Toddlers do not necessarily hit others to be “bad.” They do not yet have the ability to fully manage their emotions. Toddlers may hit out of anger, as a way of exploring their world, or to see how others react.

Toddlers may hit, flail, yell, or scream when frustrated, especially during a temper tantrum. But babies and toddlers may hit others for no apparent reason as well.

Toddlers do not yet have a strong sense of right and wrong or empathy, so they may not understand how their behavior affects others. The way caregivers respond to hitting may also increase or decrease child aggression.

Read on to learn more about toddler hitting.

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Toddlers may hit people for many reasons, including:

  • Exploring the world: Toddlers may hit to explore the world around them. They might like the sound or want to see how people around them react.
  • Seeking attention: Sometimes, toddlers may hit as a way of getting the attention of a parent or caregiver.
  • Touching too hard: Toddlers may accidentally hit when attempting to “pet” a person or animal. This could be due to enthusiasm or because their fine motor skills are still developing.
  • Tantrums: When toddlers have intense anger or sadness, they may fail to manage their behavior. During a tantrum, a toddler might hit, yell, bite, or throw things.
  • Self-defense: A toddler might hit when someone else hits or scares them, including when a parent attempts to spank them.
  • Copying aggression: Toddlers may hit when they see others hit, especially if their parents spank them or others, according to 2017 research.

In a 2016 study including babies and young toddlers, more than half of their acts of force did not stem from distress. This suggests that, in many cases, other factors are causing this behavior.

Whatever the reason, though, a toddler hitting a person or pet is a signal that their ability to manage their emotions or behavior does not match the situation.

Yes, toddlers often stop hitting over time. The 2016 study mentioned above found that unprovoked hitting decreased late in the second year of life.

However, whether a toddler stops hitting may depend on why they are hitting in the first place. A 2022 study found a correlation between severe tantrums, including severe aggression, and long-term behavioral and mental health symptoms, including aggression.

Caregivers’ response to hitting may also influence future behavior. Research has repeatedly found that spanking harms children in many ways, and it may increase aggression.

This is because toddlers do not fully understand right and wrong. They may not understand why their caregivers are punishing them, which can result in confusion, fear, and anger toward them.

Verbal aggression may also harm toddlers, who are too young to understand why their caregivers are unhappy with them.

In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called for a ban on corporal (physical) punishment.

How caregivers approach getting toddlers to stop hitting can depend on the child’s age and level of understanding. The following tips may help.

When hitting occurs:

  • Intervene immediately: If a child hits without apparent provocation, remind them to touch gently. The AAP suggests that, rather than telling toddlers not to do something, a person should describe the desired behavior so that toddlers know what to do instead of hitting.
  • Move them away: If the child is angry or distressed, or they continue to hit, remove them from the situation, briefly explaining that it is because they are hitting.
  • Provide an outlet: If a child is having a tantrum, try providing them with something else to hit or kick, such as a pillow.
  • Help them understand: When the child is calm, and if they are old enough to understand, explain why hitting is not OK. Focus on actions and their consequences. For example, a person might say, “Hitting others is not kind, and it hurts them.”
  • Have them try again: Ask them to try a positive alternative to hitting. For example, a caregiver could say, “Try again, but be gentle, please,” or “Say my name and I will help.” If the toddler has difficulty touching a person or animal gently, guide their hand so they can practice.
  • Enforce boundaries: If a child continues to hit, clearly explain an age-appropriate consequence that will happen if they continue and be willing to enforce this consequence right away. For example, a caregiver could say, “If you hit Susie again, you will have to play over here.” Toddlers do not understand delayed consequences, so this helps them see the cause and effect of their behavior.
  • Remain calm: Paying less attention or reacting less strongly to hitting can show children that their behavior is not getting them the attention or reaction they want.

Occasional hitting is, to some extent, developmentally typical, especially during tantrums. It is not always possible to completely prevent it, but it may be possible to reduce its frequency and severity.

It may help to:

  • Explain rules: Rather than only reacting to hitting, caregivers can explain the behavior they do want to see in advance.
  • Model gentle touch: Use gentle touch when the child is around and when interacting with them.
  • Use positive reinforcement: Praise the child when they avoid hitting, particularly when in new or challenging situations.
  • Teach emotional intelligence: Teach them the words for emotions and listen to them when they express themselves. If they do not know how to explain, reflect how they appear to be feeling back to them. For example, a caregiver could say, “You are so frustrated right now. This is really hard. I am here to help.”
  • Create healthy routines: To help with managing aggressive behavior, the AAP recommends that children are active for at least 1 hour per day and get enough sleep. For children under 18 months, the AAP recommends no screen time except for video calls, and 1 hour or less per day for children between ages 2 and 5 years.
  • Give them a calm space: If possible, create a calming space or routine for the child that they can use when stressed. For example, some children find weighted blankets calming.
  • Identify triggers: Try to observe whether any specific situations or triggers raise the likelihood of hitting, such as being tired or routine disruptions, and try to avoid them.
  • Protect them from hitting: If bullies or siblings are hitting the child or are hitting others while around them, take appropriate action to stop it. If someone else hits at or yells at the child, intervene to get the child out of the situation.

Occasional tantrums are typical in children, and so they are not a predictor of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism.

However, hitting that is more frequent or severe than is typical for a child’s age could be the result of something else. Challenges at home, a mental health condition, or neurodivergence could play a role.

For example, ADHD can lead to difficulty managing impulses, while autistic children may find certain situations or environments overwhelming, causing distress.

That said, hitting alone does not necessarily mean a child has ADHD or autism. Hitting is not an inevitable part of either diagnosis.

Caregivers should seek help from a pediatrician or child psychologist if their child:

  • frequently hurts others, despite attempts to stop it
  • has increasingly aggressive behavior
  • has signs of emotional distress, such as changes in eating or sleep patterns, becoming withdrawn, or crying often
  • has other new or unexplained behaviors, such as hyperactivity or difficulty concentrating
  • could be experiencing abuse

Parents and caregivers should also seek support if they feel unable to respond to the behavior in a calm way or without using physical punishment.

Toddlers hitting others can be frustrating. In some cases, it may appear to have no apparent cause.

Empathy, consistency, and a refusal to respond with aggression can help reduce this behavior.

Teaching children how to manage and express their emotions in a healthy and non-destructive way may also help to prevent hitting.

If measures to manage the behavior do not work or a child has other difficulties or unusual behaviors, caregivers should speak with a doctor at the earliest opportunity.