Tips for responding when your toddler hits
I expected it to happen at some point, but when it finally did, I was still shocked. My loving, big-hearted then 13-month-old son, in a brief moment of toy deprivation, had a fit in my arms and smacked me with all of his might on my shoulder. He must have liked the sound his hit made, because after I said, “Elijah, no hitting,” in my kindest, authoritative voice, he smiled and hit me again in the same spot. This went back and forth about three times—me saying “Elijah, no hitting” and him whacking me, each time with a smile and with each hit becoming softer and softer until the last round, when seemingly testing the definition of hitting, he slowly and lightly touched my shoulder, then waited for my response.
That last one wasn’t really a hit, but feeling my parental authority challenged, I edged in one last, “No hitting” command, put him down, and stepped back quickly so he couldn’t disobey. He happily moved on to doing something else as I stood watching, wondering what happened and what I could have done better.
Is Hitting Normal?
First off, is this normal behavior? (His, I mean.) Absolutely, according to Chris Maricle, coordinator of Tulsa Public School’s Parents as Teachers program. “One-year-olds hit mainly because they’re frustrated, upset, or tired. And then sometimes it’s a game to them.”
They do not have the verbal skills or vocabulary to tell us how they feel, so they may hit in an effort to communicate or get attention.
Add to it that toddlers don’t realize that other people have feelings and needs. “You have to watch toddlers. It’s all about them,” Maricle warned.
Toddlers are egocentric, but not because they’re bad or mean. It’s just the developmental stage they’re in. They gradually learn appropriate ways to interact with others through play and feedback.
So what kind of feedback did I give Elijah when he first hit me? Maricle pointed out that I let the hitting become a game. I’m not the only one. From what Maricle has seen, many parents say, “No hitting” in an elaborate, singsong way, and in the process, “give loads of attention that can be misconstrued by a young one.” A playful voice will not let your child know if hitting is good or bad. Instead, she may repeat the behavior to see your drawn-out reaction again.
How to Respond When Your Toddler Hits
How should a parent respond when a toddler hits? Maricle offers four steps:
1. Immediately stop the behavior if it is in progress by gently holding your child’s hands. Do not hit back. Children are great imitators and will model what you do. Hitting them back sends the message that aggressive behavior is okay or that hitting is a game.
2. Look him in the eyes and firmly but calmly say, “No hitting. That hurts mommy (or daddy, or the dog, or Suzy).” Screaming, yelling, or whimpering your words is not effective.
3. Remove your attention from your child for about one minute by setting her down in a place where she can’t hurt herself or others, and moving away from her. Don’t expect children younger than 2 ½ years to stay in a time out spot; they won’t understand how. But children ages one and up can begin to understand that hitting is not acceptable when you take away your attention. If your child has hit someone else, like a playmate, pamper the playmate with attention instead.
4. After the minute has passed, return your attention to your child. If he is upset, say something like, “You’re sad. I’m sorry you hit mommy. We won’t hit any more.” Give him a great big hug, and then redirect him to another activity.
Take Preventive Action
Maricle emphasized that hitting can also be reduced through preventive action. For example, if you see your child getting upset or if you have to take away a toy or object that has her interest, distract her with another toy to hold or activity to do. Also, maintain a consistent sleep schedule for your toddler. “Lots of kids are shortchanged in sleep,” Maricle said, and their overtiredness can negatively affect their behavior.
As they begin to build their vocabulary, our children will hopefully start expressing their feelings with words. Everyone gets upset sometimes; the trick is in knowing the right way to communicate our feelings to get what we need. It’s a trick that is best learned through firm, yet caring, guidance.
For further reading, Maricle recommends The No-Cry Discipline Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.