Tips to End Hitting in a Toddler

by Michele Borba, Ed.D

My 19-month-old son is normally a very happy child -- very playful, always laughing or singing or just babbling. In my opinion he is very smart for his age. He can count to 20, knows his abc's and lots of songs to his favorite cartoon shows and nursery rhymes.

He is also very, very energetic. I think sometimes he is too energetic; might be a little hyper. Like most toddlers, he does tend to have a temper when he can't have his way but he's taken to hitting and throwing things. He also likes to scratch or pinch for fun.

And he appears to be very daring -- like climbing on things and jumping down especially after I've told him no or he realizes that it might hurt. He doesn't like to listen. I have no idea where to start in getting him to understand that some of the things he does are wrong. I can take him to something and show him and tell him NO but that doesn't work. Taking things away from him that he enjoys playing with when he's done something bad doesn't work. Even in daycare they are starting to say that he doesn't listen.

One thing that he DOESN'T DO is sit down. I can't get him to sit down for more than 15 seconds without him getting up and running off to do something. I have to put him in his highchair to get him to relax for a few minutes. He hates being confined and will scream and yell and cry till he's out of breath until we take him out. He's also asthmatic so when he runs around constantly it concerns me.

His father and I are at our wit's end because he is like the energizer bunny. If we didn't force him to go to sleep I don't think he would. Please tell me that most of this is normal behavior and he will outgrow it soon. He has pretty much been this way ever since he started walking and exploring the house.

First -- please do not ever be concerned about asking ANYONE a question about your child's well-being. Remember, you and your husband have to always be the number one advocate for your son -- there are NEVER any silly questions when it comes to child rearing.

So let's go through a few points:

If your child is 19 months old and can count to 20 and say his ABCs on his own, you do have a very smart little critter. Little boys are generally much more energetic and will do risky behaviors and try new things (and drive us batty).

Our children are born with different temperaments -- and we usually can see those differences from the start. Your child's basic temerament is ACTIVE. Your term for "energizer bunny" is perfect. If he's active now, chances are he will continue to be so. So, no, he won't change. As he gets older, he will calm down. But his basic temperament will be active. This temperament usually needs:

  • Calm and consistent parents
  • Firm love, structure
  • Calmer activities to help him calm down
  • Shorter paced things
  • A Calm, cool you.

Find things to help sooth him or get him calmer before he escalates. Your best chance is never to wait until he spirals too quickly but help him calm down or put him in a calmer place. Watch for those clues -- he will give them to you. Learn to anticipate.

So let's face forward to the "concerns":

  1. Biting and hitting: This age is when kids try new things. But it's also will become a habit unless you immediately halt it. You must remain calm but every single time, respond with a firm voice. No biting or hitting.

    Immediately remove him from the situation and put him elsewhere. I know it doesn't seem to be working now. I'm not sure if you're being consistent each time. Time out sounds impossible if he won't sit. So you move him and put him in a situation -- maybe another room -- or off to another space -- for a few minutes. You say he doesn't get the connection so show him.

    If you bit or hit you cannot play. If you hit you have to move here. Sounds as though you need to firmly hold him for a few minutes -- not long -- but during that time talk soothingly. And keep saying no biting. You need to sit here with Mommy (or Daddy) a little bit because you were biting.

    I would normally suggest remove a toy or have him sit in a "time out chair" for 1 minute but that seems not doable. A complete makeover for biting and hitting is in my book, No More Misbehavin'. I'm summarizing the key points in that chapter for you.

  2. Day Care: Have you observed it? Is it the best environment for your child? Too long a time period? Just want to make sure.

  3. By the way, is his behavior escalating or is this the same pattern? Could something be triggering it? Change? Aggressive kids? Day care? You? Your husband? Or this has always been the pattern.

  4. If the behavior is the same -- you're trying everything and he will not listen -- it's time to take things up a notch. He must learn to listen, not only for good development in his character but for safety reasons.

    First, the day care workers.... Is there one person there who you trust who has a good sense of children's behavior and loves children. That person can be helpful. What you want is someone to guide you and can give you a second opinion. She may be able to tell you a technique that works for her (ideally you use the same technique together). Consistency is critical.

    Or is there a teacher, your mother, a friend who has a good background with children that can give you advice? What you want is someone who can observe your child (since I can't) to see if there's something you're missing. Ideally whatever you try, anyone else who is with your child, needs to try the same thing.

  5. Finally, you're concerned and my strongest advice to any parent is act on your concern. Do not wait. Talk to your pediatrician. If that doesn't help, find another pediatrician. They're going to be able to tell you normal by observing your child first hand. You want to alleviate your fears. but second you're going to need a good parenting class to help you in the next few years learn to be firm, loving, consistent towards your child to guide his behavior.

Best to you!

Michele Borba, Ed.D, is an internationally renowned educational consultant and recipient of the National Educator Award. She is a frequent guest expert on TV and NPR talk shows including Fox & Friends, The View, The Today Show, and serves on the honorary board to Parents Magazine.

She is the award-winning author of nineteen books including:
• No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them
• Building Moral Intelligence
• Parents Do Make A Difference
• Don't Give Me that Attitude!: 24 Selfish, Rude Behaviors and How to Stop Them. Dr. Borba is a former teacher and partner in a private practice for troubled youth. She lives in Palm Springs, Ca with her husband and three sons.

Copyright © Michele Borba. Permission to publish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.