Toddler hitting and aggression: How to stop your toddler from hitting

Aggressive behavior, including hitting, can be a normal part of your toddler's development. Here's why it happens and what you can do about it.

Two toddlers fighting
Photo credit: © Thinkstock / iStock

Shocking as it may be to you (and to onlookers), aggressive behavior is a normal part of your toddler's development. Emerging language skills, a fierce desire to become independent, and undeveloped impulse control all make children this age prime candidates for getting physical.

That doesn't mean you should ignore it, though. Make it clear to your toddler that such behavior is unacceptable, help them label their feelings, and show them other ways to express themself.

Advertisement | page continues below

Why toddlers hit

Toddlers can be tons of fun – they're learning quickly, they're becoming more independent, and they're eager to do tasks on their own. But even with their budding independence, toddlers don't quite yet have the language skills to express their needs, which can lead to frustration and aggressive behavior.

Hitting and other similar behaviors usually peak around age 2 or 3, when toddlers have lots of big feelings but aren't able to use language to express themselves yet. Some reasons toddlers hit include:

  • Testing limits. Toddlers are learning that they're separate people from their caregivers and want to assert their independence. Sometimes that can mean pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable.
  • Limited impulse control. A toddler may understand rules about not hitting, but struggle to stop themself from hitting or biting when they're feeling frustrated. The ability to control those impulses may not fully develop until they're close to 4 years old, with support from loving parents and caregivers.
  • Frustration with peers. Toddlers are just beginning to learn crucial social skills, like how to wait, take turns, and share. They may hit in frustration if another child takes their toy or they have to wait in line to go down a slide at the park.
  • They're overwhelmed. If your toddler is overstimulated, stressed out, angry, sad, or otherwise having a big feeling, they may resort to hitting to express it.

How to respond when your toddler hits

Try these tips to manage toddler hitting, biting, and other challenging behavior:

Keep your cool. Yelling, hitting, or telling your child they're bad won't get them to make positive changes to their behavior – you'll just get them more riled up and give them examples of new things to try. But showing them you can control your temper helps them learn to control theirs.

Set clear limits. Respond immediately whenever your toddler hurts someone. Remove them from the situation for a brief time-out. Experts recommend one minute per year, so if your toddler is 2 years old, give them a 2-minute timeout.

This gives them time to cool down. You can respond by labeling your child's feeling and offering safe behavior alternatives, such as ripping up paper or playing with Play-Doh. This helps build coping skills and emotion regulation.

Advertisement | page continues below

Tell your toddler, "No hitting. Hitting hurts." Avoid lecturing, since your toddler probably isn't capable of imagining themself in another child's place or changing their behavior based on verbal reasoning.

Give logical consequences. If your child gets into the ball pit at the indoor play center and starts throwing the balls at other kids, take them out of the ball pit immediately. As you sit down with your toddler and watch the other kids play, explain that they can go back in when they're ready to join the fun without throwing the balls at other children.

But keep in mind that even if your toddler seems to understand the rule, being in an overstimulating environment such as a ball pit might put their limited impulse control to the test. 

Discipline consistently. As much as possible, respond to each episode the same way each time. Your predictable response sets up a pattern that your child eventually learns to recognize and expect. Your predictability will help build important brain connections that support their emotional regulation skills.

Avoid punishment, especially physical punishment like spanking. Don't spank or otherwise hit your child for any reason, including in response to your child hitting someone else.

Advertisement | page continues below

For one, spanking teaches the child to use more aggressive behavior to solve their problems and doesn't help instill emotional regulation or communication skills. What's more, physical punishment may actually harm your child's brain development and mental health.

Teach alternatives. Wait until your toddler has settled down, then calmly and gently review what happened. "You felt frustrated when Sally took your truck. Hitting is not okay. Instead, you can stomp your feet and ask for help."

Emphasize (briefly!) that it's natural to have angry feelings but it's not okay to show them by hitting, kicking, or biting. Encourage them to find a more effective way of responding, like using words to express themself or asking for help from an adult.

Encouraging your child to apologize may be appropriate for older kids who can understand another person's feelings. Toddlers won't learn much from a forced apology, but you can model empathy by apologizing when you make mistakes or pointing out the feelings of other children and discussing them with your toddler.

How to stop your toddler from hitting

Here are ways to prevent your toddler from hitting and other challenging behavior.

Advertisement | page continues below

Look for a pattern. Observe your toddler to figure out when they're most likely to get physical. If it seems like they're most likely to hit someone right before naptime, when they're overtired, try to keep things calm and low-key around that time. If it's while you're out at the park or mall, your toddler may be overstimulated by all the activity, sights, and sounds going on around them.

Reinforce good behavior. Rather than giving your child attention only when they're having a hard time, try to catch them being good.

When they ask to have a turn on the swing instead of pushing another child out of the way, for example, praise them for verbalizing what they want. In time, they'll realize how powerful their words are.

Be mindful of what they're watching. Cartoons, video games, and other media designed for young children can be filled with shouting, threats, and even shoving and hitting.

Choose high-quality, age-appropriate media, especially if your toddler seems prone to challenging behavior.

Advertisement | page continues below

Talk about how characters work out conflicts and brainstorm better ways to resolve them, and take care not to expose your child to more mature content meant for older viewers.

Keep your toddler active. You might find that when your toddler doesn't get a chance to burn off that abundant energy, they're a terror at home. If your child is high-spirited, give them plenty of unstructured time, preferably outside, to let off steam.

Toddler aggression: When to worry

Sometimes a child's aggression is more than a parent can handle. If your toddler's behavior is disrupting your life – i.e., your toddler can't play with other children, you can't take them out in public, or they're regularly getting in trouble at school or daycare – talk with your child's pediatrician.

Talk to a doctor if your toddler:

  • Is unusually challenging for longer than a few weeks.
  • Hurts themself.
  • Attacks you or other adults.
  • Acts aggressively out of the blue or you can't figure out what triggers their violence.
  • Is fixated on violent themes during playtime.
  • Starts acting up after a traumatic event or major life change (a move, a divorce, or a new sibling, for example).
Advertisement | page continues below

Together you can determine the source of the behavior problem and help your child overcome it. Your healthcare provider can also recommend a counselor or child psychologist if necessary.

Learn more:

Follow your baby's amazing development

BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2017. Fighting and Biting. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

The Children's Mercy Hospital. 2020. Hitting and biting: What parents need to know. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2018. What's the Best Way to Discipline My Child? a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Zero to Three. 2017. Helping Young Children With Sharing. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Zero to Three. 2016. Toddlers and Self-Control: A Survival Guide for Parents. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Zero to Three. 2017. Aggressive Behavior in Toddlers. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2018. How to Give a Time-Out. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2021. 10 Tips to Prevent Aggressive Toddler Behavior. a new window [Accessed March 2023]

Erin Heger

Erin Heger is a freelance journalist who writes about health, parenting, and social issues. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, HuffPost, Business Insider, and Rewire News Group. Born and raised in Kansas, she lives just outside Kansas City with her husband and three kids.