elevating child care

Biting, Hitting, Kicking And Other Challenging Toddler Behavior

We’re big. They’re tiny. They’re just learning our rules and expectations for appropriate behavior. They have a developmental need to express their will, and they have very little (if any) impulse control. With these complicated, powerful dynamics in play, why would we take our toddler’s hitting, biting, resistance or refusal to cooperate personally?
We get triggered and become angry, frustrated or scared. We might lose perspective and find ourselves stooping to our child’s level, going at it head-to-head with a tot who’s only a fraction of our size. We might be compelled to lash out, even hit or bite back(!), or attempt to regain control by sternly laying down the law, shaming or punishing our toddler in the name of “teaching a lesson”.

Or, perhaps we go the opposite direction. Fearful of confronting our child’s rage or our own, we back down. We give in to our child, hesitate, waffle or tippy-toe around the behavior. Perhaps we plead or cry so that our child feels sorry for us.

While these responses might seem effective in dealing with undesirable behavior in the moment, they end up making matters worse. Our intensity (which is always very apparent to children — so don’t ever think they don’t feel it) can turn a momentary experiment or impulsive act into a chronic behavioral issue. Children sense it when the leaders they count on have lost control, and that makes them feel less safe and too powerful.  Punishments create fear, resentment, distrust. Alternatively, our reluctance to set a definitive boundary also causes discomfort, insecurity and more testing. Our vulnerability creates guilt.

Ultimately, these responses fail because they don’t address the need all children are expressing through their misbehavior: Help. When young children act out they need our help. It’s as simple as that. But how do we help them?

Perspective and attitude

If we can perceive our child’s unpleasant actions as temporarily “out of her mind” –a young one’s request for help — our role and our response become much clearer. As experienced, mature adults, this means rising above the fray (rather than getting caught in it) and providing assistance.

When we remind ourselves repeatedly that challenging behavior is a little lost child’s call for help, we begin to see the ridiculousness of taking this behavior personally. We recognize the absurdity of reactions like, “How could you treat me like this after all I do for you?! Why don’t you listen?” Perspective gives us the patience, confidence and the calm demeanor we need to be able to help.

Then we communicate and follow through. “You’re having a hard time not hitting, so I will help by holding your hands”. This is our thought process and might also be the words we say to our child. Or we might say, “I won’t let you hit. You’re so upset that I had to put my phone away when you wanted to play with it. I know.”

“I won’t let you bite me. That hurts. I’m going to have to put you down and get something you can bite safely.”

“Can you come indoors yourself or do you need my help? Looks like you need help, so I’m going to pick you up.”


We help our child and then allow for emotional explosions in response, because children need help with those, too. The assistance they need is an anchor — our patient presence and empathy while they safely ride this wave out. When the wave passes, they need us to acknowledge their feelings, forgive, understand and let go so they can, too. After all, how can we hold a grudge against a person whose impulses are bigger than they are?

This idea was brought home for me recently when walking down our hall at 10:45 PM to remind my teenager it was bedtime. I was startled to see my ten year old son (who had gone to sleep at 9 PM) striding towards me. First I thought he might be headed to the bathroom, but then he said something I couldn’t make out, “Mumble, mumble… watch TV.”

“What?” It then hit me that he was sleepwalking. For as long as any of us remember, he’s had a nightly ritual of talking or shouting in his sleep, much to the amusement of his sisters who sleep in adjacent rooms. He often sits up in bed while spouting a phrase or two, but only occasionally does he embark on a nighttime stroll.

“Give me watch TV,” he said again. This time I understood… sort of. He looked bewildered and deadpanned, “That makes no sense”. Then he lurched toward the stairs.

“Ohhhh, no…you’re going back to bed.” He fought me while I tried to hold him off. We tussled. He’s a strong, muscular little guy, a hardy opponent even in his sleep, but I finally managed to wrestle him back to his room and onto his bed where he was immediately calm and quiet again.

So, what does a ten year old sleepwalker have to do with a toddler acting out? Toddlers are very conscious and aware, but their behavior isn’t. They have about as much self-control as my boy does when he’s sleepwalking, and like my son, they need us to handle their escapades confidently without getting angry.

Unruffled responses

A mom I’ve had the pleasure of consulting with over the phone recently shared her appreciation for a word I’ve used: ‘unruffled’.  She thinks “unruffled” whenever her toddler’s behavior challenges her. Since she had a new baby and her toddler needed to adjust to this tremendous change in his life, she needed to imagine unruffled a lot, but she doesn’t so much anymore, because her unruffled responses have helped her boy pass through this difficult stage quickly.

