Toddlers are impulsive, emotional little beings. While it is not socially acceptable - or even kind, it is very common for toddlers to act out by hitting people and throwing things. Around the ages of 2 - 3 years old, toddlers learn how to use their arms with force. When they become angry or overstimulated, this becomes hitting others - maybe another toddler at preschool or a parent while being put in timeout.
What can parents do to correct this behavior? And, what common reactions should be strictly avoided? Acting out is a necessary part of development that is tied to learning about boundaries and appropriate social behavior. The goal is not to eliminate your child’s attempts to act out but to use each incident as an appropriate learning experience.
The most effective way to quickly correct hitting and throwing in a toddler is to consistently react right away. Each time it happens, your child needs to know immediately that they made a bad choice and that there are consequences.
Reacting doesn’t necessarily mean yelling, shaming, or timeouts. If you see something about to happen, intervene before it does. If you miss that opportunity, immediately pull your child aside and let them know that they did or could hurt someone. Remind them to be gentle and then find out what caused that behavior.
If you want your child to learn to be a kind person, one who doesn’t resolve fights with their fists, then teaching empathy in moments like this is very important. If your toddler hits you, make a big deal out of it hurting (even if it didn’t). Jump back and say ‘ouch’ in a sharp voice to get their attention. Then speak the words ‘you hurt mommy/daddy when you hit me.’ This should elicit an apology or sign of understanding. If it doesn’t, dig deeper and ask your toddler how they feel when someone hits them and draw a comparison to how others feel when they hit.
Toddlers aren’t known for their stellar behavior when they are hungry, tired, overstimulated or the sky is blue. Just kidding on that last one - but sometimes it feels like it! Go through the common reasons for poor behavior and remedy those first. If you are missing a naptime, it is probably time to leave. If your little one is hungry, pull out a snack.
Once their basic needs are met, most toddlers are able to get along for short periods of time. If instances of hitting or throwing continue, there is another cause. Is your child imitating another child on the playground who displays similar behaviors? Is your child scared of the other children or one other child in particular?
Once you have found the cause, you can approach the reason and the hitting or throwing behaviors will stop. Remember to teach and not tell, meaning don’t simply tell your toddler not to hit or not to throw. Teach them that if they are scared, they can come to you. Teach them if they are angry at another child, to use their words to tell them so.
Learning to share with others is a fundamental skill that all young children must learn. Unfortunately, the way sharing is most commonly taught to toddlers is somewhat flawed. As a parent who wants to raise a kind child who is happy to share his or her toys with others, we default to teaching them that anytime someone else wants their toy - they give it to them to be kind.
In an effort to teach sharing, we are also teaching our toddlers that they are not as important as someone else. I don’t think that is intentional by any parent, but it is what happens when you are constantly telling them to give up the toy they are playing with because someone else wants it.
Instead, set healthy boundaries with possession and sharing. If another child shows interest in a toy, give your child the option of inviting that child to play with them or to take turns. If the toy in question belongs to your child and is not a community toy-like at a daycare, additional rules may be needed. For very important toys that your child has a significant attachment to - do not allow these toys to travel to communal places like parks or playdates. If you have guests in the home, simply put them up. For all other toys, your child should be given the same two options of inviting the other child to play with them or taking turns with them.
Toddlers love the idea of personal choice and many will respond positively to be an A/B option. If you notice your toddler throwing toys at a sibling or playmate, immediately stop the physical behavior and pull your child aside. Have a calm conversation about expectations and let them know that if they continue to throw the toy, you will take them away. When they return to play, make sure you follow through on any consequences to deter the behavior.
Hitting and throwing is a normal response displaying fear, frustration, or anger in toddlers and young children. If your toddler exhibits this behavior, they are not likely to be defiant or bad. But they are expressing an inappropriate reaction to their emotions. How you respond now teaches them how to respond in the future. If you handle your toddler roughly, dragging them to time out or yelling at them - this is how they will learn to respond to others in situations of anger and frustration. Use every incident as a teaching moment, not only to correct the immediate behavior but also to shape the way they respond to emotions like anger and frustration as they get older. While hitting and throwing tantrums are common in two and three year olds, it is also expected that children in this age group are currently learning more effective coping mechanisms.