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Ask Dr. Sears: Toddler Hitting

Q. A few weeks ago, my 20-month-old started hitting me and my husband, usually in the face. We've tried everything  -- ignoring the behavior, sitting her down and talking about it, and even spanking, but it's only getting worse. For example, if we're out shopping and she wants a piece of candy or a toy, she'll hit me. If I tell her she can't have what she wants, she'll give me kisses. Then, if I end up giving her what she wants, she'll start hitting again! What are we doing wrong? How should we handle toddler hitting?

A.
Please try not to take your daughter's behavior personally  -- many toddlers go through a stage of hitting or biting the hand that feeds them! Try to remember that you aren't doing anything wrong  -- this is typical behavior of your child's age group. Hands are communication tools, especially for pre-verbal toddlers. Still, hitting can be very annoying and certainly puts a damper on the time that you and your daughter spend together. That said, here are a few things you can do  -- or stop doing  -- to help tame those hitting little hands:

Don't spank! In my opinion, spanking is the number-one no-no when disciplining a child that hits. You're simply reinforcing the message that it's okay to use your hands to resolve a situation. Using spanking as a consequence can especially confuse her, because you are trying to teach her that hitting is wrong.

Track the trigger. Keep a diary of the situations that seem to trigger her hitting episodes. Is she tired, bored, hungry, or angry? See if there is a pattern, and once you've identified the trigger, try to address it. Also, take inventory of your current family situation  -- could a recent change in family dynamics be causing her aggression, such as a move, marital discord, a change in daycare provider, or other upset? Or, perhaps she has been recently exposed to a new group of peers who hit, and is learning to use hitting as a form of communication, or a way of getting attention? If this is a possibility, spend a day at her daycare, or other social group setting, and observe the behavior of the other kids, and how your daughter reacts to them. Also, purposely arrange playdates with less-aggressive children who use their hands appropriately. Since her usual target is the face, also take steps to ensure that none of her playmates or caregivers are striking your child in the face.

Offer alternative means of communication. In most cases, children don't hit out of anger or frustration  -- often, it's just a confused way of getting your attention. The key to quelling this type of hitting is to show her how to communicate with her hands using more gentle gestures. Try to substitute a positive behavior for an annoying one: Next time she's about to hit you, immediately distract her with a more pleasant interaction, such as playing a game she enjoys or giving her a favorite toy to hold. If this doesn't work, then, when she hits, tell her: "We don't hit, we hug." You can also take her hand and show her how to pat your arm or face gently while talking about it. Continually demonstrating and discussing alternative gestures requires patience; this concept may take some time to sink in.

Make communication fun. Some children simply have a natural tendency to use their hands as communication tools. If this is your daughter, teach her fun, alternative gestures that channel this impulse appropriately. For example: As soon as her hand starts to go toward your face, quickly intervene with a cue phrase and gesture, such as, "Give me five!"

Give more touch time. Spend as much time as you can holding and snuggling your daughter. Try giving her a baby massage. Modeling appropriate touch helps your daughter learn how to use her hands in a more gentle manner.

You're on the right track by not giving your daughter the candy or toy she wants if she hits. She's at an age where she will gradually get the message that hitting will be followed by an undesirable consequence, such you walking away, or her being sent to time-out. She's obviously starting to realize this already when she gives you kisses after you deny her the treat she wanted. Don't give in to the hitting, and continue to positively reinforce her behavior when she does hug or kiss you. She'll soon learn that hitting never wins the prize, but hugging often will.

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