Teaching toddlers and others that hitting isn’t just a phase

Raising twin boys brings a ton of joy, but for all the double snuggles, there are just as many times when it means double the fighting. Thankfully they aren’t yet big enough to do serious damage to each other, but it means it’s time to teach them to stop it now, before they can. Unfortunately, teaching them that expressing themselves in other ways goes against many cultural norms and is likely to get derailed by well meaning people telling us it’s normal. Well it’s time to stop making it ok.


We don’t tolerate older kids hitting each other, themselves, or us, so why do we tolerate younger ones with the excuse that it’s just a phase? Yes, toddlers go through a phase of rapid physical and emotional change, but that shouldn’t mean we teach them to accept it. The frustration often comes from a lack of ability to constructively demonstrate emotion, just like tantrums. It’s also not much different from crying as an infant, the frustration of not being able to explain feelings or desires comes out in an emotional way. Just like we help them get past this phase by showing them how to talk and express their wants, we need to show them that there are better ways than physical ones.

These emotions come through in a myriad of ways for toddlers. My boys, just over 2.5, usually don’t hit, but when extremely tired, hungry, or otherwise dealing with stress, they lash out. Sometimes it’s at each other, sometimes at one of us, their parents, or even at themselves. When possible to catch, the best course is to redirect them and give them a minute to compose themselves. Often though, they keep trying, knowing that it’s getting them attention, and have to be taken away from each other.

Unfortunately they’ve also recently picked up throwing things as an outlet. It may be partly due to confusion over what’s ok to throw and when. With a penchant for sports, including playing hockey and soccer together in the house, they’ve learned to throw pretty hard and accurately. When this involves a ball into a net, it’s ok. When it’s a Lego brick at their brother’s face, it’s obviously not.

These societal norms make it harder to explain and deal with. Boys are encouraged to be physical through sports, even as toddlers in daycare, and pick it up from TV. This makes it confusing and inconsistent to them because they can’t understand why throwing is sometimes ok but not others. All too often this is explained away as boys just being boys. This kind of rationalization quickly slips into other behavior and can extend later in life, pardoning and excusing unacceptable behavior. Though tough, early toddlerhood is actually the perfect time to teach them about acceptable physical behavior toward themselves and others. These lessons will stick with them later and make them less likely to have emotional difficulty and express themselves violently.

These kinds of rationalization about boys’ behavior are the same that can eventually lead to violence toward women, violent crime, and worse. Even if not that extreme, it can easily lead to behavior that minimizesother’s emotions and well-being, and propagates bias toward others. Stamping this out early can be a huge key to empathetic adults and allies.

Toddlers are still developing cognitive abilities like empathy and sympathy. At this age, while they have a concept of themselves and others, they find it hard to identify others as having their own feelings and emotions. They can’t yet out themselves in anyone else’s shoes and think about how their behavior affects others. This comes later, but only really develops and affects their behavior if cultivated by parents and seen in role models. That’s why making sure family and friends don’t just encourage this behavior, especially for boys, as just a phase, is critical. Sometimes teaching other adults is harder than working through it with children.

The best course of action to take when things get physical is to remove them from their current situation, getting them away from being able to harm anyone else. Time outs can just result in more anger and string emotion, making the situation worse and child more likely to act out. Instead, a quick break to get recomposed works better. Check with them that they are alright now and can actually respond to the question. At a young age, emotions like this are actually strong enough to block the about to fully process information and respond so when they can answer back they have likely recovered enough. Then, explain to them how hitting is not the right way to handle the situation, that it hurts the other person, that no one likes being hurt, and to try handling the situation again through talking. This can still be a lot for a little mind to handle so be willing to walk them through it all. Like any good lesson, it won’t stick the first, or probably even tenth time, but keep at it.

Tantrums and emotional breakdowns are probably the toughest thing parents have to deal with when it comes to their toddlers. Laying on the floor tantrums are one thing, but when it gets violent, parents need to step in more quickly and take control before anyone gets hurt or things escalate. Learning these lessons at an early age is very important for developing the ability to handle emotions positively when older, as well as developing string empathy and sympathy. It’s also often up to parents to teach not only their children, but it her adults that this behavior isn’t ok, or just a phase, and that it takes work and role models to learn to handle these situations. It’s only by encouraging constructive handling of emotion that parents can help ensure healthy and emotionally strong adults.

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