My toddler hits! What do I do?
You are on a play-date and your toddler starts pushing, kicking, or even trying to bite. You are mortified and look at the other parent with a look of embarrassment. Inside you are thinking, “oh no, my kid is going to grow up to be the bully”. If this sound familiar to you, know that you are not alone.
If you have more than one child, this may even be a regular scene in your home. I have two girls who have often resorted to physical means of trying to resolve the conflict. While this is stressful, frustrating, and often embarrassing as a parent, it is normal for toddlers to resort to kicking, hitting, and even biting to resolve a conflict.
In order to understand how to manage the situation, we need to take a look at why this is happening. For starters, toddlers do not have the ability to express all of their feelings verbally and they definitely have not yet mastered conflict resolution. The only way that they know how to make someone stop doing what they are doing is to push them away. Not only do they lack the skills to manage the situation, they also lack impulse control.
Toddlers brains are not able to hold too many thoughts at once, so they tend to only be able to focus on one thing at once. They also lack the ability to think through a behavior and fully understand consequences (this is why you often find yourself dealing with the same behaviors over and over). Much like a car with no brakes and poor steering, they are unable to redirect themselves when an impulse occurs. So, they react quickly and with little thought or little ability to stop.
So lets imagine your child is playing with another child. That child decides your child’s toy should be theirs so they try to take it. Your child pushes them to the ground. You can see here where your child struggled. They were protecting their toy and the quickest and easiest way to do this was to push the other child. Even if your child has the ability to say “this is my toy please leave me alone” it is highly likely that the other toddler wouldn’t respect that response (again, their impulse is driving them to get the toy). Now you have two toddlers with no ability to put on the breaks just acting on impulse alone. They struggle to stop themselves once they are driven to do something. This is why a child may know it is wrong to hit but still does it.
While this is normal behavior and won’t change over night, it is our job as parents to help guide our children and teach them how to manage these situations without physical aggression.
This takes time, repetition, and patience.
So how do we do this?
1)Identify what triggers the aggressive act. In the example about you can clearly see that it is about the toy. You may have to investigate further if it is less obvious. It could be that they are tired, hungry, over stimulated, need space, or are frustrated. Look at the events leading up to the incident for an idea of what may have set them off. Asking them most likely will not get you a clear answer. Most kids can’t identify why they did something.
2) Identify your child’s feelings. Again, we are planting seeds so that our child will develop the ability to manage feelings better in the future. Identify what your child is feeling so that they will be able to create the association themselves. Knowing how they feel is the first step in being able to cope with that feeling and as they mature they will be able to verbalize their feelings instead of acting them out. Simply state what you see “ You are frustrated”, “you are sad” , etc.
3) Remind child we don’t hit, kick, etc. A verbal reminder is always helpful . Again, your child’s breaks don’t work that well so you may be reminding them constantly. This is not for nothing. As their brains develop so will their ability to control their impulses. Calmly go up to your child, get to their level, and say “people aren’t for hitting”, “we don’t hit”, etc. If needed remove them from the situation and redirect them. Sometimes simply saying “let’s go over here” may help. You can even combine this with step 2. “ I know you are frustrated but people aren’t for hitting”
4)Identify how their actions affect others: If your child’s actions caused the other child to get upset or hurt, point that out. “It looks like Sue got hurt when you pushed her” or “Sue is sad that you kicked her”. This helps your child start to see that their behaviors affect others. You also want to point out how your toddler's action positively impact others. For example "look how happy it makes Lucas when you share your toy" . Your toddler most likely won’t show too much concern about how they make others feel, but this doesn't mean that they aren't listening or don't care. We are planting seeds for later. We want children who are aware of how they affect others. We want to raise children who are kind, caring, and empathetic. As children get older their peers will offer feedback. An 8 year old who hits their friends, may find that no one wants to play with them. This feedback, will help your child continue to develop their understanding of how to interact with others and what is acceptable and what is not. Our highlighting how their actions make others feel at a young age is the foundation for this understanding.
5)Redirect child before aggressive act occurs. If you see that your child is starting to get frustrated or having a hard time while playing with a friend, it may be helpful to redirect them before they feel the need to act. For example, if you see a child starting to creep up on your child to take a toy simply walking over and saying “ Kat is playing with that right now, would you like this toy” may help. If your child is not in the mood to play, maybe cut the play date short. If your child is over stimulated, offer to sit with them quietly for a few minutes until they are ready to continue playing. Disagreements and conflicts will happen and our children will need to learn to resolve them. An equally important skill to learn, however, is to listen to our own feelings and manage those before they get out of hand. So if your child can learn to identify needing to walk away, take a break, or having some alone time, this is just as helpful as learning the skills to manage conflict.
6)Identify options for your child. Depending on how upset or frustrated your child is in the moment it can be helpful to identify other ways to respond. So in the example given above stating “we don’t hit. Let’s offer Cindy another toy that she can play with so she doesn’t take yours”. It can also be really helpful to role play how to handle these situations. When your child is calm maybe tell stories about two people having a conflict and how to resolve it. Possibly even a story about a little girl or boy who hits or pushes when frustrated. Telling stories, role playing, or acting situations out with their dolls or stuffed animals can all be helpful.
7) Be patient and be prepared to repeat yourself. Like most things in life, we don’t learn things instantly. Be prepared to help your child and do the above steps repeatedly. Managing emotions and conflict resolution are skills that build slowly. Your child can’t speed up their brain development and their impulse control, so you need to assist them until their breaks (and steering for that matter) begin working. The key is to be consistent. Your child will start to get it. Once their language skills develop and they can begin to identify their feelings, and manage their impulses, physical aggression should decrease. Again, this takes time.
Claudia Glassman is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Registered Play Therapist, and Parenting Coach. Claudia is passionate about helping parents find joy and gain confidence in their parenting abilities. Her vision is to share her knowledge and bring awareness to the importance of the relationship that we have with our children.