When your baby is between 12 and 18 months old, peaceful play dates become a thing of the past.
Put a group of toddlers together for more than a few minutes, and it’s almost certain you’ll find yourself breaking up a fight. Luckily, toddler disagreements are totally normal, and even if your child is the instigator, that doesn’t mean they’re destined to become the class bully.
Here are some of the most common triggers for toddler violence, and how you can handle them gracefully.
The Trigger: This Toy Is Mine
In your toddler’s mind, they truly are lord of all they survey. If they see it, they want it, and to them, that means it belongs to them. So when two toddlers spot a desirable toy at the same time, it’s no wonder if a fight breaks out.
If your toddler is hitting a friend to try to get a toy, encouraging them to “share” probably won’t be very effective. They’re too young to care about social interaction, so talking with them about other kids’ feelings won’t have much of an impact either.
Instead, try redirection. For younger toddlers, simply introducing another, cooler toy might be sufficient to break up the fight. But if your toddler is stubbornly dedicated to getting the one toy that everyone wants, your best bet is to moderate taking turns. Encourage your child to let the other have a turn, and make sure the turns are short enough to satisfy both toddlers’ limited attention spans. Even young toddlers can quickly learn to wait for a minute or two if they know their turn is coming soon.
And to prevent hitting before it starts, practice and role model before you head to playgroup. Teach your child how to wait by asking them to “wait a minute” when they ask for something from you, like a snack or a toy. If they’re used to waiting for you, they’ll have an easier time understanding how to wait their turn with a friend. You can also role model how to ask for a turn at home with you or with an older sibling.
The Trigger: What Are You Saying?
Fights over toys are easy to moderate. The reason for the fight is clear. But sometimes, the source of your toddler’s frustration isn’t as obvious, and it might seem like they’re lashing out for no reason.
If they have trouble communicating what they want and need, they might react by hitting simply because they’re so frustrated by lack of words. This kind of hitting is especially challenging, because it’s often directed at you or another adult.
As frustrating as it is to get hit in the face by your toddler when you’re trying to understand what they’re asking, it’s important not to react emotionally. Make it clear that hitting is not okay, but at the same time, validate your toddler’s frustration. Tell them, “It’s not okay to hit,” and walk away or remove them from the situation. Then address their frustrations with a statement like, “You’re mad because I can’t understand what you’re asking for.”
Anger over inability to communicate is normal as your toddler is learning to talk, and it will usually decrease dramatically as they gain more language skills and become more able to use their words.
If you think their difficulty communicating might be an indication of speech problems, you may want to talk to your doctor about whether to consult a speech professional. Even if your child is on track developmentally, a professional can help you find other communication tools as your child is working on her language.
The Trigger: You Said No
There are few things a toddler hates more than the word “no,” but sometimes, you just have to put your foot down. Whether it’s another cookie at bedtime or an unnecessary toy in the grocery store line, sometimes you have no choice but to refuse your child’s demands and deal with the consequences.
Unfortunately, those consequences sometimes include a tantrum, which may even extend to hitting, kicking, and biting.
It’s completely normal for your toddler to throw a fit with little provocation. Tantrums can even be an emotional release for toddlers, so don’t feel like you have to make them stop or prevent every tantrum before it starts.
Instead, make sure you and your toddler are both in a safe place, so they can’t hurt themself or you. If they’re hitting you, move away, but stay close enough so they’ll know you’re there, and reassure them that it’s OK for them to be angry (even though they still can’t have what they’re asking for).
Most importantly, don’t give in. If you’ve already said no, then giving in will teach them that a tantrum is a good communication tool. So stick to your guns and be patient with the storm. It will pass.
The Trigger: What Will Happen?
Not every hitting episode is caused by frustration or anger. Sometimes, your toddler hits simply to see what will happen.
It might be that they want to interact with another toddler. But since they’re unable to talk, they hit their friend simply because they know it will cause a reaction. They might hit you or another adult because they think it’s funny when you get mad.
For a younger toddler especially, hitting might be a simple exploration of cause and effect. Just like pushing a button on a toy, they’re curious to see what will happen if they “push your buttons.”
You’ll recognize this type of hitting because your toddler won’t seem mad. They may even be smiling as they hit you. You might feel like this means your child is a sociopath, but it’s more likely that it means they really don’t understand the problem with hitting, and think it’s just a game.
So don’t overreact. Instead, be gentle but firm and tell them sternly, “No hitting — be gentle.” Then demonstrate what “gentle” means, and praise for that. Practice often, and they’ll soon discover that your enthusiastic reaction to “gentle” is much more fun than your firm but boring reaction to a smack in the face.
It’s highly unlikely that you’ll make it through the toddler years without at least a few violent incidents, but if you're lucky, your child will outgrow the hitting stage within a year or two. If you’re concerned that your older toddler is still struggling to keep their hands to themself, it might be worth a conversation with your doctor to make sure their social skills are developmentally on track.
But chances are, your toddler’s hitting is just a normal part of growing up, and they’ll soon abandon their violent outbursts for good.