The air is thick with tension. Two toddlers face off. Between them is a tiny Hot Wheels, irresistible with its exposed chrome engine and smoothie-smeared red lacquer topcoat. And then it happens. Your kid yells “Mine!” snatching the tiny vehicle and slapping his opponent like he’s Carrie and Big just left him at the altar. What do you do next? Pull your child aside for a heart-to-heart/stern time-out? Apologize, while literally bowing, mortified, to the other child’s mother? Grab your kid and run? Here, seven smart, soothing, sensible ways to deal with toddler hitting—all better options than fight or flight.
Let’s Talk About Toddler Hitting
1. Stay Calm.
You know that Pinterest quote “Kids are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate”? It’s true. If you flip out, yell or grab your child after he hits, he’s likely to mimic that behavior and think, This is the way we treat others when we get upset. The best thing you can do—in pretty much any stressful moment—is breathe. “You actually have a lot of power to prevent this situation from recurring,” writes one expert. “It’s just that you need to regulate your own emotions before you can help your child regulate his.”
2. Remember He's So Little.
Kids hit when their (already minimal) capacity to manage frustration boils over, when they’re frightened, over-stimulated, feel disconnected from you and/or when they are unable to express themselves verbally. Their developing brains are immature and their emotional bandwidth is easily overloaded so hitting is generally impulsive and not premeditated (read: they are not destined to become murderers). Knowing this may help you replace your own shame and anger (let's call it "shanger") with empathy.
3. Have A Mantra.
Once your child is calm (she will absorb nothing while still all revved up), repeat a key phrase that distinguishes feelings from actions. One expert suggests telling kids, “Mad is OK. But people are not for hitting.” Or “It’s OK to be angry but it’s never OK to hit. Hitting hurts people.” Another option? “We don’t hit. I would never hit you, and I won’t allow you to hit me.” But no matter what you say, it’s what you do that counts. Above all, be kind. Help your child talk through her anger, fear and hurt, while you reflect her feelings back to her: “I saw how upset you got when your brother didn’t want to play with you. That made you feel really sad.” Validate her emotional reactions, but set clear limits on the physical ones. Once she’s gotten her feelings out and sees your love is unconditional, her rage will dissipate and she’ll be better able to absorb the lessons you’re trying to teach.
4. Don’t Punish.
Bad news for anyone looking for “consequences.” “Punishing a child who hits doesn’t stop the hitting,” writes the same expert. “It just increases the child’s fear, making future hitting more likely. To stop the hitting once and for all, you have to address the feelings that are driving the hitting.”
Dr. Sears calls this “tracking the trigger.” What are the situations that tend to precede hitting episodes? Write them down and brainstorm solutions. Sibling rivalry? Try building some one-on-one time with that child into your day. Playground squabbles? Stay physically close so your child feels there's a safety net—and so you can step in before anyone gets hit. Once you start to better predict these scenarios, you can better head them off at the pass, or totally avoid them.
6. Take A Time-in.
A time-out is typically when a child is removed from others and sent away, usually to his room. Necessary to give everyone time to breathe? Probably (notably, one social worker we know suggests that the minutes spent in time out correspond with the age of the child, so a three-year-old gets three minutes, a four-year-old four minutes, and so on). But many have found timeouts backfire, leading to less connection and more aggression. Instead, some parents opt for a “time-in." You remove your child from the situation—hopefully before but even after he hits—go to a quiet place, and sit together to calm down. The goal is to make him feel safe. (It’s scary to lose control, to understand you did something you knew you weren’t supposed to do, and to have everyone, especially those you love most, angry with you!) Once he does (expect lots of crying), he can talk through the feelings that made him hit in the first place.
7. Have Him Hit A Pillow.
Or take three deep breaths. Or count to ten. Or stomp his feet. All are better than hitting a person. In middle of the storm, one expert suggests getting down to your child’s eye level and saying, “Let’s go get that hitting out somewhere else.” But you can also role play in relaxed moments, and have your child act out what they will do instead the next time they feel like hitting. One therapist likens this to creating “muscle memory,” which can then be accessed when things get heated.
Additional reporting by Emily Brozyna.