Good ways to deal with a toddler who hits
July 31, 2011 6:41 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with a toddler who hits?

All right, so Baby99 is 22 months old and a really awesome baby. In the past month or so he's started getting much more aggressive. It's mostly with us (his parents), especially with me (his mother), though his daycare providers have recently told us that he's started pushing other kids (they say all the kids do it at that age and it's nothing out of the ordinary, so I don't think he's unusually aggressive). The problem we're trying to deal with is that he hits us when he doesn't get his way (countless examples from today, the most recent one from when I was putting him to bed and he got upset that it was time for lights out). I should say that he is also very affectionate with me when he isn't hitting me, but the hitting is getting old fast and we really want to curb it. He hits hard and he hits often.

We've been doing 1-2-3 time out type disciplining, and while it interrupts the behavior, it certainly hasn't diminished its frequency. Today we went so far as to abort a trip to the natural history museum because he was hitting me on the subway ride over there, so we just turned around and went home, explaining to him repeatedly why. This elicited a lot of complaints but it's not clear that he made the connection between hitting and lack of dinosaurs. Baby99 is way more verbal than other kids his age: he understands complex concepts, has a large vocabulary, and speaks in sentences, so he does understand what we explain to him (and often argues back, but that's another story . . .)

So, parents of toddlers and those who love them, what are some effective ways of dealing with toddler aggression?
posted by agent99 to Human Relations (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I've always had success with completely ignoring it, but it really depends on the kid and I hope someone else weighs in with another strategy.

What do the people at daycare do when he pushes?
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:57 PM on July 31, 2011

Best answer: As the sister of a hitter, nanny of hitters, and mama of a proto-hitter, only one thing has worked in the years before reason: holding their arms gently down to their sides and saying, "I won't let you hit me. It hurts."

It takes repetition, patience, and suppression of flinching (the chief reward, it has seemed to me), but it does work.
posted by batmonkey at 6:59 PM on July 31, 2011 [8 favorites]

I was a nanny for two different families, each with four young children.

Get down to his level. Look him in the eyes. Say, in a firm, no-nonsense voice (but not in an angry or emotional way), "When you hit mommy/daddy, it hurts. That is unacceptable. You will not hit mommy/daddy. If it happens again, the consequence will be x."

Follow through. Never just say "don't do that" or try to reason with him (I don't know if that's what you're doing, but if the emphasis is on explaining why and now just redirecting the behaviour, he may not be getting the message).

If you have to, put him in time out (after a clear warning and a violation of that warning) and walk away. If he gets up, return him until he's done his two minutes (1 per year of his age). When the time is up, tell him (same tone as before), "You were placed in time out for hitting me. That was unacceptable. I need you to say sorry." If he does, give him a hug and smile and go along with your day. If he refuses or gives an unacceptable apology, put him back in time out until he can apologise properly.

Even when you're out in public, continue that routine. Time out can happen anywhere. Always warn him and be consistent. It will change. Ask the daycare and other carers to follow through with the same procedure.

If that is still not working, you may want to consider these questions:
Could there be any explanaton behind this sudden outburst of behavioural issues? Has anything changed recently? Is something going on at daycare that could be upsetting him? Has his routine been altered? Does he tend to hit when he's tired/hungry/etc. more frequently?

Good luck!
posted by guster4lovers at 7:00 PM on July 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

and *not* just redirecting...
posted by guster4lovers at 7:01 PM on July 31, 2011

Response by poster: The daycare ladies put him in a time-out and then get him to say sorry to the person he pushed. They tell me he often will refuse to apologize, something I have found at home, too. It seems to me that he doesn't understand what "sorry" means and so refuses to say it, though sometimes he does look sorry, if that makes any sense. More often he looks gleeful, however.
posted by agent99 at 7:05 PM on July 31, 2011

Best answer: If you've got a precocious child (or even just your first/only child) it's pretty easy to (consciously or not) have higher expectations of their behavior and ability to understand complex concepts. And it's frustrating because they do *seem* like they understand and can follow along with you, but then they don't respond as you'd like, and sometimes it seems like willful disobedience. I do very much see in retrospect we had higher expectations of our first compared to our younger kids. With him, we expected more because we didn't have anything to compare it to, and it was stressful to feel that he *should* understand X, but no matter how we explain it he doesn't change his behavior, now what do we do? With the littler ones at this point we're like, oh yeah, three-year-olds are just like that, that's all.

