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. I need help with “unruffled” at bedtime for our 3.5 year old. I feel like we have tried everything, but on the days he gets a nap (all school days and most home days), he fights us on bedtime, mainly by coming out of his room repeatedly. We do an 8:00 bedtime on days he gets a nap, and 7:00 on days that he doesn’t. He says he is lonely, and we have tried letting him sleep in his infant brother’s room – but the baby is still up at erratic hours, and our 3.5 year old kicked the wall and hollered out when he was in there. We have tried laying with him for longer and talking about the day, going back in to check on him (this worked well for a few nights because at least he stayed in his room b/c he knew we were coming back), a later bedtime – it still took him an hour to fall asleep and then he was over-tired and more tantrum-prone the next day, leading him back super-nanny style in silnce… ugh! I feel like maybe we are mixing our messages, because as much as we want him to stay in bed and go on to sleep if he is not tired enough yet I know we can’t force that. So, we are thinking of doing a bedtime routine chart (this helped us with the daycare morning routine) and making the rule simpler – you must stay in your room. He tests and tests us on everything. He will manipulate and say that he needs to go to the bathroom and then not go.

    Any suggstions are very welcome! I have been loving all I have read on the site and it is really helping me a lot recently. I am still getting the hang of it, but it is definitely helping everything. Today we had a wonderful day at home with only one tantrum that I can remember, which I handled calmly, and besides the normal bedtime drama…

    1. We have our almost three year old doing almost the same thing! She goes the bed and then spends the next hour asking for water, saying she has to pee, needs her dolly, is lonely- you name it! Even when we take care of all the usual requests she asks for the same things or even makes up new ones. We keep trying to tell her we WILL NOT be coming in again, but then she seems to have an emergency! Like pee now or in the bed (even though she just went). But then she doesn’t pee in the bathroom when we take her. Anyway, I would love advice on this too! 🙂

  2. To clarify – tonight when he had come out several times, I told him that he must stay in his room, he said he needed to go to the bathroom (he is potty trained but still wears pull-ups to bed at night) I said that was fine if he REALLY needed to go to the bathroom, but that I expected that he would actually go. I know it wasn’t the right thing to do, but I couldn’t figure out another way to express that I really meant it than to threaten him with a spanking if he did not actually go. He then said that he did not need to go after all. He then did stay in his room, kicking the wall, etc, but finally fell asleep – probably on the floor in front of the door. I know we are in a power struggle over this, but I am not sure how to get out of it. I have tried “problem solving” with him about it (how to talk so kids will listen…) and all of the other things listed above. Once he falls asleep we have no problems for the most part. Occasionally there is a bad dream or a diaper leak in the middle of the night, etc.

    1. Let him sleep with you in your bed.

      1. Deborist Benjamin says:

        Bravo Andrea Bravo, I agree!

      2. That will not be a popular answer, but honestly, those struggles that they are talking about are completely foreign to me since we co-sleep. My 3-year-old always tells me he is tired and wants to go to sleep!

        1. Co-sleeping is not always the answer. My son likes having his own space and when he is in our room he absolutely won’t settle down. I know lots of people who co-sleep, but I am honestly getting tired of your elitist attitudes.

          Can we all just do the “to each, their own” thing and offer actual helpful advice to people instead of putting down their lifestyle choices. Congratulations to you on your perfect sleeping arrangement.

  3. I guess what I am trying to ask is – what is the logical consequence for violating bedtime? For the baby it is easy – he is in the crib and cannot get out…

    1. Liz, I have a couple of thoughts… First, the threat of a spanking cannot be part of a safe, helpful atmosphere. This sends an entirely different message to your boy about his household… Punishments create fear. Even if one truly has to use the toilet, the threat of a physical punishment is likely to shut all systems down!

