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Why Do Toddlers Hit? 9 Reasons For That Violent Streak

Why Do Toddlers Hit Others?

Toddlers hitting others is not abnormal behavior. They do it to assert independence and also because they lack the necessary verbal skills and impulse control to check their behavior. They may also be copying caregivers who spank. Set an example, stand your ground, and they will eventually outgrow the violent streak.

Now that your babbling, cooing infant is a toddler, with a mind of their own, the rules of the game change drastically! While it’s refreshing to watch your little human exert their individuality, it also brings with it new challenges. If your toddler is hitting, biting, or lashing out at you, a sibling, or even a playmate, you know what we mean. But before you start wondering where you’ve gone wrong or berating yourself about bad parenting, here’s what you need to know.

1. They Are Exploring Their Body And Its Impact

Although it may seem difficult to believe, your toddler’s violent streak is a part of their developmental process. All toddlers hit others at some point in time (yes, irrespective of what you do or don’t do!). They are essentially coming to grips with their body and exploring its impact – what happens when you swing your hand and make contact with something or someone. And now, how about if you flail your arms with a little more force? … you get the drift. So essentially, as with everything else that’s new at this stage, your little one – and their rapidly growing brain – is just having a go at it. Of course, pretty soon, they’ll realize it garners a reaction and lots of attention, although negative. And how they handle that and whether they’ll continue to hit or not will depend on other factors.1

2. They Lack Self-Control

Around 18 months, your little one is thrown into the deep end of the pool as far as relationships and communication are concerned. They are learning to talk and walk. The circle of people around them is also expanding – they have to manage interactions with siblings and playmates and even navigate through playgroups and parks. On one side, their brain is teaching them to express their individuality and, on the other, they are yet to develop many skills.

Your little one has no concept of self-control and doesn’t understand yet that they can’t do whatever they feel like doing. This often means they instinctively act out emotions they’re feeling, whether it’s anger or frustration. This aggression may peak when they are around 2 years. It is only after 3 years that a child starts to develop self-control and even then it is a long, slow process. Interestingly, the areas of the brain that are involved in self-control do not mature completely until the end of adolescence.2 3

3. They Lack Social And Verbal Skills

A toddler is yet to master the verbal skills needed to “tell” you their feelings or to manage a socially uncomfortable situation. Quite naturally, they express themselves physically and that could manifest in some form of violence. They also haven’t yet imbibed the social niceties and norms that hold us adults back. But not to worry, these skills will be picked up slowly but surely.4 5

4. They Lack Empathy And Foresight

Toddlers up to the age of 2.5 or so do not see anyone beyond themselves. They still don’t know how to care about the feelings of others or understand that hitting can hurt. At this age, children still look at their playmates as objects that can be handled or mishandled as convenient. They may feel bad when a friend cries after being hit or pushed, but they cannot foresee such a consequence.6

5. They Are Trying To Cope With Changing Circumstances

As your toddler’s world grows from just home and family to include playgroups, playground, and preschool, they may feel the pressure of adjusting to different surroundings. When they cannot control their environment as much as they want to, acting out or being aggressive may be an instinctual way of asserting independence. Hitting or biting a playmate who has a toy they want or pushing a sibling who is in their way may be the only way they know how to handle the situation, especially when they first come to grips with such scenarios.7 In some instances, it could be a case of wanting to experiment. For example, what will happen if they hit someone? Will the person cry? Will another playmate react the same way or differently?

6. They Are Testing Boundaries

Are you the parent who spends the most time with your toddler? That probably makes you the primary target for bad behavior. In fact, there’s a “good” reason for it. According to experts, the primary caregiver is usually the parent the toddler is most comfortable with about expressing strong or vehement emotions. Acting up around you comes easiest because they feel most safe with you. Further, your toddler’s brain is developing rapidly. They are beginning to understand relationships and how far they can push things. Technically, they are testing boundaries.8

7. They Are Hungry, Sleepy, Or Unwell

Many toddlers get aggressive because of external triggers that can be managed. They could include:

  • Hunger: A hungry child can misbehave since they may not be able to understand or convey hunger or thirst.
  • Lack of sleep: A child who has not slept enough or is just plain tired is bound to act out.
  • Poor health: A child who is unwell or possibly coming down with something is highly likely to be irritable and sometimes a little violent.
  • Not enough attention: A child who is neglected or feels ignored may act out to get attention.9

8. They Are Imitating The Caregiver

Studies on violence by children against parents, especially the mother, show that the rate of child-to-parent violence (CPV) is highest among younger children. CPV has also often been found to be a reflection of violence at home. It could be violence between parents, physical abuse, or corporal punishment methods used to discipline a child. CPV is rare in the absence of parent-to-child violence.10 Toddlers who are spanked frequently by either parent are also more likely to continue to show aggression at later stages.11

