Aggression in toddlers…it provokes a lot of emotion in many parents! Let me start off by saying, it can be normal for toddlers to hit. It’s a stage many of them go through. However, knowing that doesn’t make it easier to deal with. It takes a lot of mental strength to deal with a toddler who handles their feelings by hitting. It can make you really angry. You may personalize the action, (like I just did this for them and they turn around and hit me?!). You may feel like they are disrespecting you, which for some parents, can be another trigger for anger.
My son definitely handled his emotions by hitting when he was a younger toddler. It was very frustrating for me because my older daughter didn’t go through that phase so I had no experience with it. In the beginning I reacted to his behavior instead of proactively coming up with a plan for how I would deal with it.
Once I realized I reacted, (which didn’t help him or me when it was happening) I was more strategic in how I would approach his hitting behavior.
Although it’s not easy to handle that type of behavior, here are tips that can help you handle a toddler who hits when they are upset. These tips when used consistently can also help to decrease these fits of aggression. (However, if you feel like your toddler’s aggression is out of the norm or you aren’t sure, always ask your child’s pediatrician).
What to do with a toddler who hits
Don’t try to process with them until after their anger has de-escalated.
I’ve made the mistake of trying to reason with or talk with my son when he was already escalated. That would only make him more upset and he would try to hit more when I did this. This in turn made me feel some type of way cause then I was pissed he wouldn’t listen to me or stop hitting.
But when anyone is at the point where they have lost emotional control, you aren’t using the rational part of your brain. So you have to wait until your kid is de-escalated before you attempt to process with them.
Now when I see he is at that point, I don’t try to talk with him until he is completely done with his anger.
Understand where their behavior is coming from
Toddler’s are typically not hitting you because they want to hurt you. I know when my son would become angry about something, he didn’t have the words yet to express his feelings. So he did what he could to show me he was upset.
It may help to think of it like this:
The behavior you see, (aggression) is just the tip of the iceberg and is caused by underlying feelings, (anger, frustration, etc.). You can’t fix the behavior unless you know the thought process or emotion behind the behavior.
Understanding the reason behind why your toddler hits, can also help you not take it so personally. When you respond calmly and with a level head, (unlike what I used to do!), you can diffuse the situation much faster.
Related: How To Handle Tantrums (Like A Boss)
Hold their hands gently until they are calm or the tension has left their body
Words weren’t enough with my son. I would tell him he’s not allowed to hit me, (or anyone else) but when he was escalated, he didn’t hear that. But just because he wasn’t listening doesn’t mean I was gonna let him keep hitting me or someone else.
I would gently, (but firmly enough so he couldn’t get out of my grasp) hold both of his hands until the anger was gone. Yes, your child will probably struggle and they probably won’t like it. But they need to understand hitting isn’t allowed and you are keeping everyone safe by holding their hands.
Each child is different, but for my son, this helped the anger to dissipate quickly and he usually transitioned from anger to sadness, (I call this the recovery phase). Once your kid has gone into the recovery phase, that’s when you can begin to be empathetic and talk to them.
Offer a hug
This is the first thing I would do when my son transitioned to the recovery phase. He always wanted to reconnect and because I would remind myself not to take the hitting behavior personally, I always comforted him.
Remember, the aggression isn’t a personal attack on you, (or whoever they hit). I completely understand that it isn’t always easy to be even-keeled when dealing with that especially if it happens a lot.
However, it’s important to reconnect with your toddler after they experience that anger. They need to be reassured you are still there for them when they are going through these huge emotions that they can’t handle yet.
Talk to them to help give them words for what happened
This is of course during the recovery phase. You want to help them begin to put words to what they were feeling so eventually they will be able to verbalize why they are angry instead of hitting. You also want them to know that it’s ok to have big feelings, but it’s not ok to become physically aggressive because of those big feelings.
An example of this is, “You wanted the toy, I said you couldn’t have it and you got angry. When you were angry you tried to hit me. It’s ok to be angry, but you will not hurt me.”
Use an emotion chart
This can be during the recovery phase or at any point when your child isn’t angry. You can point to a face, name the emotion, and you can act out the emotion or ask your child to act it out. This begins to help them understand what emotions look and feel like. Plus it’s like a game so it’s fun for them too!
This is one of the coping skills I firmly believe made a difference in my son’s hitting behavior. Now when he’s angry he can tell me, “mommy, I angry!”, instead of resorting to hitting.
Once he tells me he’s angry, I can ask him questions to try to figure out what’s bothering him.
Related: How To Help Your Child Handle Anger
Dealing with a toddler who hits is no easy feat. It’s challenging to keep your own emotions in check and it’s hard to know what to do when it’s happening. You may have tried interventions before that have failed or maybe you didn’t know what to do. That’s ok! Mommin’ ain’t easy! But using these tips will help you confidently handle your toddler when they are hitting and over time it will help your toddler decrease their aggression.