We can’t fake unruffled. Like good actors, parents have to believe. And we acquire this belief when we maintain a realistic perspective and adopt the attitude that we’re big and on top of things, our child is little, and discipline equals “help”.

Another mom’s note made me smile:

Dear Janet:

My 16-month-old son Jamie has taken to hitting – hitting me, specifically. He seems to be acting out of pure joy. Meaning – he isn’t hungry, tired or frustrated. On the contrary – he seems thrilled by the exclamation “OW!” and wants to provoke it. He cheerfully chirps “OW! OW! OW!” adorably as he tries to punch me in the face, smiling and laughing the entire time. So far I have tried many times: I’m not going to let you do that, and No, and gently stopped his hands. Also I blank my face, so I’m not smiling back, but I’m not getting emotional or upset.

He probably hasn’t developed empathy yet, but he is still repeatedly hitting me and now trying it on our 19-year-old cat.

Plus, he got me in the eye last week – it’s challenging to not be upset when it hurts. Any advice?


Like many perceptive toddlers, Jamie is as acutely aware of a subpar performance as a mini Roger Ebert. He’s not buying the “blank face”. He heard “OW!” once and that’s all he needed. He’s knows it’s still in there somewhere. He’s getting to his mom and it’s exciting.

Jennifer has to believe this is not a big deal at all. She has to think “booooring!” while she gently but firmly stops Jamie’s from hitting her. She has to rise way above this being a serious problem and perceive her little guy’s behavior as totally nonthreatening for it to cease. Right now, she’s getting caught up in the drama a bit (which is admittedly hard not to do with such a captivating toddler).

The beauty of an unruffled, helpful attitude is that it allows our child to relax knowing her parents ‘have her back’. She knows we won’t get too flustered by her mischief. She’s assured she has anchors — patient teachers capable of handling anything she tosses their way with relative ease.

With the knowledge that their parents will always help them handle the behaviors they can’t handle themselves, children feel safe to struggle, make mistakes, grow and learn with confidence.

“Toddlers test limits to find out about themselves and other people. By stopping children in a firm, but respectful way when they push our limits, we’re helping them to figure out their world and to feel safe.”  -Irene Van der Zande, with Santa Cruz Infant Toddler Staff, 1, 2, 3…The Toddler Years.

I offer a complete guide to understanding and addressing common behavior issues in my new book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

For specifics about biting, I also recommend Toddler Bites by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby


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112 Responses to “Biting, Hitting, Kicking And Other Challenging Toddler Behavior”

  1. avatar Jill says:

    Hi. My 2.5 yr old boy has always been busy and a bit aggressive but now he has begun hitting his fellow students and not listening at school. I love your philosophy but struggle with my own triggers which I know isn’t helping him.
    When we are home I’m able to say I won’t let you hit me but how can I better help him to stop hitting at school? Thank you

  2. avatar Kelly says:

    Hi Janet
    I have a 3yr old daughter & a 3.5 month old son. Since having my son my daughter has started hitting, pushing & throwing things at her friends at playgroup & play dates. She is like this with my son but recently she has become more aggressive towards him. I admit I lose my temper & yell at her sometimes but I always try your approach which I like but I don’t think it’s making much of a difference. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t want to take her out because I’m on edge the whole time constantly watching her to make sure she’s not upsetting her friends. When I’m breastfeeding & she throws things or tries to hit me & her brother I say I won’t let you hit me, hitting hurts, if you are having a hard time not hitting then hit this pillow or have some quite time in your room. Usually I have to get up & walk away from her because she keeps doing it or she laughs & says ‘funny’.
    I’m feeling like a terrible mum like I’ve let her down & now feel like I’m not protecting my son because she is constantly hurting him. I don’t know what to do with her anymore & need help. Thanks Janet, Kelly

    • avatar Katie says:

      My 2 yr old daughter is the exact same. I feel bad for the other children and it does make you feel like not going anywhere that she might hit/kick/headbutt another child! She doesn’t have a sibling yet and she doesn’t go to nursery but she will hit children at our home, their home, baby groups or even in the supermarket. I feel like she’s too clever and argues back with me saying yes I will hit, I want to!

    • avatar Danni says:

      I have found that unacceptable, or violent behaviour in children requires a consequence (a non-violent one) or most children (including mine) won’t always stop. I agree with the author that parents get the best results by being kind and calm – BUT simply reasoning with children only works to a limited degree. I used to put my children hit, out into the back yard to cool off and to understand they were not fit to share the company of others while behaving in that manner (and tell them why). Or I explain that their trains or another toy will be packed up for a day or two, if they don’t stop an unacceptable behaviour, and follow through if need be. They don’t always calm down straight away but its meant they (usually) didn’t repeat the behaviour again, or much less often. Adults need consequences (that’s why we have laws). So do children. And hitting is just not OK.

