Do you have an 18-month-old, or a toddler, who seems to get a kick out of hitting others? Are you worried about this particular behavior? Well, you are not alone, and it is not a cause for concern or alarm; this behavior is more common than you think.
Every parent who’s ever raised a toddler knows how it is to enjoy a peaceful or fun playtime one moment and then hear cries or shrieks the next because their little one has hurt another kid. Toddlers seem to think hitting, biting, pinching, and pulling others’ hair are okay and sometimes even look like they find joy or amusement in what they are doing. The good news is that there is an explanation for this and you can do something about it.
Toddlers’ Propensity for Hitting: A Part of the Learning Process
Toddlers love to explore, but is striking and smacking a part of this explorative stage? Do they really take pleasure in inflicting pain on others? Is this behavior the parent’s fault?
Today’s Parent cites Susan Martin of Toronto’s Centennial College Early Childhood Education as explaining that toddlers learn more about the world around them and how things work by experimenting. Moreover, these little people operate at a highly physical and sensory level. So how other people react when they get hit, smacked, grabbed, or bitten is something they may find intriguing or even funny and amusing.
By doing these physical experiments, little tots also get to build their understanding about their siblings, their parents, their playmates, and their immediate surroundings. For example, they learn that their big sister cries when they hit her with a toy, but that nothing happens when they bang the same toy on the floor. They also learn that when they do the same thing to mommy, she doesn’t cry, but she isn’t pleased either.
Additionally. by hitting, toddlers get to test the limits of what they are capable of doing and what is acceptable for them to do. This is why your reaction to their behavior holds a lot of weight, too.
No Self-Control, Egocentric, and No Sense of What’s Good or Bad
It is important to understand that 18-month-olds, and toddlers in general, have not yet developed control over their impulses and they still do not know the appropriate ways to express and process certain emotions. So if they feel bored, overwhelmed, or frustrated, they might express that by striking, pushing, biting, or using force in general.
Board-certified pediatrician Catricia Tilford, MD, also explains that toddlers are basically egocentric, have no empathy, and that they treat people around them as objects.
What’s more, little tots still do not have a moral compass or an understanding of what they should and should not do, or of what’s good and bad. They are still in the process of learning that hurting others is not acceptable and that it’s something they should not do at all.
According to studies, many acts of force by 11- to 24-month-old babies were unprovoked and took place without any sign of distress. The researchers found that the lack of provocation reflects that the babies’ actions are not guided by an aversion for hurting others, yet this may eventually provide unique opportunities for moral development early on.
What to Do if Your Toddler Hits or Finds Hitting Funny
Now that we’ve established that your child hitting others — and seemingly enjoying it — is no fault of yours but is a part of their development process, that doesn’t mean that you can just leave them be. The action is still unacceptable and you can teach your toddler this even if they still don’t fully understand why.
Here are some tips on what you can do to correct their actions:
- Calmly and gently restrain your child.
Parents are great at anticipating their child’s behavior, so when you notice that your toddler is close to smacking someone, you can calmly go to them and gently hold them back. You can firmly hug them, for example, to prevent them from slapping or striking another kid.
It would be like offering yourself as a safe barrier between your child and the subject of their act of aggression. You will need to explain in words why you are holding them. It also helps to know what triggers the behavior so you could take them out of the equation as much as possible.
- Remove your little one from the situation.
If your child negatively reacts to being restrained, you may have to calmly take them away so they could calm down and get some time to breathe. Explain why in simple yet firm words.
Doing this will also teach them that hitting can have consequences like being taken away from the playground or being taken away from their toys and their playmates.
- Distract or redirect to do a more appropriate action.
Redirecting your tot to do a more acceptable behavior can help divert their attention and make them forget about their urge to be violent. For instance, you can give them another toy or introduce another activity. You can also hold the hand they are about to use to hit and show them how to use it for gentle touch instead. Be careful not to give the action of hitting more attention than not hitting, though, as it may reinforce it.
- Firmly say “no” but use a positive language.
When telling your toddler not to hit another person, start with a firm “no” and follow it up with an explanation using positive language. For instance, say “No, we only play with our toys” instead of “No, don’t throw your toy.” Or say “No, we use our arms to give hugs,” or “No, you use your little hands to play with your little piano,” then proceed to demonstrate.
- Be consistent and supervise your child more closely.
After your child has hit once, you can expect that they will do it again. And even after you have talked to them, restrained them, or removed them from the situation, they are still likely to repeat the behavior. So make sure to supervise your little one more closely and consistently show them that hurting another it’s not a nice thing to do.
- Comfort the child or person that was hit.
Show your toddler that you are comforting the child they smacked.
If hitting is a development phase, how long does it last?
Studies show that unprovoked acts will decrease as your child grows, especially late in their second year. Of course, this will also depend on how you correct the aggressive behavior.
How do I stop feeling guilty over my toddler’s fondness for striking other kids?
Mom guilt is normal, especially when you also experience mom shaming, but you will feel less guilty once you fully understand the reason behind the behavior and once you have discovered what corrective action works for your child. Just don’t be too hard on yourself and give it time.