      Sleep isn’t something we can force a child to do. So, rather than considering this a serious offense, “violating bedtime”, I would perceive your boy as tired, lost, and having a hard time letting go. This is the truth. And to let go, children need to feel very safe. So, create an environment that is boring and safe. Consider staying in his room and relaxing while he falls asleep. If you give in to this, the struggle will probably lessen and fade away. If you aren’t able to do that, stay calm. When he says he needs to use the toilet, allow him one “try” and then whatever happens, let it go. “Oh, well. You thought you needed to, but you didn’t. Time for bed, my love.” If he gets up again, say, “Please go back to bed. It’s bedtime. Can you do this yourself or do you need help? Oh, okay, I will carry you back to your bed. I love you very much. Goodnight.” Once you stop trying to lay down the law and just calmly help your boy, it will be much easier for him to relax and go to sleep.

      1. Thanks so much – this is basically what I do at naptime on days he is at home – we used to battle about that or he would play for an hour in his room, but now I just lie down with him until he falls asleep. It is harder at bedtime because there are so many chores to do and I usually have work that I need to do before I can go to bed. Neither my husband nor I have the patience left at the end of the day for calmly bringing him back to bed 100 times, so perhaps we can take turns staying with him until he is satisfied or asleep is the easiest answer, and hopefully that will help the storm blow over…

        1. You’re welcome, Liz. Also, don’t discount the effect the new baby is having… His world has been totally rocked. This is just about the most difficult transition children have to face. It’s upsetting, it’s scary, it’s excruciatingly painful to have to share your parent’s love and care with a new baby. He probably feels like a very crazy guy right now and needs an extra dose of empathy.

          1. I have a similar situation. We have an almost 3.5 year old son and a 14-month-old daughter. Our son has never slept well on his own (but our daughter goes to sleep on her own in her crib every night and stays there for 11-12 hours.)
            At this point, we lie down with him at bedtime until he falls asleep. Every night, he wakes up at some point, often before 11pm and sometimes before we are in bed ourselves, and comes out of his room and stands at the bottom of the stairs until one of us picks him up and brings him to our bed.
            He told me last night that he is too far away from us at night and is “more comfortable” in our bed. I would be willing to let him sleep in our room, but I would really like to get to a place where we didn’t have to spend 90 minutes with the bedtime routine + lying next to him until he falls asleep. Do you have a suggestion for how to move him toward that goal?

            1. Patti, most sleep issues are a little too complicated for me to respond to properly in this format, because there are many variables. Sleep issues are usually reflective of the events of the entire day…and to answer you properly I would have many questions for you…

              If you want your boy to sleep in his own room, I would take him back to his bed when he awakens in the night. If you want him to co-sleep, then be clear with him about those expectations. If you are having difficulties giving boundaries generally, this will affect boundaries around sleep…

            2. You could move his bed into your room for a while if he wants to be closer to you and you don’t want to cosleep.

            3. I believe that long bedtime routine will disappear if you have him in your room. I think that’s caused by children not wanting to sleep alone. In our case, we co-sleep, and we have never had the experience of the long bedtime routine struggle. My son is 3 years old and has always informed me when he is tired and wants to go to sleep (always pretty much at the same time each night). I actually lie with him in my bed until he sleeps and then sneak off until I’m ready to join him.

              1. I have always co-slept with my nearly 2 year old and we have been having struggles at night, with her taking an hour to get to sleep sometimes! So while I agree with you that co-sleeping is great (I wouldn’t do it otherwise) it isn’t necessarily a panacea

          2. You are right about the sibling thing -although thankfully he really seems to love “our baby” as he calls him, and loves to play with him. I try to give him lots of snuggles and time with just me and him on days when I am home (I work part-time right now), but that is definitely a factor.

        2. Margarita says:

          Liz- you also might want to consider dropping the nap. My experience has been that my daughter could no longer put herself to sleep well at night when she was napping during the day EVEN THOUGH she could take a nice long nap during the day. It essentially made her not tired enough to sleep, and bedtime could be difficult. When we dropped the nap (or shortened it to 1/2 hour max if she absolutely had to have one) and pushed her bedtime earlier, she actually got more total sleep and was much better rested. It can be rough going when one first lets the nap go, but I’m now at a point where my daughter only naps for 20-30 minutes once a week or less — with the exception of those days, she’s really easy to put to bed. And on those days when she does nap, I simply know, as Janet says, that I can’t force her to fall asleep. I put her to bed later, and if need be she stays in her room in the dark till she is ready to go to sleep. One thing that has helped as well is a baby gate at the door: When it is time for good night, I close the baby gate, and my daughter stays in the room. (Before that, she was like your son, and would not stay in her room when it was bedtime if she had not napped.) I still go back to her room when she tells me she is ready to go to sleep, but I don’t stay there indefinitely when she’s not in a space yet to be able to sleep. She’s quite happy to self-entertain in the dark if she isn’t tired enough, so it’s actually worked really well for us and we really don’t have bedtime struggles.