Anyway, so this is to say that toddler aggression is pretty normal (as you already know) and he probably isn't really making the connection between the hitting and the not getting to go to the museum yet, because it requires mental connections toddlers just don't have yet.

With toddlers you just have to be consistent and repetitious and really simple. Something like holding his arm and saying "you can't hit me, it hurts me". And do it every time, the same thing. Often these behaviors get worse before they get better, because the kid is going to push and test that boundary to make sure they get the same reaction every time. But they do stop eventually. My two-year-old's particular freak this week was to refuse to kiss the baby goodnight every night before bed when asked if he wanted to kiss her goodnight, but then screaming as he's carried off to bed that he wanted to kiss her. Every night he went to bed without it because we took his first "no" as the answer. After a few days, he went back to kissing her.

On preview, yes, it's great to model "say sorry" but they won't always say it or understand it. Persistence is key with that one, they will learn to at least say it eventually.
posted by flex at 7:08 PM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We've been doing 1-2-3 time out type disciplining, and while it interrupts the behavior, it certainly hasn't diminished its frequency. Today we went so far as to abort a trip to the natural history museum because he was hitting me on the subway ride over there, so we just turned around and went home, explaining to him repeatedly why. This elicited a lot of complaints but it's not clear that he made the connection between hitting and lack of dinosaurs. Baby99 is way more verbal than other kids his age: he understands complex concepts, has a large vocabulary, and speaks in sentences, so he does understand what we explain to him (and often argues back, but that's another story . . .)

This is pretty much what I'd recommend, although I'd drop the count - hitting is an instant time-out from parents, friends, and so on. It may take a little while for the consequences to penetrate; he's probably testing to see whether the new disciplinary regime holds, or whether you'll give up and let him go back to hitting.
posted by rodgerd at 7:17 PM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

When my son went through this phase, I would look him in the eye and say, "You hurt me. I don't want to be around you if you're going to hurt me." And then (if it was safe to do so) I would very deliberately and obviously walk away from him and refuse to interact with him or even look at him for about 5 minutes or so. My goal was to make it utterly clear that hitting is not the way to get attention from someone.

This worked better than time out on my kid for the hitting thing, but of course different techniques work better for different personalities.
posted by BlueJae at 7:19 PM on July 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

Preschool teacher here. I want to echo guster4lovers advice, and add that I was told in child development classes to not make the younger kids apologize, as they lack empathy. They learn that apologizing gets them out of trouble. Tell your son it hurts when he hits, warn him of the consequences, and follow through.

I also want to emphasize this in no way indicative of your child being anything other than normal. All two year olds are emotionally and socially underdeveloped and a touch psychopathic. They get better.
posted by Betty_effn_White at 7:34 PM on July 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

Based on your follow-up, have you explained what it means to be sorry? Have you modeled apologetic behaviour for him? It may be worth setting up some opportunities where you can demonstrate and think aloud about how you apologise and what those emotions should look like.

I don't know why, but I have a really odd feeling based on your comment that he looks "gleeful" - are you noticing that he takes pleasure in hitting others? Is it the control of the situation, or do you actually see that he enjoys causing pain? A lot of bad behaviour in kids goes back to them feeling out of control or helpless or insignificant. Is there a reason he might feel those emotions more so than usual?

If you honestly believe that he is getting enjoyment that is out of proportion with what a 2 year old would normally feel at being "in control," please talk to your GP about this. Print out this thread and take it with you.

