Teach Toddlers Not to Hit Without Saying A Word

Toddlers hit.  Some toddlers hit out of anger, some out of frustration, and some to get your attention. I never allow an out-of-control toddler to intentionally try to injure me and not say something.  But some toddlers hit me and I don’t say a word…but I immediately DO something. Adults can make it very clear that hitting is not acceptable without saying a word.  Really.

  • Step 1 in preventing a child from hitting is never to hit a child in anger or in any other situation.  Children who have been hit learn very quickly that hitting is allowed if you are bigger and stronger.  Make sure before you spank or tap them on the arm that this is the lesson you intend to teach them.
  • Step 2 is to have clear limits on aggressive behavior every day.  Young children do not have full control of their impulses, and will work on that skill for years to come.  This is not an excuse not to impose consequences, but it might mitigate the intensity of your response.  And it means that the limits have to be MORE consistent for toddlers to help them remember what will happen if they are unable to control their behavior.  If your child knows that you will always impose the same consequence for pushing a sibling, for example, then when they do shove their sister, they should not be surprised that they will experience the consequence.  It might be a time-out, loss of a privilege, or whatever your family has decided is the consistent consequence.  If your child hits, then they will gradually expect the consequence to that act.  Feel free to state house rules, such as “We don’t hit in this house”.  It sends the additional message that the child is an integral part of something important: a family.
  • Step 3; now to the part about not saying a word.  You can use Kind Ignoring from the Happiest Toddler (see earlier post on my blog) or just a quizzical look that says “Really?  You think that is going to be successful in getting what you want?” Look at them with aggression and you will get more of what they just dished out.   If you have clear limits and the child knows them, they know what you are thinking. If their intent was to get a rise out of you, Kind Ignoring makes it clear that you are not going to be a party to this behavior.  Dangerous aggression is no time for Kind Ignoring, but then, the minor aggressions that benefit from Kind Ignoring happen so much more often in daily life than dangerous aggression for almost all children.
  • Step 4 is to teach toddlers how to manage aggressive impulses.  It comes as a shock to many first-time parents that their adorable baby has turned into a toddler with aggressive impulses.  This is the human condition, and some children seem to have a harder time managing their impulses.  Aggression is normal.  It really is.  Learning what to do instead of lashing out is so important, and not easy for any toddler.  This is where it gets tricky.  My favorite strategy is to use the Fast Food Rule from Happiest Toddler on the Block (see previous blog posts) to make it clear that I understand their message of anger, frustration or desire, and then explain what is going to happen, or how the child can achieve the goal.  If they wanted a turn with a toy, giving them the words for a request or commiserating that it is sad that the other child is not willing to share is more instructive.  Older children can absorb empathetic statements like “You don’t like it when your brother hits you, do you?” but younger toddlers really do not have the ability to fully empathize, and certainly not when upset.  Make it all about them and their needs, and you will get further.  When they reach the cognitive stage to experience full empathy, they will be so much more able to wrap their heads around that concept.

It is so much easier to set up limits and teach appropriate behavior rather than constantly correcting a child and having to use things like time-outs.  Life with toddlers is always a roller coaster but it doesn’t have to be a fight.

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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