When a toddler hits, it can throw parents for a loop. It can be especially stressful when a toddler hits for no reason or at day care.
You might find yourself wondering, “What happened to that little baby who was so content to lie on my chest and smile up at me all day, every day?”
But as babies grow from infants to toddlers, they develop more emotions and opinions. And though it can seem like the toddler is hitting for no reason, the truth is that it often becomes a way for them to express themselves.
“[Toddlers] have very low impulse control because they are just babies, and they are learning how to control their body and emotions,” said Ann McKitrick, M.S., an early childhood specialist and founder of Nurtured Noggins. “They simply don’t have the words yet to express what they want to express. A hit expresses what they feel in a very effective way … they are learning that they have a little bit of personal power.”
Hitting can also be a learned behavior. Perhaps a sibling is hitting your toddler at home, and your toddler is turning around and doing it to other kids at day care (or vice versa).
As adults, we know this behavior isn’t nice. We want to convey that to our children so they don’t hit at day care, home, or anywhere. McKitrick gave ways to discourage your toddler from hitting others.
Toddlers understand words, but they don’t always know how to use them.
“Their receptive vocabulary is high,” McKitrick said. “Their expressive vocabulary is not.”
McKitrick suggested teaching your child sign language (or finding a day care that does this — many will). Learning signs for words like stop, no, and angry can help toddlers communicate more productively and stop them from hitting.
Caregivers can also try to catch the toddler in the act and stop them from hitting before they do.
“Stay really close,” McKitrick advised. “Catch their hands mid-air and say, ‘No. No hit.’ Keep it really, really simple.”
The toddler stage is typically defined as 1 to 3 years old. Any parent knows a child develops leaps and bounds in that time, so you may change approaches slightly as a child gets older and understands more. McKitrick suggests giving them the words to say in certain situations between 12 and 24 months. Think, “Stop,” “No,” and “That hurts.”
Around the child’s second birthday, you may be able to use the moment a toddler hits to teach empathy and responsibility.
“In that second and third year, it’s really a good idea to point out to the child who hit the reaction of the person they did hit, and point out the fact that they are crying or that hurt them,” McKitrick said. “Help them figure out a way to make amends for what they’ve done.”
For years, that’s often meant making a kid say they are sorry, but McKitrick feels actions speak louder than words.
“[Try having them] go to get an ice pack out or give that child a toy or something to help them feel better,” she said.
It’s essential to carefully walk the line between teaching a child right from wrong and shaming them.
“It is so much up to the parent or the adult to respond without anger, without judgment, or without shaming, to not use words like, ‘That’s a bad boy. No one will like you if you hit,’” McKitrick noted. “That’s shaming, and we don’t want to do that.”
Instead, McKitrick said to respond with a pleasant face and firm words, “but always with an attitude of accepting and understanding.”
“We all get angry and don’t like it when people grab us,” she said. “It’s just a matter of putting yourself in this kid’s place and saying, ‘Hey, I know you can’t say anything, but let me help you figure out how to communicate without hurting other people.’”
McKitrick said that the best way to handle hitting is to prevent it. Make sure there are enough toys and space for children to spread out. Of course, things happen, and toddlers hit at day care.
Before deciding on a day care, she pointed out that it’s essential to learn the facility’s policy on hitting. She noted that it’s best to find one that will keep children safe and parents informed, but it won’t stoke shaming by announcing to other caregivers, “Tommy hit everyone today.”
“You don’t want people ganging up on the kid,” McKitrick said. “They’re just being a toddler.”
McKitrick said there are three big don’ts when toddlers hit: Hitting back, yelling, and withholding attention as punishment.
“When you hit back, you are saying is that hitting is what you can do if you are bigger,” McKitrick noted. “Yelling at them is frightening. Withholding attention as punishment is emotionally abusive.”
When a toddler hits at daycare or for seemingly no reason, it can be stressful for parents. But it’s important to put yourself in the child’s shoes. They are likely hitting to communicate or because it’s a behavior they learned someone, such as in the home or at day care. It’s important not to yell at or shame the child, but you can help them learn better ways to communicate. As the toddler grows, you can teach them ways to make amends for hitting, such as getting the other child an ice pack. Learn your day care provider’s hitting policy before sending your child and make sure you are comfortable with it.
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