If I'm reading too much into it, ignore that. Other than that, all I can say is model and be consistent. Even if it feels like it isn't working, decide with your spouse on what you want to do and stick to it for several weeks. At that point, if the behaviour hasn't improved, try something else as consequences or revisit whether or not the GP should get involved.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:38 PM on July 31, 2011

Best answer: My son and daughter were a lot like yours. Very intelligent children, who both by the age of two could hold a full and clear conversation with adults, had a vocabulary that would make people stop and comment how bright they were, and understood almost any concept presented to them. But for some reason hitting and not being acceptable just wasn't something they could grasp. I tried time outs, I tried reasoning with them, I tried a bite for a bite or whatever have you, nothing worked.

Finally one day my son hit me so hard I started to cry. It really did hurt and they were genuine tears of pain. He stopped and looked at me, watching the tears stream down my face as I held my cheek and became very sad himself. He apologized immediately and hugged me. I told him this is why he doesn't hit. It makes me people sad and it hurts very much. Since that day 2 years ago he has never hit me again.

When my daughter was 2, and she started the hitting phase, I did the same thing I did with him. Granted these tears were crocodile tears, but I figured it worked for him why not her? She asked why I was crying, I explained to her because it hurts when she hits mommy. She started to get upset herself, apologized without prompting and never has hit any one again.

It's a bit manipulative, but it worked for two of mine...maybe yours?
posted by Sweetmag at 7:41 PM on July 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

I came here to suggest exactly what Sweetmag did. My daughter went through the hitting stage, and for months, I put her in time outs, I explained that it hurt, I did all the right things.

Then one day I was feeling especially low, and she smacked me right on top of an existing bruise. (The bruise was from something else, obviously.) I didn't mean to, but I burst into tears. She looked at me in total horror and started crying herself, and we sat on the floor and cried for several minutes. When we'd gotten ourselves together, I told her that hitting hurts and makes people sad. She never hit me--or anyone else--again.

So, anyhow, that's two for emotional manipulation, I guess.
posted by MeghanC at 7:53 PM on July 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

"I understand that you are mad/upset, but I won't let you hit me/your friends." In other words, help him name his feelings. If he still feels the need to be physical, maybe find an appropriate outlet? (We did "stamp your foot!" and "say 'I'm mad!'")

However, be reassured that this is age-appropriate (even if not socially appropriate) and he will grow out of it. Not being sorry and not understanding that others have feelings is normal at 22 months as well.

There are some schools of thought that forcing an apology out of a kid who isn't old enough to understand teaches them to lie and to bury their feelings. I kind of see the point, however, I do think that learning to get along and say the right thing is an important lesson. We tried to make our daughter apologize at that age, but there were times it was clear she wasn't feelin' it, so to speak. We let those slide a little, after a short talk about how we expected her to behave in the future. She is older now and so far she's very well-adjusted, so maybe we did right. (Or maybe we just got lucky.) Anyhow, it sounds like you are handling it well.
posted by Knowyournuts at 8:58 PM on July 31, 2011

A swift spanking, if the hit was intentional, followed by a hug, an explanation of why he was spanked, and redirecting the kid to a new activity if possible. I know this is metafilter and spanking is not popular, but when limited as a deterrent to aggression, and done out of love and not anger, it works quite well for my toddler.
posted by Happydaz at 9:11 PM on July 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

We are in the middle of this with my 2.5 year old, and negative reinforcement doesn't seem to do anything with him. I also had a crisis moment when I was pretty sure he had broken my nose (fortunately he didn't, but damn it hurt for almost a week), and cried - which cracked him up. So no empathy points, either.