  3. avatar Erin says:

    Hi Janet I have a 3 yr old daughter and we are going through a rough time right now her father and I have parted ways and while she does see him its not on a regular basis due to our work schedules and since the separation she lashes out an awful lot and I’m sure it’s her rebelling against the situation but there has to be a balance somewhere please help…I’ve tried everything woth her reasoning isn’t very effective neither is distraction etc… please please please help thank you. ERIN

  4. avatar Joe says:

    For the past 5 months my 2.5yr old son has been kicking whenever he is getting a nappy change. He has kicked me in the face so hard he split my lip.I have tried for months to calmly tell him that I wouldn’t let him hurt
    me, that I understood he felt like kicking and that I would hold his legs until he didn’t want to kick any more. Then he would just hit me instead. He did it to my husband also and he would seem to think it was great fun. Finally we decided that verbalising his motives or even using the word kicking while explaining our actions was not working at all. So we decided to not verbalize anything about his kicking; to not give it any air time whatsoever and to calmly deflect flying legs and arms, just talking to him as if we didn’t notice he was doing it. It took 3 nappy changes…which is less than 1 day and the kicking has stopped completely! I wish we’d tried this approach months ago as we have been so stressed and had some terrible times 🙁

    • avatar jennifer e scholnick says:

      Thank you for sharing this!

  5. avatar Galit G Stam says:

    Hi Janet,

    We have two 16-month-old boys who are amazing (smart, funny, they get along very well, etc.). We let them play in their “yes space” while I do things like clean up after meals, and they generally do just fine. They almost always sit fairly close together, while playing together and when they play with their own toys or read their own books, etc.
    I’d appreciate your opinion on a few things:
    When one (or both) decides they are done and want my attention, if I’m still busy, I say something like “I’m still cleaning, I’ll be with you in 5 min.” One or both might whine and I reiterate calmly, and sometimes that works and they go back to playing. However, sometimes (almost once or twice every day in the last month) one will bite the other if I don’t come into the room fast enough. I know it’s because he wants me and knows his brother will scream and I’ll come running. I’m not sure being “boring” about the situation will work, because I’m not the one being bit and it really hurts his brother who screams and cries (is NOT boring). After comforting the one who got bit, I say something like “You don’t bite (or no biting). That hurts your brother (and I show him the ASL sign for hurt). Gentle touches only (or, you only use gentle touches on your brother).” He never bites if I’m near, or if he wants a toy, or for any other reason aside from wanting me (that I can tell).

    I’ve tried being proactive, for example, by observing on the monitor and preventing bites by talking to him from the other room and, if necessary, by coming to the door (very occasionally needing to go in). However, if I’m doing dishes (or something else), it’s hard to consistently watch the monitor and stop what I’m doing. In their bedroom I put one in a crib with some books while I leave the room (I’m putting you in here for a few minutes because I need everyone to be safe). However, in the playroom, there isn’t really room for a separate space (like a pack n play). I’d prefer to leave both together for several reasons, especially because they much prefer being together as opposed to being in separate rooms (maybe it’s a twin thing?). I know the biter does not want to hurt his brother, he just wants attention and my company, which I give prior (during meals) and right after I’m done with whatever task I need to accomplish. They are generally alone (in the playroom, adjacent to the kitchen, with an open door) for 30-45 minutes. Is that too much time? Sometimes it only takes one minute before a bite. Sometimes they are very content the whole time. It must stop, and the sooner the better.

    Thank you very much for your advice! I’m grateful!


  6. avatar Ashley says:

    Hello! I would like some advice on applying these concepts to an angry 18 month old at the table. He can get so worked up that we fear he could make himself sick with the crying and screaming. The problem exists in two scenarios: 1. He expects a constant stream of food, so I cannot feed myself. If I put more than a few bites on his plate at a time though, he puts them all in his mouth at once and chokes. This means that meals are an exhausting race of me pacing him, trying to eat, and calming him down if his mouth is full but more food hasn’t been presented yet. 2. If he randomly decides he doesn’t want what I have fixed that night, he throws himself in to hysteria. HELP!

  7. avatar Linda says:

    Hi Janet,
    I have a 5 year old who hits me all the time. Do you know of a good site that can help me with challenging behaviors of older kids?
    Thank you!

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