          1. Thanks Margarita – I think you are right about the nap. This is definitely a problem, because on days he goes to daycare (MWF) he always naps (peer pressure). If he is at home, he would happily play for an hour of quiet time in his room, but since he gets a nap at school, I usually lie with him to encouage him to sleep (and I get a bonus rest) just to keep consistent. I like the idea of the baby gate, though my husband does not, and at his height – he could probably scale it!! Maybe I will ask them if he can just play quietly or “read” at naptime at something at daycare.

        3. After I say my good nights to my little one, I have used a small book light to do my paperwork or read in his room while he falls asleep. I have also watched tv on a tablet with subtitles to keep it quiet. He also can’t see the screen. I can meet my needs while it meets his of having me in the room with him to feel safe enough to go to sleep. He is secure in knowing I will be staying in his room for a while. If he’s restless I suggest he looks at his books on his own and even gave him a journal to scribble in in the dim light on the room. I let him know its quiet time and we will not be talking and he is to stay in his bed laying down. It works for us.

      2. What can we do if we have already spanked and threatened my 3 year old when she hits and throws things after i have told her she has to sit down for a little quiet time to calm down? She continues to head butt me and pinch, bite, and physically hurt me while growing and screaming. When i spank her after warning her three times to sit down in time out she cries but she sits and calms down. What do i do now to repair the damage? How do i go about gaining her trust back? I dont beat her, but i give a swat to her diapered bottom. She usually does things out of defiance when we get to that point. She does not want to wear a diaper but does not want to go on the potty even when i offer to help. She does the whole process herself from start to finish but refuses sometimes. Other times she will not share with her one year old sister. She will take every toy the baby reaches for until the baby is sitting without a single toy and she is crying. I have waited to see if she would share after a certain point but she just runs off and does something else. Wheni talk to her about her sister and her feelings, she says she just doesnt want to share. Then she flies into a violent rage throwing and kicking the dog. We have just started to spank her very recently but she has acted violently towards the dog from a year ago. We tell her we dont hit or throw… Bite or kick. We have always encouraged her to tell us what she is feeling. How can i avoid her explosions and also get her to understand hitting is not allowed. Talking about it did nothing.

  4. Thanks for this! I am realizing that this “unruffled” skill is one that I have already had the opportunity to refine somewhat in my professional work with teenagers. Funny (and yet comforting) how some skills apply to all ages.

    I have a somewhat related question. My daughter (16 months) likes to bump her head on things. Most often, it is gentle and experimental, as she likes hearing what sounds she can make. Sometimes she will gently bump foreheads with you in a sort of greeting. It seems odd to me, but not problematic 95% of the time.

    Sometimes she gets carried away with her experiments and will continue bumping her head to the point where she seems to actually hurt herself and cry a little. In this case I will tell her, “Be careful, I don’t want you to hurt your head,” and just trust that she’ll figure it out.

    Other times in an outburst of tension or frustration she will turn and hit her head quite hard on the nearest floor or wall once or twice. In these situations it’s a bit harder to know what to do, as I want her to express her feelings in a way that comes naturally to her, and I don’t want to startle her by snatching her off the floor in mid-outburst. However, in these cases she’ll often bump hard enough to hurt herself a bit, and then she is also having to deal with pain on top of frustration. Do I stop her from doing this, or do I just let her do what she needs to do? She doesn’t hurt herself badly, and she will only do it once or twice, so my time frame for intervention is only a second or two. It’s too short to properly talk her through my intervention, so any intervention would have to be pretty abrupt, which is not ideal in a tension-outburst situation. An abrupt physical intervention may even lead to her biting the person who startles her.

