Help with a 19-Month-Old Hitter

The following question was received by Michelle Borba:

"My 19-month-old son has a really bad habit of hitting people. It doesn't matter who his victim is -- young, old, strangers, or family and friends. It is so bad that I'm now considering not taking him out in public. He is missing out on toddler groups, soft play areas, swing parks and general interaction necessary to a child because I can't trust him not to be abusive to others. Please help."

Here is her response:

The key word you said here was, "habit" -- that means he's used to using that behavior and so it's become entrenched in his everyday behavior. It also means it's now going to take consistent, deliberate work on your part (and every other caregiver) to stop it. Don't expect a turn around ASAP -- but also don't give up.

  1. Start tracking the hitting. If you have a good intervention plan you'll gradually see a decline. Get a calendar and mark how often you see it happen -- just a slash mark per episode under the right day.
  2. From this moment on, EVERY single time he displays the behavior to ANYONE and EVERYWHERE, intervene ASAP. Step in. Be CALM. Tell him firmly, WE DO NOT HIT. You go to time out. And put him in a spot away from people. It's 2 minutes (one minute per age). He must stay there. And do not talk to him, distract him or let him play with anything. Do this first for at least a week in your home. It will be at least a week until you see a decline. He needs to know you are serious and mean business.
  3. Go on the Internet and look up the rules for time out and follow them to the nail. My book No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them has a 21 day makeover for hitting. You MUST follow the time out rules exactly as they are spelled out or you will not get change. This is essential.
  4. Is there anything else that could be triggering the behavior? Is he around aggressive kids or adults? Is he seeing hitting behaviors? Is there an upsetting situation in the house? Why did the behavior begin in the first place? Those are other issues you need to consider.