What seems to have been working really well for us (not 100% but getting closer every day), is a sort of positive reinforcement - every morning we ask him "Are you going to hit anyone today?" and when he says no we cheer like idiots, which makes him laugh and feel great (and because I'm still worried he's a budding sociopath, we also include "are you going to bite/push/scratch/pull anyone's hair today?", with much attendant cheering). We follow it up again at the end if the day with "Did you hit anyone today?" and when he says no he gets cheering again. When he says yes, we make express sadness and talk about feelings, but I think he gets the message clearer because it's not a fight (and having a long list also makes it easy for him to get some good vibes, even when he pushed someone or hit, at least he didn't bite or scratch). YMMV, of course.
posted by Mchelly at 9:13 PM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a child development specialist, but I'm not sure I believe that a kid this age can link action X to consequence Y.

Our kid is about the same age. He's not a big hitter, so I don't know how useful this is, but he has done it occasionally. For him, the only thing that works is modeling and asking for specific different behavior.

"No no, that hurts mama!" (This does nothing, but I can't help saying it.) "Please be gentle. Like this!" (Model gentle touch.) "Oh, thank you! That's so nice. Thank you so much!" (Get Other Parent to agree that the gentle touch is indeed very nice, heap praise.)

We also do some stuff that I think is part of Happiest Toddler on the Block: "Are you so angry? SO ANGRY?" (Frown, glare, growl, sign "angry".) "You wanted to play with the vacuum! The vacuum is so fun. It makes you mad that mama put it away. I understand. I'm sorry. The vacuum will be back another time."

A lot of the emotional stuff at this age seem to me to be developmentally-appropriate transient storms. We try to ignore, redirect, verbalize his feelings, as seems appropriate at the time. Toddlers! So complicated.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 11:21 PM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent, but I've got plenty of friends/relatives with kids. Of course this is all about control. No negotiating, and don't kill yourself trying to explain the nuances of why hitting is wrong, because it seems to me that this is interpreted as negotiating. Basically, give the parenting version of WTF.
posted by desuetude at 11:22 PM on July 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As someone who survived the hitting phase, let me tell you what more or less worked for us.

If he hit, I grabbed his wrists gently, looked him in the eye and said, "We don't hit. Hitting hurts." I would repeat this as much as necessary. I wouldn't always make him apologize because I didn't think at his age, he'd understand the concept enough to make the effort worthwhile. Later on, I did, however.

If we were in a situation where I could walk away, and he hit me out of aggression, I'd say, "If you hit Mommy, Mommy's not going to [play with you/read to you/whatever activity\]." If he hit again, I'd say, "You hit Mommy again. Mommy's done [whatever activity] with you." And I'd walk away. If he tried to get me to go back to the activity, I'd say, "Mommy doesn't want to [activity] with you if you hit. People don't like to be hit."

While it wasn't an instant cure, he did over time understand this. Now he sometimes apologizes on his own. If he does something wrong, he'll come up to me or to his dad and give us a hug and a kiss as an apology. We thank him for apologizing and let him know we appreciate it.

I will also say that I made a distinction between hitting too hard during play out of excitement and hitting out of aggression. In my mind, the reason for the hitting was really different, and I didn't want to make a huge thing about getting carried away. If he hit out of excitement or while horsing around too hard, I'd remind him to be gentle, or I'd say we needed to take a break and move to a quieter activity.

If he was hitting out of frustration, I used that as a moment to teach him about his feelings. I asked him if he was angry, upset, whatever else he may be feeling. I told him he he had every right to be such. That was okay. He could be as angry as he wanted. I'd make an exaggerated angry face and say, "Ooh! Mommy! I'm so ANGGGGGRRY at you!!!!! Grrrrr!" Part of the job of having a toddler is helping them navigate their emotions. Many times, a toddler will hit because he/she doesn't know how else to express how he or she is feeling. I wanted to be careful about addressing the behavior while establishing that the feelings were okay to have.

It took a lot of patience and it took really keeping my own frustration under control as much as I was able to -- and believe me, there were times when I really felt myself at my last nerve on the hitting front. But this worked for us as a long-term solution. Stopping physical behavior with physical consequences may stop the behavior in a conditioning sense, but I will never understand how it achieves the long-term lesson of hitting people hurts, don't hit people. Plus, children who have been spanked have been shown have increased aggression and lower self-esteem, and in girls, it can be shown to cause them to withdraw. As a woman myself, I cannot in anyway fathom teaching a daughter that someone she loves hitting her is ever okay, regardless of what she may have done.

