We have all been there – one moment your toddler seems heaven-sent and the very next moment you receive or witness a slap completely out of the blue. As parents, we immediately assume responsibility and wonder what we have done wrong for our child to have reverted to aggression? This is a normal, yet exaggerated response. At 16 years of age, we might have rebelled against our parents if we were not able to socially engage, at 25 we would have a discussion if things didn’t seem to go our way. It makes sense that a toddler with far less experience of effective communication styles would engage in hitting you or someone else. A quick slap in the face of the perpetrator who took their toy away or refused that extra cookie is easier than expressing their distress.
Why do toddlers do this?
There are many reasons a toddler might opt for hitting rather than a more socially acceptable form of interacting. Some of these reasons are discussed below.
It might be fun to receive a response from the child or adult they hit. Think back to when you were young. I could assume that the memories that are most vivid have a strong emotional connection to them. An element of surprise, intense joy, sudden sadness, or embarrassment perhaps? It won’t typically be the mundane or the days where you don’t either engage in one of these stronger emotions or receive a reaction that includes one of these. Toddlers usually enjoy receiving animated reactions and honestly if you “mute” someone while they express their anger, it can be quite entertaining or at least – engaging.
They might believe that smacking will give them what they want. Again, there can be a few reasons for this belief – they are still young and their sense of compassion or ability to control their emotions have not yet developed fully. Toddlers are also excellent models of their environment and the people in it – they might be copying a brother or sister, a friend, or even an adult that has engaged in aggressive behaviors to gain access to a prized possession – whether this is an iPad, toy or chicken nugget.
The alternatives might not be clear or understood. For a moment, place yourself in your 2 years old’ baby bootees. If you desperately want another cupcake as this was the sweetest and most delicious thing you have literally ever tasted and a big human refused this to you, do you not feel that a quick slap will come quite naturally? I would not be surprised if most of us engaged in hitting, similarly to the majority of children between the ages of 1 and 3 years.
This is how they communicate at this age. If we take the example of putting ourselves a couple of decades younger, we might understand that our communication style changes – usually it matures. If our child is slapping us today, next year they might tell us “I don’t like this, Mommy”. Similarly to when your child goes into a laughing fit because Dad puts a sock over his hand and is making strange noises, our child might become overly upset about a missing puzzle piece. These exaggerated emotions are perfectly normal at this age.
There might be some other challenges that your child is trying to manage. Your child might be more sensory sensitive to sounds, lights, touch and smells; and thus be managing these overwhelming feelings while they have to deal with the denial of extra play time or one more tickle monster attack. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm and as explained by children dealing with sensory processing disorder – it will make them react uncharacteristically, which can include an aggressive outburst. Please don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting your child might have an underlying diagnosis, but in my many years of working with children diagnosed with various disorders, generalizing strategies used for special needs children to their neurotypical siblings have only proven beneficial. So, what is the harm in following some simple research-based guidelines?
If you’re a parent and it’s happening, what are some things you can do?
From all the years of working with parents, I have realized that theoretical explanations are of little use when you only want practical strategies that can help you no later than today. Thus, I will share some of the most effective strategies that we use with kids of all developmental levels, which has been proven to be successful in increasing functional communication and decreasing challenging behaviors, including hitting.
Important tips for all parents:
- Increase practical coping skills
An important goal for your toddler is to express their feelings, needs and wants in a functional manner. One of these strategies could be to focus on self-awareness first, validating their feelings, by stating the emotion you believe they are feeling “you’re angry” or “you’re sad” and then provide an appropriate way of dealing with this feeling that is age-appropriate. These reactions might include an appropriate facial expression you can model for them or giving them a hug of comfort. The more we provide examples of appropriate coping skills, the more our toddler will imitate these and later, the idea is that these will become an automatic response from them (instead of the initial hitting response).
Another strategy is to include a visual “first-then” schedule, where you include a photo of an activity that they have to complete (such as their plate of spinach, for example) and then they receive a toy they really enjoy or time spent with Mom. A simple way to create this is to draw two blocks and above the blocks, the words “FIRST” and “THEN” next to each other. Ideally you should print various photos of activities that you know your toddler struggles with and various photos of motivating activities or items you are willing to offer as a reward for completing the first activity. Clearly show your toddler that they need to complete the first activity to receive the next one and draw a cross over the first activity once completed. This will also support your child in learning to persevere and complete tasks before moving on to the next, possibly more motivating one.
