Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Toddlers and the Hitting Stage


Hi, I attended your session at the Adlerian Conference in Myrtle Beach. It was really great!

I now have a 14 month old son and recently bought your book Positive Discipline, The First Three Years as he began to really start to show his little personality and I realized wow, I need help! I finished it tonight but still have a question and really wanted your opinion about the issue of hitting. Our son, is a very happy toddler but lately when gets angry he will hit me and my husband in the face. We have a dog who he just loves so we are always telling him to "pat her gently". So when he hits us we typically say, in a kind and firm manner, "we touch mommy gently." Sometimes I add, "mommy touches you gently." I usually grab his hand to stop him from hitting me. He hasn't hit any other kids or family members other than me and my husband. I just wanted your opinion about how to handle this. I was trying to relate this to the section in the book on biting. Do you have any helpful suggestions with this issue? Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated.

By the way, I recommend your book to the other moms in my playgroup and they are all enjoying it too!

Thanks so much and have a great day, Lauren


Hi Lauren, You describe exactly what happened to me when I was taking care of my 18 month old granddaughter when she went through her hitting stage--and you are doing exactly the right thing. Keep doing what you are doing and it will pass.

I'm including an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z on hitting. You see my story in the first booster thought. I think you'll enjoy the format of this book that covers just about every behavior challenge you can think of.

Hitting and Spanking

"I have tried everything I can think of to get my child to stop hitting her little brother. Sometimes she hits me. This really makes me angry. Punishment doesn't seem to work. I have spanked her and made her say she is sorry, but the next day she is hitting again."

Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation

How are we ever going to teach our children it is not okay to hurt others when we keep hurting them? We are reminded of a cartoon depicting a mother spanking her child while saying, "I'll teach you not to hit someone smaller than you." When children hit, it could be that their feelings are hurt. (Children can feel hurt or frustrated just because they can't get what they want – now!) You probably feel hurt and frustrated, too, because you want your child to treat others respectfully and may even worry that your child's behavior is a reflection on you as a parent. Perhaps you are overreacting and treating your child disrespectfully out of shame and embarrassment, trying to prove to the other adults around that you won't let your child get away with this behavior.

Most likely your child simply doesn't have the words or skills to get her needs met and lashes out (hits) because she doesn't know what else to do. Toddlers are short on both language and social skills, and when they play together they can easily become frustrated. When they lack the ability to express what's wrong in words, hitting and other types of aggression sometimes result. It is developmentally normal for toddlers to hit. It is the parent's job to supervise and handle toddlers kindly and firmly until they are ready to learn more effective ways to communicate. Kids will grow out of it if they get help (skills training) instead of a model of violence (hitting back).


  1. Take the child by the hand and say, "It is not okay to hit people. I'm sorry you are feeling hurt and upset. You can talk about it or you can hit this pillow, but people aren't for hitting."
  2. Help the child deal with the anger. (See Angry Child.)
  3. With children under the age of four, try giving them a hug before removing them from the situation. This models a loving method while showing them that hitting is not okay. Hugging does not reinforce the misbehavior.
  4. You never really know at what age a child begins to understand language. For that reason, use words such as, "Hitting hurts people. Let's find something else you can do," even if you think your child can't understand.
  5. Show children what they can do instead of telling them what not to do. If you have a child that has a pattern of hitting, supervise closely. Every time she starts to hit, gently catch her hand and say, "Touch nicely," while showing her how to touch nicely.
  6. When your preschooler hits you, decide what you will do instead of trying to control your child. Let her know that every time she hits you, you will put her down and leave the room until she is ready to treat you respectfully. After you have told her this once, follow through without any words. Leave immediately.
  7. Later you might tell your child, "That really hurts" or "That hurts my feelings. If I have done something to hurt your feelings, I would like to know about it so I can apologize. When you are ready, an apology would help me feel better." Do not demand or force an apology.

Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems

  1. When children are pre-verbal, take time for training without expecting that the training will "take hold" until they get older. (Lots of supervision is the main parenting tool for pre-verbal children – along with distraction and redirection.) Help her practice touching family members or animals softly. Show your child how to be gentle and say, "Pat, pat," or "People are for hugging, not hitting."(See Booster Thought 2 ) This does not eliminate the need for supervision until she is old enough to understand.
  2. Teach verbal children that feelings are different from actions. Feelings are never bad. They are just feelings. Tell your child that what he feels is okay, but it's still not okay to hit others, even if he is angry. He can tell someone, "I'm angry because____and I wish ________." Help children brainstorm ways to deal with feelings that are respectful to themselves and others. One possibility is to tell people what he doesn't like. Another possibility is for him to leave the scene if he is being treated disrespectfully.
  3. Get your child involved in creating a Positive Time Out area. Teach her that sometimes we need time to calm down until we feel better before doing anything. Don't send her to time out, but let her know that she can choose her special time-out area any time she thinks it will help her feel better. Sometimes, when she doesn't want to use her special time out area, ask her if you can use it until you feel better – or create your own and model using it to feel better.
  4. Find ways to encourage your children with unconditional love and by teaching skills that help them feel capable and confident.
  5. Show that hitting is unacceptable by never hitting your child. If you make a mistake and hit your child, use the Three R's of Recovery to apologize so your child knows hitting is not acceptable for you either. (See Part 1, page xx.)
  6. Look around and see if there are ways you are hurting your child without realizing it. Are you sending your child to his or her room frequently, scolding and criticizing regularly, singling out the child when a problem occurs? If so your child may be feeling really hurt and upset and the hitting is a way to strike back at the world. Be more encouraging and positive and stop the hurtful behaviors and see if you don't notice a change in the hitting behavior.

Life Skills Children Can Learn

Children can learn that it is not okay to hurt others. Their feelings are not bad and they are not bad people, and they can get help to find actions that are respectful to themselves and to others. They can learn that what they do doesn't define who they are. They are not a bad child because they hit, but the behavior is unacceptable.

Parenting Pointers

  1. Be aware of the discouraged belief behind the misbehavior. A child who hits usually is operating from the mistaken goal of revenge with the belief, "I don't feel like I belong and am important and that hurts, so I want to hurt back." Children will feel encouraged when you respect their feelings and help them act appropriately.
  2. Many people use the biblical admonition "spare the rod and spoil the child" as an excuse for spanking. Biblical scholars tell us the rod was never used to hit the sheep. The rod was a symbol of authority or leadership, and the staff or crook was used to gently prod and guide. Our children definitely need gentle guidance and prodding, but they do not need to be beaten, struck, or humiliated.
  3. Don't hit your child to show an onlooker that you are a good parent and not going to allow your child to get away with something. Your relationship with your child is much too important for that.

Booster Thoughts

Grandma had the opportunity to take care of her 18-month-old granddaughter for a week while her parents were on vacation. Sage was developing the habit of hitting when she felt frustrated (or, it seemed, just for the fun of it). She would hit her grandma and the dog – sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Grandma watched closely for the hitting to start and would gently grab Sage's hand and say, "Touch nicely," while guiding her hand to gently stroke her grandma's cheek or the dog. Soon Sage would start to hit, but would first look at her grandma who would say, "Touch nicely." Sage would grin and touch nicely. Within a few days, Sage was touching nicely instead of hitting. (It is much more effective to show children what they can do instead of telling them what not to do.)


He: There are times when it is necessary to spank my children to teach them important lessons. For example, I spank my two-year-old to teach her not to run into the street.

She: After you have spanked your two-year-old to teach her not to run in the street, will you let her play unsupervised by a busy street?

He: Well, no.

She: Why not? If the spanking teaches her not to run into the street, why can't she play unsupervised by the street? How many times would you need to spank her before you would feel she has learned the lesson well enough?

He: Well, I wouldn't let her play unsupervised near a busy street until she was six or seven years old.

She: I rest my case. Parents have the responsibility to supervise young children in dangerous situations until children are old enough to handle that situation. All the spanking in the world won't teach a child until he or she is developmentally ready. Meanwhile you can gently teach. When you take your children to the park, invite them to look up the street and down the street to see if cars are coming and tell you when it is safe to cross the street. Still, still you won't let them go to the park alone until they are six or seven.

Studies show that approximately 85 percent of all parents of children under twelve years old resort to spanking when frustrated, yet only 8 to 10 percent believe that it is dignified or effective. Sixty-five percent say that they would prefer to teach through positive methods to improve behavior, but they don't know how. This book shows you how.

Dr. Jane Nelsen


Unknown said...