I would also point out that it seems that toddlers in general lash out against the people they feel safest with. I have found many other mothers with male partners to say that their kid hits them but hardly ever does a thing with the father. And it's not always a simple matter of the father tolerating it less, etc, but more that children behave differently with each parent. Toddler Zizzle certainly hit his father during this phase, but unless he was tired or hungry, it was never to the level it would be when he was only with me. But it was more than with, say, his grandparents or at daycare, etc. Not that the behavior was okay with me in the least, but I did take some sort of comfort in the idea that I was doing some right based on this understanding....and you know what? He very rarely hits now.
posted by zizzle at 1:24 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a woman myself, I cannot in anyway fathom teaching a daughter that someone she loves hitting her is ever okay, regardless of what she may have done. I meant to also add that as the mother of a son, I don't want him to ever learn that hitting someone you love is okay, either.
posted by zizzle at 1:28 AM on August 1, 2011

I'll add one thing to my comment upthread: I think you're generally on the right path, but also to amplify that my experience with kids this age (and for a while longer!) that actions weigh more heavily than words. I've watched kids who get lectures with no real negative impact that they care about (time out, seperation from friends, etc) simply look serious, make a pro forma apology, and go back to doing whatever they were doing before: One playmate of my daughters kept having hitting episodes where his mother would do exactly that - long speeches and lots of attention, no negative effects he cared about. He shaped up when my wife took my daughter away from him when she got fed up with this happening, went home. That didn't stop it - but the next few times, my *daughter* started shunning him after the pro forma apology, and he stopped very quickly.

In a similar vein there's a lad in her social circle who keeps thumping kids and grabbing toys. His mother gives him chapter and verse about how naughty he's being. Then she announces they'll share the toy. Then she gives it to her son for "his turn". As you can imagine, the only thing he's learning from this is that if someone has something he wants, he should grab it, beat on the other kid, and then endure a minute of boredom from a lecture and he'll get what he wants.
posted by rodgerd at 1:33 AM on August 1, 2011

Best answer: Great answers above, but since I couldn't tell by your post: hitting should have an immediate consequence (even holding hands and saying, "That hurt me and we don't hurt in our family," or whatever); not a "If you do that again, you're being punished."

Kids figure out pretty quickly that they can hit someone two times as freebies before anything happens.

Oh yeah also, it can feel silly but it can help to model what frustration and annoyance feel like for the kid, so he can see other ways to channel it ("Mommy is so annoyed right now, she's going to draw a goofy picture to feel better," stuff like that).
posted by kinetic at 2:10 AM on August 1, 2011

We went short and sweet - "no hitting, gentle!" and moving out of the way or moving her out of the way. We aimed for less physically coercive things because they arer guaranteed to spark a meltdown and we went short because she was about 18 months when it started*. We did it for a few months, and she did have the occasional biting episode in there as well. Now at just over two we rarely have any hitting or biting or pushing, and it is generally only in moments of high stress (lots of people, too much noise, physical coercion etc.).

*it started when my sister in law visited and hit her son multiple times while she was here, sending my daughter into hysterics and teaching her that hitting people for not doing what you want is acceptable.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:36 AM on August 1, 2011

Best answer: I agree with advice to help him "stop his body" as we call it, by holding his hands, and saying "no hitting, hitting hurts." At that age, we also followed up by saying "gentle touches are nice" and then giving the kid a gentle touch and helping them give one back (stroking a cheek or arm, for example). We didn't/don't force apologies. Instead, we ask them to check in with the person they've hit, and find out what they need to feel better. I think I've described this before.

My kids were also big on books, and Hands Are Not For Hitting was in heavy rotation at the time. That whole series is good, and I even bought a set for the preschool.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 8:09 AM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is tough stuff, Agent99, this discipline thing. I think the toddlers go after the primary caregiver.