9. They Are Engaging With Violent Digital Content

Given the reach of digital media today, it is not surprising that excessive screen time and digital games have an effect on young children’s behavior. TV shows that include a lot of shouting, and shoving and hitting have an impact too on a child’s behavior. As one study observed, young children who played a violent virtual game were more likely to be aggressive after the game than children who played a nonviolent virtual game.12

Manage The Violent Streak With These Steps

Whatever the reason for a toddler’s aggressive behavior, it can be curbed. Here’s what you need to know:

1. Stop them calmly and firmly: If you see your child hitting, pushing, spitting, or biting another child, stop them immediately. Do it calmly or your reaction may be just the incentive they need. If there was an unfair situation, try to fix it after calming them down. That would reassure them and show them how to address the issue the next time around. Of course, you may need to do this again and again before it sinks in. But the trick is to be consistent. And never ignore their reasons for acting out.

2. Connect behavior to the victim’s feelings: Toddlers are not equipped to understand how their behavior affects others. It is important to try and make them understand that hitting hurts and hitting is not the best solution to a problem or situation, be it sharing toys or retaliating for being pushed or shoved.

3. Try to avoid conflict situations: If your toddler’s hitting episodes flare up while playing with another toddler, try to remove the toys that trigger the flare-ups. If it’s a sibling they hit out at, try to understand what triggers the episodes. Is it more rampant during playtime, mealtime, or television time? If the hitting episodes are too regular for comfort, teach your older child to move away or call out for help. All the while, try to get through to your toddler about not hitting. You can also preempt a tantrum or aggression by giving them a clear heads-up of what comes next in the scheme of things – say, letting them know that they can only pick up one book at the library or that their playtime ends when the small needle of the clock hits 5.

4. Set an example: Be sure to never use corporal punishment to discipline your child, using words and gestures instead to express yourself. A child is more likely to copy your actions than follow your instructions about not hitting.13

5. Educate yourself: If your child’s aggressive streak is higher than normal, look inward at your style of parenting. For instance, educate yourself about using effective non-aggressive ways to discipline your child. If it gets out of control, reach out to a friend, family member, a teacher, or even an expert to zero in on the pressure points.14

6. Drain all that energy: Encourage your toddler to burn off all that energy with a lot of unstructured play. Outdoors is best. Also, make sure they are not hungry, tired, or feeling unwell, all of which can trigger such behavior.

7. Manage screen time: Recognizing that today’s children grow up surrounded by media, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents and caregivers work out a family media plan. Too much exposure to media means children don’t have enough time to sleep, play, talk, or eat, all of which finally reflects on their social behavior. The AAP recommends that toddlers be limited to an hour of high-quality digital content every day and never more. And as a parent or caregiver, you should watch it with the child and help them connect online content with the real world.15

8. Keep an eye on your growing child’s behavior: If the hitting continues as your child grows up, you need to rule out other developmental issues. For instance, is a sensory problem (like aversion to light or noise) triggering the episodes. Toddler behavior issues should progressively reduce over the years. Seek help if you are worried about the frequency or intensity of the episodes and if it is hindering the child’s ability to interact with others.16 17

At the end of the day, you must realize that whatever you do, it will take time and patience to overcome this behavior. The most important thing is to not overreact. Responding by shouting or spanking will backfire as they will see aggression as an acceptable way to get attention and sort out a conflict. Final word, be consistent in your method of discipline. Toddlers are smart and will quickly pick up that you won’t buckle down unless they rein it in!

References   [ + ]

1. Koenderink, Florence. Children Everywhere second edition. Lulu Press, 2018.
2. Tarullo, Amanda R., Jelena Obradovic, and Megan R. Gunnar. “Self-control and the developing brain.” Zero to three 29, no. 3 (2009): 31.
3, 5, 6, 7, 9. Murkoff, Heidi. What to Expect: The Toddler Years 2nd Edition. Simon and Schuster, 2009.
4, 16. How can I get my 2-year-old to stop hitting?. The Washington Post.
8. Split Personality: Why Toddlers Behave With One Parent. Parents Magazine.
10, 13. Ulman, Arina, and Murray A. Straus. “Violence by children against mothers in relation to violence between parents and corporal punishment by parents.” Journal of Comparative Family Studies (2003): 41-60.
11, 14. Lee, Shawna J., Catherine A. Taylor, Inna Altschul, and Janet C. Rice. “Parental spanking and subsequent risk for child aggression in father-involved families of young children.” Children and youth services review 35, no. 9 (2013): 1476-1485.
12. Schutte, Nicola S., John M. Malouff, Joan C. Post‐Gorden, and Annette L. Rodasta. “Effects of playing videogames on children’s aggressive and other behaviors.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 18, no. 5 (1988): 454-460.
15. American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use. American Academy of Pediatrics.
17. Why Your Toddler Hits and Bites. Parents Magazine.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.