“When Toddlers Attack,” Rated G

I deal with a number of families whose toddler has started hitting when upset. They hit peers, siblings, even parents. This development upsets many parents, who are afraid of what it might mean and feel powerless to stop it.

Here are some important things to remember:

First, take a deep breath. Understand that if your toddler begins hitting (or kicking or any other aggressive habit), do not worry that your child is developing into a mercenary, thug, or terrorist. Hitting is a very normal developmental hiccup. Gandhi and Mother Teresa were probably whacking their siblings when they were in the terrible twos.

Second, understand that hitting is primarily a means of communication for a person who has a very short list of available options. Remember, most toddlers have the communication skills of a rutabaga, so when they are excited, angry, jealous, selfish, or sad, they don’t have the same tools that adults have: mainly, words. It would be nice if Junior could say, “Hey, I just got that toy; I’d prefer to play with it for a while before you get your grubby hands on it.” But unless you’re raising a genius, you’re toddler isn’t that verbal.

Third, toddlers are little scientists; they love to get a response out of others. Hitting is an easy way to get that response. Because their ability to empathize is limited, they aren’t particularly upset when they make someone else cry by hitting. In fact, they presume that because hitting seemed OK for them, it must have been OK for the victim: “Hey, that was fun for me! What’s your problem?”

Fourth, your response as a parent needs to be consistent. Understand that unlearning hitting requires both an adequate menu of alternatives and lots of practice using those alternatives. This takes time. Be patient. The most important factor in teaching better skills is modeling. Show your toddler what YOU do when you are angry or frustrated. Then invite your child to copycat you!

Fifth, when your child hits a peer or sibling, support that other child with words. Comfort the child and tell your toddler, “Ouch, that hurt. He won’t want to play with you if you hit him. Tell him you’re sorry.” Invite your child to do something gentle for that child; then reward him verbally.

Sixth, the most effective way to curb hitting is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Watch your toddler while playing; there will be plenty of moments he or she will become frustrated or angry. As soon as this occurs, intervene with your interpretation: “It looks like you are getting mad about this.” Your child will verify this, completing the communication. Now there is no need to hit, because someone gets it! Many repetitions of this circle of communication teaches the child to verbalize feelings.

Lastly, don’t put your child in a situation where he or she is likely to fail repeatedly. Sometimes it is better to conclude that your child is simply not ready for certain social situations. Train your child in smaller settings until there is more self-control; then you can feel safe bringing Junior to a number of social settings.

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