meltdown mode. Knowing and expecting that this behavior is going to happen will make it seem less shocking and frustrating when it does. Though your feelings of frustration are always valid throughout that experience. And you are certainly not alone in this phase of childhood.
The Toddler Experience
To understand it a little better, consider this: As our babies grow into toddlers and young children, they have big feelings. Just like we do. But unlike us, they do not have the coping skills that we’ve developed over our lifetime to handle them in a way we perceive as ‘appropriate’.
Something else that these toddlers don’t always have is the full vocabulary to explain to you what is going on in their world. Or what they need and how they are feeling. That can be incredibly frustrating – not being able to communicate with others.
They also don’t have the history that we have of experiencing these feelings for perspective. It means that the loss, sadness, fear, and anger they feel is just as big as our biggest moments of loss, sadness, fear, or anger – because they don’t have anything else to compare it to. You taking their toy away from them might be the biggest loss they’ve ever experienced. Each time they get hurt might be the worst pain they’ve ever felt.
Their reactions are proportionate to their perspective. Even if it doesn’t seem that way from our perspective. We look at them and think they are being overdramatic or over the top. Which can quickly turn into dismissing their experience. And not taking this as an opportunity to teach them the coping skills necessary for the next biggest loss or pain.
Dealing with Toddler Hitting Phase
After we acknowledge that we don’t need to take our child’s behavior or meltdown personally because we understand their perspective and that it’s developmentally normal, we can return to this question about dealing with toddler hitting phases.
What can you do to help in a situation where a child is angry – and hitting as a response?
I want to start by saying that every child is unique. And each situation is unique. While I am offering you tools, strategies, and a better understanding, please know that I am not pretending to have the magic answer that will solve your problem. These are tools to add to your tool belt. The more you have and firmly believe in, the better equipped you will be to handle the situation – no matter how it transpires.
The tools that you can add to your toolbox today are:
- Communication, both verbal and non-verbal
- Investigating further
- Proactive tips to help your toddler navigate these future situations better (Because they will happen again as you and your toddler are learning these new skills).
One last thing before I get into how I recommend dealing with a toddler hitting, I want to talk about what not to do in the situation, because understanding why it doesn’t work will help us to understand a more productive solution.
What Not to Do When Dealing with Toddler Hitting Phase
There are two common reactions I see from parents in this situation that I hope land gently with you. This is a safe space, free of judgment. And you are here to learn and grow with me. That alone shows you are a good parent wanting to help your child in the most healthy and productive way possible for both of you.
Communication During Toddler’s Hitting Phase
The first is a communication error. It’s saying “don’t hit” or “stop hitting” to your child. Even as adults, our brains process the action being said before processing whether or not we are supposed to take that action. This is why if I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, you are likely to still picture a pink elephant.
This is especially true for toddlers, whose brains are still learning and understanding language, interactions, and the world. It is so hard to not say those phrases. I catch myself still to this day saying them sometimes. But, I’ll help you find ways to reframe your statements. And with time and practice, it will become a much more natural response for you.
Demonstrate Action During Toddler’s Hitting Phase
The next unproductive reaction I see parents using is how they demonstrate action to them. Teaching your child not to hit by smacking them back or spanking is only reinforcing that hitting is acceptable. They are watching you for how you navigate the situation. And will be basing their decisions on that.
So, if you are showing them this action back, they are going to accept this as a good way to respond. And would add to the reasons why they are hurting someone back that they love and trust. It’s also showing them that it’s ok for someone they love and trust to hurt them.
Modeling Appropriate Behavior When Toddler is Hitting
Knowing they are looking to me to demonstrate how I want them to handle the situation, what does that look like? How can I model the appropriate behavior for them? I want the child to quit hitting, so I won’t hit. Instead, I will show what I would like – gentle and kind touch. And maybe redirecting to hitting something silly and more acceptable to be hit – like a pillow. Because getting their feelings out in a healthier way is still productive.
Teaching Your Toddler Accountability
If you find yourself acting in a way that you are not proud of, I get it. I’ve been there. We all make mistakes, we all raise our voices from time to time, and we all lose our cool. This is not excusing outright abuse, I always have to say that because someone is bound to bring it up when excusing parents for making mistakes.
It’s what you do after that mistake that matters. You could focus on the fact that raising your voice or losing your cool just potentially taught your child how they deserve to be treated and how they should treat others. But getting stuck on that won’t give you an opportunity to fix it. Because that is what each mistake is, an opportunity.
