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



Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. 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

    1. Hi Janet

      Thank you for all your wonderful work…. you have provided such guidance for me, and a parenting philosophy that really resonates with me – whenever I feel like I need help, I always turn to your book, blog or podcasts.

      My question is about when the hitting happens when you don’t see it. Do you think it is important to talk to my 2.5 yr old (after the hitting as occurred) about saying sorry to the person/child he hit and have a discussion about caring for friends etc? Or do I just leave it at “You seem like you need my help, I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help you. I’ll try to be there next time to stop you hitting”. The hitting doesn’t happen all the time, and we have just had a baby, so I totally get that it is all normal behaviour for him, but I’m just not sure how to handle it in the moment. The other mothers expect me to address the hitting with an apology etc, but is that kind of shaming the behaviour/child in a way? Thank you so much for your response.

      Rebecca x

  2. 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

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

      1. I just wanted to say I disagree with your comment adults need consequences this is why we have laws – I don’t break the law because of my morals and values not through fear of consequences, and believe in the natural good in children as well. Modelling good behaviour and respectfully setting boundaries of constant is enough to set the tone for good behaviour in children. Of course there may be a few bumps but like Janet writes acting calm and unruffled should be enough to diffuse the situation quickly.

    3. Amelia Alvarado says:

      Kelly, i just wanted to let you know you are not alone. My almost three year old has been hitting, biting and face scratching since she was about a year old. I now have a 3 week old and things are pretty hard right now. I know she’s struggling emotionally with the transition and breastfeeding definitely makes it harder. She has hit her brother a lot. It’s hard to catch her before she strikes since I don’t always have a free hand while nursing. Obviously I have no advice to give you but here for solidarity. I live in a suburb of Illinois incase your nearby and need a mommy friend that won’t judge and totally understands. I know I need one.

  3. 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. 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 🙁

    1. jennifer e scholnick says:

      Thank you for sharing this!

  5. 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!


    1. I have twins also and it is definitely more complicated. Can’t act unaffected when one pulls out a tuft of the other’s hair, bites, pushes, etc.

  6. 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. 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!

    1. Verywell(healthy little monsters) so many helpful articles on behaviour. I have a 5 & 7 year old that display aggressive behaviour.

  8. I have shared this post so many times to pass along your advice about hitting. “I won’t let you hit me” was such an aha moment for me, and I want to pass it along to everyone!

  9. Hi Janet! We have been working with
    my 2.5 yr old toddler a lot on hitting, biting, and scratching. When he hits, we hold his wrists and say “I won’t let you hit”. Sometimes we end up in situations when we have given him two choices and he won’t choose either and so for safety or necessity we need to pick him up to help him. Many times when this happens he will scratch or hit our faces because that’s what he can reach. It can be really hard to both safely carry him and keep him from hurting me. Any tips?

  10. Hi, i just want to refernce this article. What year was it published online?

    1. Hi Melissa! The date should be right there below the title… September 19, 2012. Thanks!

  11. Hi Janet!
    I had a beautiful experience a couple of days ago: I have a 1 year old and a 2.5 year old (girls). Another adult picked up my older one from her day care, and got her home but couldn’t convince her to come inside. I came outside when I heard my child shrieking. I sent the other adult to go inside and watch the baby, and my older one started yelling at me. So I told her gently, “I don’t like it when you yell at me. I don’t let. But since we are outside you can yell.” She knew this rule before, and I could see her begin to calm down. She wasn’t ready yet though, so she yelled, “Mommy, go!” I could see she would follow (as she had calmed considerably- I know her very well and could tell how her breathing had changed from panicked to just angry). So I went, and she came. We even made it into a short game of who is following who. By the time we got inside a few steps later she was happy and laughing and ready to listen. Reading your blog and listening to your podcasts are changing how I see myself as a parent. I feel empowered, and I can see how it has helped my child already. Instead of second guessing and “wringing my hands” so to speak, I can put my energy into observing my children more closely to figure out what they need in the moment, whether that be boundaries, food, or sleep. We used to count down when we wanted our older child to listen, but are slowly weaning ourselves off of that. So, thank you for helping me be the mother I always wanted to be.

  12. Hi Janet!
    What to do when :
    1. My child doesn’t want to share toys and food with his friend that he normally plays very nice with?
    2. He hits her hard in her head with a rock and laughs while she is screaming with pain (luckily it’s was not severe)

  13. Magdalena says:

    Hi Janet,
    I have been following your blog and have read your books since my now 4 year old was an infant. He has recently started hitting me (only me, not his brother, his dad or anyone at his new preschool).

    It usually happens when I set a limit- no more juice boxes for the day, or the time is up with the iPad, whatever the case may be. He gets so angry with me, yells, screams, cries and hits me. I try to stop him before he hits and say I’m not going to let you hit me, and I acknowledge his feelings. Sometimes I get it other times I don’t and it’s afterbhes started hitting. He simply continues, I usually end up having to carrying him up to his room and telling him he needs to stay there until he has calmed down.

    I’ve tried staying in there, leaving the room, and it doesn’t seem to matter. I can’t always sit with him as his 15 month old brother is following and then immediately needs my attention too. Most of the time my husband isn’t here when it happens so I’m alone. I’m kind of at a loss at what to try next, or if I simply need to keep at it hoping it will finally run it’s course.

  14. The problem for me is that the behaviour is caused by my 2 year old’s absolute refusal to nap at home. He only naps at childcare 2 days per week or in the car. I so wish i could resolve that.

