How Do I Stop My Toddler from Hitting Me?

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One of the most frequently asked questions from parents of toddlers to land in my inbox is this: What do I do when my kid hits, pushes, kicks, or bites me? Parents of toddlers and preschoolers usually expect some amount of hitting and kicking from frustrated little ones, but when it feels aggressive and is directed toward a specific person it becomes a cause for concern.

I always caution parents to try not to take these acts of aggression too personally. It might feel like your child is lashing out at you, but young children tend to run high on emotion and low on communication skills. When frustration strikes, kids will rely on what they know: Yelling, hitting, throwing things, and/or tantrums.

There are ways to reduce these behaviors, but it does take time. One of the biggest obstacles I see in this age group is the need for a quick fix. A developing brain needs time to learn and grow.

It’s unreasonable to expect toddlers and preschoolers to learn new coping strategies in a day. It’s also unreasonable to punish children for, well, being children.

Before you lose your cool, try a few of these strategies to help reduce hitting, biting, kicking, throwing things, and other acts of frustration:

Track the triggers.

When frequent tantrums or acts of aggression are a problem, I always recommend a trigger tracker in the home. Jot down a few things after the incident: Time of day, what was happening just prior to the aggression, last meal or snack, amount of sleep the night before, and other sources of possible discomfort. If you track the triggers for a few days, a pattern will emerge. When you find the pattern, you can problem solve in a way that helps your child (versus relying on a list of rules that might not actually apply to the situation).

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Acknowledge the problem.

Little kids have big feelings. It doesn’t take much to acknowledge the source of the frustration (i.e. “I know that you really want that toy right now. That toy looks fun.”), but it can make a big difference to the child.

A little bit of empathy followed by repetition of the facts in a clear and calm voice (i.e. “It’s Danny’s turn to play with that toy right now.”) shows kids that you understand the source of frustration even if the circumstances won’t change.

Use words and gestures.

It’s never too late to teach baby sign language. Using sign language with young children helps reduce frustration and improve communication with parents. It also increases self-confidence. I saw firsthand with my two children the clear benefits of using baby sign language. I started early, but it’s never too late to improve communication with your child.

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Practice using signs and gestures when your child is calm so that he knows what you’re communicating when he’s upset.

Be short and sweet.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a lengthy explanation lead to even greater frustration for the child. While the intention might be to help the young child learn new information, it’s very difficult for kids to process that much information when they’re in a compromised state.

Keep is short and sweet: Hitting hurts. We don’t hit.

Provide alternatives.

Kids rely on unsophisticated methods of communicating frustration because that’s what they know. They don’t have the tools to cope with their big feelings.

Sometimes kids throw things when they’re frustrated because it feels good to release that energy. Get outside and throw a ball at a target or kick a playground ball. Better yet, see who can bounce the ball the highest.

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Expending pent up physical energy reduces the need to lash out with hitting, kicking, or biting. Repeat the short and sweet directive in a calm voice and follow that with a physical activity (run to the wall and back to “stomp your mads out”) to help kids learn to manage frustration.

Have you ever had to deal with toddler frustration? What did you do?


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How Do I Stop My Toddler from Hitting Me?

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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