Why is your toddler hitting you?

When toddlers start hitting, many parents, teachers, care givers feel they are at a wits end. What makes it difficult is, that we usually assume that someone who hits us wants to hurt us.

What children really want, is to tell us that they need to express something. And we should “listen”.

Most children hide their feelings of fear at an early age. They pick up on our uneasiness with their big feelings. We try to get them not to cry, we distract them when they’re upset, we try to fix things so they won’t have an upset. I would wager that most of us parents give at least ten strong signals a day that we don’t like our children to show us how they feel. So their fears go underground, where these powerful feelings cause trouble. They eventually surface not in crying or clinging or a full-out screaming response, but in hitting and biting and pushing other children.

Sometimes a toddler would also laugh while hitting. Adults usually would respond with reprimanding this very “bad” behaviour, which will not really solve the problem.

Hitting is usually a sign that the child is troubled by something. When a child hits other children in school, teachers usually appoint the parents and try to find out what may cause this behaviour. Sadly, many parents would probably think of a kind of punishment for their children instead of approaching this problem with empathy.

When a child hits – it can be also an older child! – there is always a reason for it, and the fact itself that the child chooses a physical way to express his or her frustration, is a sign that he/she needs some support to channel those emotions in a way that it’s not hurtful for him/her or others. – It seems a contradiction in terms, but a child that pushes others away (by hitting, teasing etc.) is usually trying to say that he/she needs and seeks attention, care and help.

In the post “When Your Toddler Hits You: A New Perspective“, Laura Podowski gives very useful advice on how to interpret this kind of behaviour and how to address a toddler who is hitting others.

The main thing one should do is to actively listen to the child. Not only what he/she has to say, but to understand what causes this behaviour and address it with the child. – If you want to help your child to tell you what is going on, there are many sites with emotion-cards like these ones:

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Children learn to express their feelings, frustrations by copying what we do. If we, as adults, are able to explain why at a certain moment we are nervous, anxious, frustrated, overwhelmed, happy, excited etc., they will be able to do the same. Toddlers can learn this even if they are not yet talking much. They can use signs to express frustrations and they can learn to name their feelings and, by mirroring our behaviour, they will be able to tell what is going on and what they need.

In her article, Laura Podowski presents some examples of interactions with toddlers.

Although I fully agree with her approach, I must add that toddlers can’t really understand negations. If we tell a toddler “don’t touch the stove”, he probably will touch it right away. Not because he wasn’t listening, but because the whole concept of negation is not yet clear. What he really hears is “touch the stove”.

If we tell our toddler who is hitting “don’t hit me, I don’t like it”, he will hear “hit me, I like it”. Saying “stay away from the stove” or “stop hitting me, it hurts me” gives a much clearer message. – I will explain the use and comprehension of negation in another post soon.

6 replies »

    • Thank you, Madrexilio. I’m glad this resonates with you. I’m writing another post about the acquisition of negations in young children because I think the main problem with children hitting or having temper tantrums is related to miscommunication. But I’m still working on this 😉

  1. Hi need more clarification..1:5 yr baby girl hits me while in play time and also while how should I reply to her..and why she doing this again n again…what is the reason..please help

    • Arati, I am sorry for my very late reply! I hope the situation is better now, but in general, a child can have many different reasons to hit. If you can describe the context of the situation: what kind of frustration it might be?
      The frustration can also come from a similar situation she experienced in daycare or with peers and she “acts out the response” with you ?

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