    I think my response is appropriate in the non-tension situations (but feel free to tell me otherwise!), but I’m unsure of whether or not I should let her hit her head so hard in an outburst situation.

    1. Hi Brigitte! Yes, the similarities between toddlers and teenagers are quite amazing, aren’t they?

      Regarding the head bumping, let’s put our heads together and figure this out. Ahahaha.

      My thought is that you might be encouraging this behavior a bit by your responses. Your participation in the “greeting”, as adorable and fun as it sounds, might be better handled slightly differently… When she tips her head towards yours, you might just hold it softly in the palm of your hand and say, “Are you tipping your lovely head to say HI? I love you, too!”

      If the bumping is subtly encouraged as “fun” and then, your daughter senses your discomfort when she bumps her head against harder surfaces, this could become a not so healthy focus for her…and a bit of a test. She’s found something that causes a reaction and that can be very tempting to repeat.

      There are children who do this when they are upset, and usually, they do not seriously hurt themselves. The best response in those cases is to try to remain as calm and okay with the behavior as possible, although one could try to slip a pillow under the child’s head, if there’s one available.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to write back! I realize it’s completely impossible to diagnose things via the internet. I guess after reading your response I just felt like, “Nope, that’s not quite it, Janet.” The greeting game only happens once or twice per month, so I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. And with her percussion experiments I really do try to keep very neutral. From your words I will take the encouragement to keep ensuring that her head-bumping gets as little reaction as possible from anyone. Thanks again for taking the time to respond! And here’s hoping I have a pillow handy the next time she hits her head in frustration.

        1. The limitations of online “quicky” diagnoses and advice are duly noted. 😉 This is why I now offer phone consulting through my website ( ). But your situation does not sound like a problem, as long as you continue to stay calm during the head bump experiments.

        2. My daughter was doing the same. I think she was experimenting in her own way. I discouraged it from the beginning. If she did it, I would sit her down and tell her firmly but gently that it can hurt her badly and I don’t want to see her get hurt. You kinda have to stop that as soon as you see her doing it and give her a good reason to stop it. Have to do some “baby-talk” in the process to get the point to her that it will hurt and you don’t want her getting hurt. Hope that helps.

  5. Do you have any suggestions for what to do about hitting/kicking in the middle of nappy changes? I suspect that one of the reasons that is the pretty much one remaining time that our son hits is that it is the one time that I’m not ‘unruffled’ by it, because I can’t put him down and I can’t hold both his hands and legs at the same time. It’s not every nappy change, but not uncommon either. I obviously talk him through the nappy change, explaining what I’m about to do.

    1. Hmmm…Sometimes the answer can be to simply slowwww down, reflect what is happening, be flexible, and invite more active participation and autonomy. “I won’t let you hit me. You seem really uncomfortable…would you be more comfortable on your tummy? I need your help.” Depending on your boy’s age and ability, he may prefer all fours or standing (which is safest on the floor in a special diaper changing area).

      I would stop whatever you are doing if he is that resistant and check things out with him. You might say things like: “I can’t let you hit me, so I’m holding your hands. I see you are really having a hard time. What can we do to help? Are you angry that we interrupted your playtime? I’ll wait for you to calm down. Let me know when you are ready for me to wipe you.”

      For more suggestions, here’s a post:

      1. Thanks Janet. I’ve started changing him standing up as much as possible which does help but haven’t mastered the art of that for dirty nappies yet! I think the times that are worst are the mornings that I take him to nursery as we have to be out of the house by a certain time, not because he doesn’t try to hit other times but because I’m less patient at dealing with it. We went on holiday recently and it was really good being able to slow down over everything. I do feel a bit like I’ve told him ‘I won’t let you hit me’ so many hundreds of times and that it doesn’t have any effect at all – it’s like there’s some root cause that I need to deal with instead.