After about a week of me getting punched in the testicles, (just the luck of the height differential) Ms. Yuck went out of town for 3 days and Oedipus Yuck kicked me in the jaw while I was changing his diaper. How much damage could those meaty little thighs do? I actually fell to the floor and saw stars. Almost nailed a bed post with my temple as I fell. I used to box, and let me tell you, it was a respectable hit. Plus, I suffered a few puncture wounds from toys we'd all consider "safe."

I got up and grabbed one of his ankles and held his leg up off the changing table, shouting like a drill sergeant.

"The next time you hit me, or mommy, or the dog, I'm going to do this:" Then I smacked him hard on the back of his 26 month-old thigh.

The next few days, I lived in fear of Oedipus Yuck challenging my angry oath, but it was kind of sickening how effective my angry hitty stuff was. When he started throwing heavy things at us the next month, all we had to say was "That's just like hitting!"

I do wish I had thought of something else, but all I could think of at the time was that my boy would be alone in the un-air conditioned house with my bloating corpse and a large dog that didn't really care for him too much, for three whole days.

Shortly after, we discovered the miracle of reversing the doorknob on his bedroom door. This meant WE CAN LOCK HIM IN! Oedipus has responded well to infrequent solitary confinement. He'll start kindergarten in the fall and he's leaving a preschool whose teachers think highly of him, but I know that he's just an event away from chasing pigs, in the buff, with a spear.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 12:23 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Use Time Out, and use it properly. Time out was developed through behavioral psychology i.e. conditioning. When the child acts out, you tell them they are on time out for x minutes, you place them in time out, which should be an area with as little stimulation as possible, and then do not interact with them at all. Most bad behavior is to get attention, so any attention, including explaining why what they did is wrong will be reinforcing the bad behavior. You can't reason with a toddler. Once the child is in time out, if they act out, or get up, you simply return them to the time out area without speaking, over and over if necessary.
posted by catatethebird at 12:54 PM on August 1, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone--I could have marked all of these as best answers. We've tried all of these to some degree (except the spanking--I can't quite do it, though I was spanked myself as a child and it hasn't hurt me any), but it sounds like we should have a short and clear response and use it repeatedly and consistently. I suppose there's no real way to make them stop until they are developmentally ready to think through their actions, but I do think it's important to always reinforce the idea that hitting is not OK.

I guess this is why they say toddlers are challenging . . .
posted by agent99 at 5:53 PM on August 1, 2011

We've been lucky in that our son - now almost 4 - has never really gone through a massive hitting stage.

He has however, in the past, taken a swing at us - either through anger or just out of misplaced enthusiasm. What we found worked was to really "shock" him back to reality - stop what we are doing, get down on his level and speak very firmly to him about how that is wrong and its not to be done around here.

I also grabbed his hand in mid swing a couple of times too.

There have been a couple of times where I've copped a whack in a bad spot (yes, THAT bad spot) and gotten angry. A few deep breaths followed - and then I've gotten down to his level and pretty much said "Don't you ever, EVER, do it again" raising my voice a little on the second "EVER".

Apart from again "shocking" him back into reality and getting him to realise what he has done, there is, certainly, a little bit of "Oh crap, now I've gotten daddy angry" there as well.

But generally speaking he knows hitting is a no-no and is, 99% of the time, a big gentle beautiful boy who ponies up lots of hugs to everyone - including his 5 month old sister. We are lucky.
posted by chris88 at 7:40 PM on August 1, 2011

Response by poster: Checking back in to my own thread half a year later to say that it turned out to be a very brief phase that has totally passed and I don't think it lasted more than a few weeks. This may be because we both read 1-2-3 Magic and put it in practice, or it may be that he just outgrew it, hard to say. But, for others reading this in the future: hang in there, there's hope.
posted by agent99 at 5:59 PM on March 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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