Hitting Toddler

Dear Mother Wit,

My 2-year-old has been hitting me, her big sister, the kids out on the playground, pretty much everybody she comes in contact with. I popped her hand a few times and told her “No! Stop that, bad girl!” but she keeps on doing it. How do I get this little girl to listen? — Mom of a Little Mike Tyson

Dear Mom of a Little Mike Tyson,

First things first: you need to understand that hitting your daughter for hitting you or anyone else won’t ever change her behavior. Why? Because by hitting her, you’re teaching her that the person who hits the hardest is the one who gets her way. And what comes from that? More hitting. By her and you. A vicious cycle.

If you want to stop the hitting, you have to understand why she’s doing it. Start with the fact that she’s two. Which means she’s totally acting her age. Hitting is normal, natural behavior for toddlers, who can’t yet express themselves in the ways that older kids and adults do. The typical 2-year-old knows only about 50 to 75 words and can barely string them together into phrases or sentences yet, so they tend to hit to get attention, to say they’re hungry or tired, or because they’re frustrated over the fact that they don’t have any control over whatever is going on in the moment.

So while her mind is saying, “I really want a turn on the swing that other kid is swinging on,” or “I really don’t want to sit in this chair right now,” her ability to express those things is severely limited to her saying, “Gimme,” and “No,” with a smack or two to make sure that the other person is totally clear.

Now this is not to say that the hitting is right. I just want you to understand that it’s normal. Your kid is not bad. She doesn’t have violent tendencies. And she’s going to grow out of this phase where she expresses herself with her hands, rather than her words. In the meantime, how do you get her to stop hitting? Check out these tips for what to do when your child hits:

1. Calm her down. Keep it simple: take her away from whatever she’s angry about—the other kid on the swing, her sibling with the toy she wants, that box of colorful cereal she saw in the grocery aisle—get to her eye level, take her hands into your hands (gently!), look her right in the eye and tell her firmly, “No hitting.” Don’t get any deeper than that because, again, she’s two and mad and lashing out and the last thing she’s going to be here for is a long, drawn-out conversation on why she’s can’t go all Mike Tyson just because she’s not getting her way. Bonus: when you take her away from the scene of the hitting tantrum, you’re distracting her and making her focus on what you’re saying.

2. Help her find the words to say what she really wants. Of course, it’s not okay for her to hit, but it’s important that you help her understand and express her feelings in that moment. This requires you to pay attention. When my daughter was little, she had an episode or two over an Elmo doll both she and her sister loved. If she saw her big sister getting her play on, the little one would run right over and knock the big one right upside the head. Luckily, my older daughter already knew that hitting was wrong, so she’d either tell her not to hit or she’d come snitch to me. It took only a few times for me to realize that the little one was hitting the big one because whenever she saw her sister playing with Elmo, she wanted to play with the toy, too. So I gave her the words to express that, then the rules for how to play with her sister: “I know you want to play with Elmo—that’s your boy. But you have to wait your turn to play with him.” In that instance, my little sand timer that I kept in the playroom came in handy, too. “When all the sand runs into the bottom, turn it upside down and then you can play with Elmo until the sand runs out again.” She was a smart little cookie, see? She couldn’t talk well but she could understand me just fine. After that, the two could take turns with Elmo and everybody was happy and there was no more hitting. At least not over Elmo.

3. Give her some options. She may just not be into being told what to do. I know, I know—you’re the parent, she’s the child and she’s supposed to do what you say. But before you snatch my mom card and my wig, consider this: there are instances where your daughter is lashing out because she’s frustrated by the lack of options and control. Nobody likes to feel like they’re not in control, even two-year-olds. Understand, I’m not advocating you let your kid run the show. I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt anybody if you let your kid think she has a little more control. How does that look? Well, instead of telling her to pick up her toys, you could say, “Okay, it’s time to put the toys away, baby. Which one are you going to put in the toy chest first: Elmo or the bouncy ball?” Instead of saying, “put your shoes on so we can go,” you could say, “It’s time to put your shoes on—which one do you want to wear, the green sneakers or the sandals?” See? You still get what you want, and she feels like she’s being included in the decision making process. And there’s no hitting involved—from either of you. Win for everybody!

* * *

This post originally appeared on SPARE THE KIDS. Reprinted with permission.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Thank you for promoting methods of discipline other than ‘just beat her little behind’ for black children. It’s alternately infuriating and disheartening to see physical punishment given as not only the primary suggestion, but often the ONLY suggestion for our kids. I won’t go into a rant about why it culturally problematic that this is the go-to method; I’ll just leave it at thank you.

  2. Excellent article and great tips! It can be very frustrating when your child is acting out, and its tempting to resort to physcial punishment because it seems like the quickest and most direct way to stop the behavior. Thanks for pointing out that there are other ways to address behavior issues that will have a positive, lasting impact on a child into the future.

    I recently wrote about something similar, when my almost-2-year-old started biting as a way of lashing out and attracting attention to herself.


    It was incredibly frustrating (and painful! Ouch!) but I am still trying to find ways to discourage her negative behaviors while building up her self-esteem and sense of self-worth. This parenting gig is hard work!!

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