Mom’d Out | 9 ways to get your toddler to stop hitting

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via Flickr by Ellie Nakazawa Growing Better Baby Crying Life Kids Being Kids CC BY 2.0

The first time it happened, I was surprised.

I never expected his little hand to thwack me, but that’s exactly what he did. I had told him not to do something, and he’d gotten a grumpy look on his face and decided that was No, No, No, Unacceptable and then thwack!

At this point, there were several options available to me. I could yell, hit back, do some version of time out or talk to him about it.

I decided to talk to him.

I explained to him that this was Not Good, to Calm Down and that he should be Gentle with Mommy. I thought that that was the end of it.

A few weeks later, he did it again. This time, I reacted by talking to him in a loud voice and he ended up a bit scared. When he did it a third time, I left him in the kitchen to cry it out. It got worse.

As a new mom, I was worried and stressed. Was I doing something wrong? Why was he still hitting, even if I followed all the advice I could get from teachers and older moms? This worry caused me to escalate my responses because I thought that nothing I was doing was working. I had tried all the pointers but nothing seemed to help.

I also eventually found my style. I found things that I was comfortable doing and mixed it up with other tips which I think really helped enable to help my son lessen and eventually stop hitting.

Basically, the big takeaways are really simple:

  1. Restrain him gently.
  2. Explain, explain, explain, explain.
  3. Get them to look you in the eye and pay attention
  4. Make sure they acknowledge what you say
  5. Remind them they said yes
  6. Be Calm
  7. Play pretend
  8. Find a gentle consequence
  9. Get him to say sorry and remedy the situation

1. Restrain him gently

This is really important.

Nuance is lost on little people.

I mean, they are only two and a half feet tall – most things are lost on them.

That’s pretty much why a physical action requires a physical response.

However, the type of physical response that you give is also the type of response that you want him to model. Toddlers are quick. Toddlers copy actions far more than words. If you respond violently, he’ll think it’s a good response to problem and so, if you want your baby to grow up peaceful, you’ll really need to act the same way.

Many parenting blogs and early educator say that before a child hits, restraining him gently gets the message across that he shouldn’t hit.

What happens if you aren’t able to catch him in time?

A lot of websites talk about restraining a toddler before he hits, but I’ve found that even gently holding his arms and hands after also helps.

Usually, after he hits, I’ll take his hands and arms and hold them across his chest. I might be sitting behind him so it’s almost like I am hugging him from behind. I’ll usually hold him that way for a while as I start to explain what action was bad.

I can’t stress enough how this helped me get the message across to him that hitting was bad. This combined with other things really seemed to make it easy for him to understand and internalize what I was trying to teach him.

2. Explain, explain, explain, explain

It takes a while before an explanation sticks.

This holds true if you are six feet tall or 2 feet small. After all, how many times did it take you to explain to someone how to do something for them to get your instructions? Usually takes a while, doesn’t it?

For small people, you need to multiply that a bit.

Babies are fantastic at picking up words. Your four month old may already recognize his name, and your two year old not only gets specific words but has started to understand word order and how it affects meaning.

Still, babies only really have an imperfect grasp of how language works. They’re still trying to understand where to put words and what they mean, so it’s not uncommon to find that things get lost in translation when you are explaining things.

When I’m explaining something to my son, I find that the methods below work really well:

  • Stick to simple words that you know they understand.
  • Stick to simple sentences.
  • Use a slow and even tone of voice.
  • Repeat three four or five times using the same words.

Although painstaking, this really helps him understand the why behind what mama does, and I’ve found that usually just repeating the words later helps him remember what was said.

3. Get them to look you in the eye and pay attention

This is a small simple thing that makes a world of difference.

My little man would not look at me in the eye when he didn’t want to hear what I was saying. He would tilt his head and look at the floor or his feet.

Lifting his chin gently or even just saying look at mama did two things: it let him know I was serious and it meant he knew that I knew he was listening.

He couldn’t later play on and pretend he hadn’t heard me, and it built up his respect for me as an authority figure.

4. Make sure they acknowledge what you say 

Keeping eye contact is one way of having him non-verbally acknowledge what was said but it’s important to have as many ways of getting acknowledgement as possible.

Every time I’d explain something to my little boy I had him verbally acknowledge what I said by asking him at the end, Okay?

He’d usually respond with a ‘Kay. His O would kind of get lost. 🙂

I’d ask him to acknowledge four or five times during my little lecture, and it often helped cement what was said in his memory.

5. Remind them they said yes

When he would get his bearings back, my little boy would often try to sneak in a little misbehavior. If I’d asked him to lie down, he’d ever so gently raise himself up to test my reaction.

If I look him in the eye and remind him that Remember, you said yes, it helps him abide by the agreement that we had.

Reinforcing this agreement and getting him to acknowledge it later on keeps the agreement alive. It makes it something he can reference and live by.

6. Be Calm

Being a new mama, I freaked out when my little boy hit.

It did not help.

My little boy picked up on my stress and upset and it made him even more stressed, which made him hit more.

I eventually learned not to overreact – maybe because it became so frequent that it was no longer remarkable and maybe because I learned from older moms and my husband that it was important to be calm.

I followed my rules, spoke to him in a no-nonsense tone of voice and, in dealing with the hitting calmly, managed to stop escalation.

7. Play pretend

This I discovered from a very experienced nanny.

When she realized that my baby was hitting, she assigned his stuffed toys roles. This one was mama, this was dada, and this was the baby.

She would act out little plays for him and what he was supposed to do when something went wrong.

For Mama Says Sleep, she would tuck stuffed toys in and pull blankets up around them. For Mama Says Eat, she would have the stuffed toy lion that was baby pretend to eat. For Mama Says Be Gentle, she would have the toys act out how to touch each other gently, instead of hitting.

It taught him what was acceptable behavior and trained him how to act in many situations we struggled with.

8. Find a gentle consequence

Every mama knows that you can’t let bad behavior slide.

After I’ve warned him about three times and he does it again, I usually warn him that I’m taking away his toys or that it’s time for a time out if he continues.

It’s usually enough for him to pause and consider. I’ll then say the consequence again and by that time, he’s calm enough to listen and stop.

In really extreme situations, I’ll put him on time out.

The version of time out to start with though often will depend. My version is putting him up against a wall and sitting in front of him and making sure he doesn’t go anywhere.

Sometimes, I’ll have to chase him as he escapes. I use this time to talk to him and remind him that his action was wrong. After about 5 minutes of this, he usually gets it and I let him out of time out.

9. Get him to say sorry and remedy the situation

When he hits someone and I’ve spoken to him about it, I ask him to fix the situation.

Usually , this involves saying sorry and touching the other person gently. It reinforces that this is the right way to act and

Babies have to try to remedy the situation so that they know there was a wrong done and that they are responsible for whatever ill results afterwards.

But it has to be done seriously otherwise my baby often thinks that it is a game and that doing this removes all the bad from the previous action, making it paradoxically okay to it. When I hit the right tone of voice and have explained enough however, I find that doing this helps him take responsibility.

In summary, it is tough to get a baby to stop hitting. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the belief that hitting is common – many older moms have told me that their babies never hit. Some do say that it is normal, but I think that perhaps that while the first hit is unintentional how we reacts determines whether continues or stops right there.

It took me a while to find the right approach with my baby, and I really find these guidelines incredibly useful. I had to figure it out from scratch; hopefully, these help so you won’t have to.