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How do you discourage a toddler from hitting people?

Out of the blue my 16 month old son has started hitting his sister (4 year old) and other kids when he is frustrated (and sometimes he did it pro-actively without any clear reason). In those cases he would just walk up to his sister (or mother on one occasion) and just swing at them without any apparent provocation from their side.

This is worrying me, so I wanted to get advice on how to deal with this as he is too young to take any conversational feedback besides just saying "No" but that doesn't seem to be stopping him so far from doing it again. I can't see timeouts or similar things working for a 16 month old.

Any suggestions for how to deal with this issue on a kid so young?


4 Answers 4


It might also be a good idea to address the reason why the toddler is hitting (for example, you mentioned frustration) before doing any sort of explanation or punishment because people in general have a hard time listening to logic before their emotions are considered. Explaining after addressing the need behind the behavior will make it easier for the toddler to understand why hitting is bad without having to feel that his need was neglected.

  • Welcome to the site! and thank you for adding this very good point to the conversation! +1 for "people in general have a hard time listening to logic before their emotions are considered." I would also add that understanding the child's emotions first helps the parent be a better guide in helping the child with other options for expressing those emotions in more constructive ways. - If it is possible to discern what the child is feeling as toddlers are often not able to describe their emotions, or identify reasons for things. They still aren't able to analyze their own thinking well. Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 15:03

Luckily for me my daughter (2.5 years old by now) is far from such behaviour but I'll share what I would do in such a situation.

  1. First hit just say "No" firmly and explain that what he's doing hurts. Toddlers understand much more than we think.

  2. If he's doing it again, grab him and move him away from his sister/mother for example to his room or just any different room and explain again that he must not do it because it hurts.

Soon when he'll start talking you can also ask him to apologize if he'll still be doing it, but hopefully it won't come to that.

  • 2
    I'm sure you meant this, but I would just clarify that this is a good method as long as the grabbing for moving and the NO are both administered in a calm, but firm manner. No Yelling or rough treatment please. Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 22:04

If it's caused by frustration, then a likely source of that is trouble verbalizing those feelings.

Scoldings and time outs (or whatever discipline tactics you've standardized on) are definitely appropriate, and should be enforced reasonably consistently with this. However, they don't address the source cause and thus as you point out are unlikely to resolve the situation.

Instead, help the child verbalize their feelings for them. Try to figure out what the cause of the frustration was - a stolen toy, jealousy, need for attention, need for interaction, tiredness, etc. Then express that for the child in simple words, and with multiple repetitions, to show that a) you understand how they feel, and b) what words they should be using. Follow up with, "...but hitting is NOT OKAY."

For example, with my kids a frequent cause of physical strife is when the younger child plays with the older child's toys. After much corrective education we taught him to instead yell, "Help! She's getting my toys!" as a cue for us to intervene.

  • good advice but note the question is for a 16 month old . . not quite ready to verbalize at this stage . . .
    – leora
    Commented Jan 2, 2013 at 17:32

Our 20-month-old has started doing the same thing. USUALLY we can determine the cause (wants a marker that his sister has, for example), but as he's too young to verbalize it very well we've been doing a few things that seem to help.

  1. Redirect: if we see an impending meltdown or hit coming, we redirect to a new toy/activity/anything to distract him. His attention span is that of a distracted kitten so if we can capture it we're golden.

  2. Timeouts: if he gets a hit in, into timeout he goes. He doesn't really grok it yet, but he does get upset because he still sees his sister go into timeout from time-to-time and wail until she's done (and if Sissy doesn't like it, it must be AWFUL). Also, it gets him away from the situation.

  3. Reading: he loves to read, so we read "Hands are not for hitting" and "Tails are not for pulling" and "I can share!" every night and sometimes multiple times in the day. We've also brought copies to daycare, to go into the usual reading rotation. Repeating the key phrases every time ("hands are NOT for hitting") does seem to work. He's not there yet but every once in a while it stops him.

  4. One thing we used with our daughter that we're starting with him is getting down eye-to-eye and trying to help him verbalize his feelings. "Mommy, I'm mad! I wanted to play with that bath toy!" (That's me saying that to him, pretending I'm him.) Last night he stopped hitting me and looked at me in wonder, as if to say, "Finally! I can communicate with these insane adults!"

All that said, the HiveMind saying for cats applies here too: all kids are different, and all kids are weird. What works for one may or may not work for another. YMMV.

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