  15. Kate Dubensky says:

    Hello, I really appreciate all the advice above, and will use these methods. I’m wondering specifically whether you would give the same advice in the case of a 15 month old who is biting while nursing? He is definitely doing it intentionally to get a rise out of me — because it catches me so off guard, and hurts, and I’ve yelped in response and he now knows it gets to me, and he now seems to do it for the rise. I am struggling to remain calm in the moment, because truthfully, I am afraid of how hard he’ll bite once he stops and it really scares and upsets me. It also hurts my feelings even though I know it shouldn’t. I want him to feel safe and know I’m in control, how do i counter that with the vulnerability that comes with having my nipple between his teeth? Thanks so much!

  16. I have a 13 month old who hits constantly. He has been doing it for a while too. He hits when he is happy or sad. I try the advice above (calmly holding his hands and telling him I won’t allow him to hit) which is all well and good but what about when he’s hitting me during diaper changes where I don’t really want to take the time to hold his hand and tell him I won’t let him hit me because I need to get a diaper on him before he runs away? Or when he hits the 3 year old which he does nearly nonstop. I’ve told her to hold his hands and tell him she won’t allow to him to hit too, if I’m in the middle doing something and can’t immidetely physically intervene but she’s only three and his barage is nearly constant. He barely ever hits the 6 year old strangely. I’m not sure if this approach is working and am not sure what to do. Any advice?

  17. Dear Janet,

    Would you please give me feedback on what I have written to a grandparent in the Under 3s PlayDay classes that I teach. I am hoping for any insights or changes you wish to share. Many thanks!!

    Dear Parent,
    I am so grateful that you are in our class with your son!!

    It can be very hard to support and not overwhelm our children with our protective feelings when we feel that another child has hit/hurt them and hurt their feelings.

    Your lovely focus on caring for your son and keeping him safe was wonderful to watch and I know that he felt very much that you “had his back”, which is so important.

    The other child, whomever it is in any interaction, is not a bad kid, but just one who needs us to sit down at their level, to be close, to remind her/him in a calm, confident voice that hitting hurts and “I won’t let you hit”. “You both really want that toy”. I am going to keep you both safe, (as you get between the children with your body, ready to block all hitting).

    It does not come easily for the grownups to refrain from allowing our own big, protective feelings of judging and then acting on this negative judgement towards the hitter. We can take deep breaths to calm ourselves in whatever moment we can find to do so.

    Each child will have big feelings, express anger and sadness, This is part of very normal development. We help our children best when we can remain calm and come to them with an understanding that they cannot be reasoned with at this age in this moment..

    While I was helping the other child with their feelings and behavior, I saw you comforting your son and choosing not to engage in blaming the other child. Bravo, and I am writing this to thank you for your very positive presence in our class!!

  18. I love the “unruffled” bit – term is new use to me but idea is not. So…I have a toddler who is in a hitting/biting phase and my 7-year-old just CANNOT get the idea of acting unruffled under his belt. He either flips out yelling “no” or physically backs off in fear of being bitten. The toddler senses it and goes in for the kill 1,000 times a day lol. What do you suggest for getting young kids on board with performing “unruffled” to younger sibling? Separate them till they are in their 30s? lol

  19. Hi Janet
    love this post any the others like this however how do we make caregivers in Kindergarten get with the program?
    They have their own (professional) opinions on how to deal with kids behavior and will not change to accomodate our wishes (our kindergarten is a big inner city one with 10 groups of 15 kids with 3-4 teachers allocated to each group). Our son is 3,5 and is a wild adventurous boy. At home and on playdates he does not hit, bite or shove but he is now doing this in kindergarten and their approach is to remove him from the situation (the teach makes him leave the play areas and goes to the class room with him).
    How can I compensate or prevent their approach from causing harm?


  20. My 17 month old has always been very emotional, sensitive, intense. I was born with a temper and I have been able to see that he takes after that a bit already! He’s been having small, frequent tantrums (with me only!) recently. Though he has for a few months on and off had them, though now they are more frequent. They don’t last long, I believe b/c of some of these methods – thank you so much! Though when he gets upset, besides from some of the more often discussed, he also puts his hand in his mouth and roughly pulls at his teeth a bit violently. He also will stick his hand down his throat (or tries). Should I stick with the same methods as you’ve discussed, as if he is hurting me? For example, “I won’t let you do this, I see you’re frustrated..”. It’s hard to stop the teeth action as it happens very quickly. I definitely try to stop the hand in the throat because I don’t want him throwing up. Any thoughts? Are these actions in the normal realm for frustrated toddlers? Thanks!

  21. Hi everyone,
    I need one advice regarding my 3 year old son. He just turned 3 a month ago. He has been hitting, pushing, slapping, pinching, biting… he only bites me and hits other children in class. He is defiant and refuses to listen/follow rules. No issues prior to this point… I understand that this maybe age appropriate but I feel this is something deeper than just not being able to express himself. He has trouble at school transitioning from activity to activity and following the rules. I applied for an aid at his school. I’ve had every test completed- psychological, speech, OT.
    I feel like he might be diagnosed with ADHD in the future, but too young at the moment.
    I can’t get him to sit in time outs without him getting up. I lose my patience because it’s a constant struggle. I have tired approach. I am losing it and I don’t know how to make this situation better.

  22. I have a 3 year old son, who just constantly acts out with anger aggression.
    He will hit bite pinch ect.

    I think he gets excitement out of it. When we say like “ow” he’ll keep doing it. There is no stopping him.

    He was recently revalued a couple months ago for autism, but I don’t think he is on the spectrum. I truly believe it’s more. He’s a very smart kid but I seriously think there is more.

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