  6. It seems like parents are ALWAYS asking me what to do about biting/hitting/kicking toddlers. This is such a common problem and I’m excited to read your thorough and clear explanation of how to approach it. I think there will be many children out there who will thank you for helping their parents remain unruffled. 🙂

  7. Juliette, for hitting and kicking during diaper changes we sing a silly song… it goes like this “I’m fine with you kicking, just don’t kick me… and repeat that a few times and then… why don’t you kick the couch”.. or “pillow”… anyway, he now LOVES to kick the couch or a pillow INSTEAD of mom or dad. This was a really big problem for us now that he is almost 2. It was really hard to change him. Once we started singing the song he would turn himself, and start kicking the couch… once he gets the “kicks” out, he does great for the diaper changes. I usually give him something fun to hold, which he used to just throw, but I think having done his kicking already now, he likes it again… don’t know how long it will last but it has been over a week now! He now asks for the song with a sign he knows for music! ha ha…

  8. Hah, I just wrote an article on Tantrums and the bad advice that’s out there. Thankfully yours is GOOD advice. Respect the child, try to figure out the child, and help the child solve a problem, but don’t accept or encourage the bad behaviour. A lot if it is about feelings, and it isn’t always to test … often it’s about frustration of being impotent.

  9. A.J. Brown says:

    Hi Janet,

    This is the second time I’ve written to you…the first was a few weeks ago about my food-throwing 12 month old, and your advice (mealtime is over as soon as he starts throwing) has almost completely stopped the behavior. Thank you!! Your post today about challenging toddler behavior leads me to my other child…a sweet, loving, incredibly smart and precocious three year old named Finley. I have so few problems with her, mostly thanks to the ongoing advice I get from your blog. 🙂 The one issue that pops up every single night is this…she simply refuses to go to sleep by herself. I stay with her in her bed until she falls asleep, then sneak out to my own bed. If she happens to wake in the middle of the night, desperate screaming and crying ensues, waking us and the baby (who inevitably starts screaming too). Tears streaming, sobbing…she won’t calm down until I get back in bed with her and promise not to leave. I’ve tried to get to the root of the problem…i.e. asking if she is afraid, pointing out all the things in her room that “watch over her” and keep her safe, multiple nightlight options, reminding her I’m just across the hall and can hear her if she needs me, etc., and all she will tearfully say is, “I need you, Mommy.” I certainly don’t mind falling asleep with her…in fact, I kind of love it. I know it will be all too soon that she will be too cool to cuddle with Mama, and I cherish every moment I get her sweet little three year old body wrapped up in a sleepy hug. However, my husband is NOT on board with this. He refuses to spend this time with her himself (“I’m not indulging this ridiculous behavior”), and since I frequently fall asleep myself with her and end up spending the night in her room, he is increasingly resentful. Plus, the waking of the baby is a problem (baby hardly sleeps anyway, and has yet to sleep through the night at 12 months), and it makes it near to impossible to have a night out with a sitter at home, as she cries and cries for mommy. I’m happy to continue falling asleep with her until she grows out of it if you think it’s natural and not a problem, and my husband will just have to buck up and adapt. However if you think this is not healthy for my daughter and not just a phase she’ll evolve out of, I would welcome any advice you have. I can’t imagine I’m the first parent who’s had this problem!

    1. A.J., thanks so much for your kind words…wish this issue was as simple as throwing food!

      I’m struck by a few things you mention… First, the sneaking out. Be sure to be clear with your daughter before bedtime that you will leave after she sleeps (if you decide to continue this ritual).

      Also, I think you and your husband need to agree to a plan for handling this situation…because if the two of you are not clear and united, your toddler (and baby) will pick up on the tension, making healthy sleep less possible.

      Assuming you and your husband are on board, this could go either way… Either your daughter will grow out of this need (because you are not making a big issue out of it), OR, you will be clear and confident about your expectations for her to go to bed (after your bedtime routine) and stay there until morning. So, the key here is clarity and confidence in whatever you and your husband decide. Your daughter can handle this, but only if you truly believe she can.