A wonderful reminder for parents that kids learn through positive re-enforcement and loving support. We have been frustrated by our 20 month old hitting her peers and now I can see that our scolding her constantly is only contributing to the problem. I will be supervising my daughter constantly now ready to lovingly catch her hand before she hits and remind her that "we don't hit people, we use gentle touches" ... and give her a hug, not yell.

Anonymous said...

My now 17 month old has been hitting me, other adults in our family, and other babies since she was 1 year old(possibly even earlier). I am a stay at home mother and I am with her all the time. I have never hit her and she has never seen or been hit by anyone...she doesn't even watch tv. I was not familiar with positive discipline until I read this article, however, it was my instict to parent in this way. Unfortunately though, it has not worked as she continues to hit. I have always closely supervised her so that I could stop her in the act and redirect her to touch nicely. I have also put her down instantly when she hit and left the room. Unfortunately none of this has worked and in fact as she's become more independent and has more tantrums her hitting has become worse. I hope this is a phase and as she gets more words she will hit less. I do have a fear though that if I don't somehow get it more under control by then, that it will have become an ingrained habit that she won't be able to easily break even when she does have the vocabulary to express herself. I'm sad to say that I am not convinced that Positive Discipline works for more naturally aggressive children.

C Tam said...

I totally relate with Anonymous. We have no tv, no hitting at home (my son is an only child), and I am a SAHM who got my degree in Human Development--am using positive discipline by the book!! But my son for months now has been hitting with such consistency for any/every reason (if he is tired, bored, hungry, angry, playful, wants a different kid's toy, wants to say hello, etc.) and I am going nuts! I always respond by saying, "hands are for being gentle," and have done a lot of inductive reasoning about what happens when we hit (other kids get sad, so what can we do to help them be happy?) and he gives all the right answers. But then he still hits. He just turned 2. Will he eventually grow out of it?? Seriously, MONTHS now of hitting. I am getting so sick of it/insecure in my parenting because all the other moms are telling me I am doing it wrong, needing to do timeouts, yell, be more strict, and evidently their ways "work" because their kids aren't hitting like mine is. Really, please help. Validation, suggestions, anything.

Anonymous said...

Ok.. So, i have a 1 year old. Who hits... FOR NO REASON. SHe is such a happy go lucky baby.. its not like she gets mad and hits.... Shell have a big ole smile on her face before she knocks you one... She hits just to hit. Im trying to figure if this is normal or something i should get checked out. Its very frustrating. Especially since i have 4 kids altogether and they are all under the ages of 6, NEVER had this problem before! Any advice or tips???


Jane Nelsen said...

There are a couple of ways to get answers to questions. You can go to the following link http://positivediscipline.com/search.html and type in a topic. You can also join our private social network http://positivediscipline.ning.com which is a friendly, encouraging Positive Discipline community. Questions are answered by Certified Positive Discipline Associates and other parents.

Sarah1979 said...


I just wondered what the outcome was with your child? My 2 year old has been hitting now for months and it isn't getting any better. Weve tried EVERYTHING. Timeouts, bottom step, ignoring him and walking away, reasoning with him. Nothing works. We also do the positive praise thing and praise him when he is good.

Anonymous said...


It is extremely comforting to hear from other parents whose toddlers are experiencing a "hitting phase." My thirty-month-old son is a happy, healthy, funny, delightful child with a relentless pinching habit. He pinches his four-year-old sister and his pre-school classmates on the cheeks and arms, without any warning or any obvious reason, and even without any malicious intent.In fact, he (occasionally) seems genuinely sorry after he does it! This morning, he pinched a classmate in front of her mother, and I was mortified. She did not seem at all impressed!It is terribly discouraging. We are not a "hitting" family, and we do our best to be reasonable and positive when disciplining our three young children (but we are far from perfect at this!), and our two older girls never went through anything like this. I have been scolding my son firmly every time he pinches, explaining to him that it hurts and then showing him how to touch nicely. It has not worked yet. However, I will persevere and try to incorporate Dr. Jane's methods more effectively. I sure hope that this is indeed a phase that will pass when he gets more verbal. That is comforting to me but not to his classmates' parents, unfortunately!

Unknown said...

Hi, my 20 month old son does hit but for some reason it's only at my in laws.........at times they don't even call out to him but just seeing them he lashes out at them. Please help.

Unknown said...

Very nice and helpful information has been given in this article. I like the way you explain the things. Keep posting. Thanks..
Only Child Syndrome