- Sensory input throughout the day
Receiving appropriate sensory input on a consistent basis throughout the day is one of the most underestimated, yet crucial strategies. We are all sensory beings and we crave various types of input – whether this is a deep pressure massage for Mom or a boxing session for Dad, we are constantly sensory seeking to defuse or excite our bodies and minds. A great way to encourage self-regulation is to create a sensory tent or corner and include deep pressure tools, such as weighted blankets or pillows, fidget toys, visual stimulating toys and generally activities that your child can smell, touch, squeeze, pull on, chew on (safely) and jump on. Go with them to explore this wonderful sensory world every hour or as much as you are able to and observe your child in a calmer and more in controlled state. Ideally, we want to work from supporting our children to become self-aware of their sensory needs to being independent in self-regulating by entering their sensory tent or corner when needed. An excellent addition to a toddler’s sensory corner is meditation time.
- Use a low arousal tone
One of the most underrated, yet effective tools that we have is our ability to use a calm tone of voice when our child becomes frustrated or agitated. It seems counter-intuitive to reduce your speed and lower your tone as your child screams or hits you, but trust me – it works. Speak calmly and slowly to them, reassuring them that they will receive access to the toy or activity again (if there is a clear reason for them being upset) or if they are upset about a seemingly unrelated topic, you can let them know that it is okay and you understand, while giving them a gentle hug.
- Movement breaks are vital
Similarly, to sensory breaks and activities, movement breaks are just as important. As adults, we usually forget to take these frequent brain breaks, which will make it mutually beneficial if you engage in these breaks together with your toddler. Research states that it is vital for children to take a movement break every 5-15 minutes (depending on their age and the task they are engaged in). It would be a great idea to combine sensory breaks with movement breaks at times, where you go for a few bounces on the trampoline or a spin to music with your child every 5-15 minutes, if possible. The breaks don’t need to be long, but it will definitely support your child in being more in control of their sensory system, which in turn can lead to less challenging and more appropriate behaviors.
- Include visual choice boards
Imagine for a second again being a toddler and desperately wanting to communicate your needs, but not being able to do so. It must be terrifying at times and this can lead to an automatic reaction of slapping the person not understanding these needs. A visual choice board can be created by printing a few photos of items your child enjoys and pasting these on an A4 poster. You can and should change these as your child’s needs change or increase, but when you notice your child is becoming frustrated or trying to communicate their needs, you can show them the choice board of pictures or photos and help them communicate what they want by pointing at the visual.
- A break card as a bonus strategy
We all need a break from some situations, activities or people even. A simple way to help your child articulate that they might just need a break from an activity or a certain social interaction is to have a “break” card printed, laminated and present during these times. When you again notice that your child is not as into the activity they were a moment ago, present the card (or the previously mentioned visual choice board can help here too) and state “break”. You can then lead them to their sensory corner you created with them or simply guide them to a quiet area. If you think about the last couple of years, it is understandable that we need a break card from certain interactions or lack thereof every now and then.
At what age should it stop? At what point should you call in a pro if it doesn’t stop with time/age or your interventions at home?
To place an age on a requirement such as “no more hitting” is difficult as all children develop differently, in their own environment and their own reality of these experiences. Research states that your child’s hitting behavior should decrease around age 3 due to an increase in the ability to functionally communicate their needs. Yet, some children continue hitting due to some unknown factors or variables. Parents are the true experts of their child, other than the child themselves, and the best advice that I could give is to trust your gut. If you include some of the strategies mentioned above and others that you have read up on and their hitting behavior continues, then it might be time to speak to a professional, such as a pediatrician or child psychologist. There might be certain stimuli that elicit this behavior that a professional will notice. It might be something simple, such as keeping with a routine or daily schedule more consistently, providing your toddler with a transition cue before you leave a motivating area, or take an activity away. Or it might be something a bit more complicated, like a child with specific sensory difficulties or sensitivities that need attention.
I will leave you with this experiment I recently attempted with two young children. We decided we wanted to explore our dog’s world. We gently attached a GoPro camera to his collar and let him run free for about an hour. When we witnessed the footage, it gave us a better idea of what a medium-sized dog sees in “our” world. Everything was massive – we looked like giants and we spoke a different language, one that he could not communicate back with, except either wagging his tail or barking when he was excited or hungry. He ran through the grass, which seemed to look extremely tall and scratchy. He hit his head a few times against branches that were not visible a moment ago. It seemed everything was louder and more intense. It was a foreign world. Personally, I believe this is similar to what a toddler experiences the world to be like – overwhelming and we as parents are exhausted, so this makes it more likely that if a toddler slaps us, we will have less energy to respond lightly or calmly. What I would ask you to try is to consistently include some or all the strategies mentioned above. If it makes a difference in your toddler’s life, I can almost promise you it will calm your life a bit down too.
Thank you for reading and please go enjoy that long-awaited cup of coffee that all parents are craving throughout the day. You are doing an excellent job!
Psychologist and co-founder of AIMS Global and Adapt Sensory Range
www.aimsglobal.info (informative website of the support services we offer worldwide)
im-possible-parenting.teachable.com (free to affordable online courses)