This is an opportunity to take accountability. To tell your child you are sorry. And that they don’t deserve to be talked to or treated like that. This teaches them that they deserve accountability. They deserve apologies when they have been wronged or hurt. That their feelings matter and they deserve to be acknowledged. It also teaches them how to properly apologize and hold themselves accountable as well.
What to Do When Dealing with a Toddler Hitting
Ok, Let’s get straight into how I would handle this situation because I know that is what you came here for.
Communication When Your Toddler is Hitting
First, I say “Ouch! That hurt. Mama hurt” to communicate verbally what I’m experiencing. And look/act hurt to communicate non-verbally what I am experiencing. I have taught him to say “sorry” and give a hug to comfort afterward. It’s ok if your child doesn’t know that yet – that doesn’t make the rest of my steps any less beneficial.
I’ll tell you at the end how to work on teaching them sorry, along with a few other strategies to help with future situations like this. Because there will be more as your child learns this new behavior, new coping skills, and new language. It’s not a one-time fix, it’s a practice. And some of the best times to teach this lesson are outside of the triggered and emotional moment for them. Like when they are in a good mood and having fun.
Demonstrate Gentle Touch to Your Toddler When Hitting
Next, I’ll say “gentle hands” and demonstrate what gentle touch looks like. I will overly praise and be excited when this happens. Again, communicating with him both verbally and non-verbally to really help his understanding of what I am experiencing. And also to demonstrate how he can communicate similar feelings to me.
How to Redirect Your Toddler When Hitting
Then I bring my son to a pillow he can hit or our ball pit where he can throw balls when he’s mad. And turn that into a silly game of getting that action out of his system in a healthier and more acceptable way than hitting another person or throwing something at them.
Even as adults, it can be really beneficial to find healthy and physical ways to get negative energy and emotions out of our bodies. Things like running, kickboxing, mini dance parties, or even screaming into a pillow can release a lot of the energy building up and allow us to return to a more regulated state. We just need to show our children healthy ways to use their bodies for that release.
Investigate Your Toddler’s Hitting Phase
If the toddler is at this point and is still continuing to hit, smack, or throw things – there could be another need that needs to be met. Are they tired, hungry, sick, or teething? If you are able to communicate with them to find out, whether through spoken word or sign language, investigate that further.
Or try offering solutions to all of those deeper problems to see what might be happening. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find the source of the issue. But at the very least, you will be changing your child’s surroundings to the table to eat or bedroom to sleep. And this might be enough of a distraction in itself for them to change their mood a little.
Being Proactive about Your Toddler’s Hitting Phase
As promised, I also have tips and tricks for how to prevent meltdowns. And how to successfully equip both yourself and your toddler to have a better experience during these meltdowns in the future.
Yes, we should be doing these tricks during meltdowns but that actually isn’t the most beneficial time to teach some of these coping skills and language. When they are in the middle of a meltdown, they are having an intense stress response. Which does not allow them to retain as much information as they could when they are in a much calmer state. This is why it’s important to also teach this outside of the triggered and emotional moment as well. Like when they are in a good mood and having fun.
New Toddler Vocabulary
Arm your children with the proper vocabulary necessary to understand during their meltdown and your guidance through it. Teaching them both verbally and non-verbally to say and show sorry, gentle hands, and what “hit” means are a great place to start.
You can teach them sorry by having them repeat the word, use sign language for the word. And to offer a hug or form of comfort afterward. Teaching them gentle hands would look like touching their cheek or arm softly and having them do the same to you while saying “gentle hands, gentle hands”. And teaching them what the word “hit” means by having them play hit a big pillow while you say and show “hit” on the pillow.
When you are teaching them these words, be over the top excited when they accurately say or show you the word. Make it fun, with lots of smiles, clapping, laughs, and silliness. They will quickly understand how happy you become when they are responding in these healthy ways.
Consistency in Gentle Parenting
Consistency in this practice is key. Continually showing them how to treat you, how to get out and cope with these big feelings will come more naturally to them over time.
It also requires loads of patience – which is so hard when you don’t have the time, energy, or capacity to give them this. Just know it’s normal to struggle with their big emotions. You are not alone in feeling overwhelmed by it all. Reach out to a therapist, your partner, or a trusted friend when you need to vent.
While all of this is overwhelming, I have an episode on the importance (and practice) of taking days off as a mother. Days off can prevent burnout and resentment that are holding you back. You also need to check out this extensive list of self-care ideas and activities to care for yourself during this process.
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