      Finley does need you… and I’m wondering if you’ve encouraged her to express all of her grief, sadness, anger, jealousy, etc., surrounding the arrival of the new baby. Her tears are very healthy. Try to encourage her to express these feelings during the day so that she won’t need to so much during the night. Generally, I would make a conscious effort NOT to make allowances in order to avoid emotional outbursts. Crying is a healthy release for all toddlers, especially big sisters. Even if we are committed to free expression of feelings, it is particularly difficult for all parents to hear crying at bedtime or during the night. It’s a vulnerable time…and we’re exhausted!

      Hope some of these thoughts help…

    2. AJ – Are you still out there? Can you provide an update – I’m going through EXACTLY EXACTLY the same thing as you, with my 3 year old daughter and my 12 month old… I would love to hear an update since this post. It’s so hard to know what to do when my 3 year old’s crying/wailing wakes up the baby, who already sleeps so badly. Thanks,

    3. Hang in there… my son started to sleep through the night at 15 months old! I know it feels like forever, but it’s normal. The way you say “yet to sleep through the night at 12 months” means you think it’s very late. I’m glad that you did not force your baby to do this by leaving baby to cry it out!

  10. Janet, talk about perfect timing. Today I have been challenged by one of the 2 1/2 year olds that I watch. She just started in nursery school a few weeks ago..I wrote to you with with my concerns and for advice earlier this summer, which was very helpful. Anyway, with a baby brother, three full days of school, one day with her grammy and brother and one day with her brother, her friend(also 2 1/2), her brother, and me she has a full and confusing week to deal with. She has slowly been getting used to school and has become quite close to one of the teachers I think which is great. But today she has been very aggressive with her friend and at one point launched herself at her and bit her full on the forehead. Oh boy…deep breaths. I did talk to her mom just to give her a heads up. This post has been a god-send and I have forwarded it to the parents. What do you think of telling children this young to punch pillows or other soft things to get their anger least somewhat. I will be volunteering at a child’s center for grief and loss and they have a special room where kids can do just that..they start as young as three. Their philosophy is based on the Dougy Center if you know anything about them. Anyway, thanks so much and any other input/advice would be great.

    1. Hi Tanya! I’m not familiar with the Dougy Center, but I definitely recommend offering safe ways for children to release their feelings… Punching pillows, stomping feet, shouting…all those things can be helpful. I love your attitude. Yes, children need to be helped to control these urges, rather than shamed or punished.

      1. Thanks so much, Janet! I’ve talked with the parents and we all seem to be on the same page about how to address this if it continues to come up. I particularly stressed the “no shame” approach with them as that can be a bit challenging for them…inadvertently I think. I reminded them, as I have to remind myself all the time, that as frustrating as it is for us as adults, it is immeasurably more frustrating for her since she doesn’t have the words to express what/how she is feeling. As her mom said, all the changes must be confusing for is confusing for all of us. Transitions…

  11. My situation with hitting/kicking is a little different. My 2 1/2 year old does it sometimes but not out of frustration or anger- just in a “playful” way. Usually during diaper changes, tooth brushing, and getting cleaned up after eating. He says “I’m just pretending” and laughs about it. I don’t give him much of a reaction other than saying- “we don’t hit/kick even when pretending because it can hurt someone or break something” then I try to distract him somehow.

    Any advice?

    1. Jenny, a couple of things… First, “we don’t hit/kick” is not direct or accurate enough to be helpful. (The child might think, “well, you don’t, but I do.”) I have found that “I won’t let you” or “I can’t let you” or “Don’t kick” are much clearer and better…and help both of you to engage directly.

      Second, don’t go into a long explanation about something like hitting or kicking. Your little guy has known for quite some time (like a year and a half or so) that you don’t want him to do this. Just stop him…and then when he says “I’m just pretending”, reply, “It doesn’t matter. I will not let you hit me. That hurts.” Then you might offer, “You can pretend with pillows.”

      Lastly, the distracting is undoing the limit you are setting. By distracting in order to stop your boy, you are distracting him from the learning the lesson you want him to learn…which is: Mommy doesn’t let me hurt her. She helps me to stop by putting her hands up or holding my wrist, etc. Mom is very capable of handling this situation. She is not at all afraid or intimidated. Now I can relax knowing I have a capable leader.

  12. Mom in NJ says:

    Janet – thank you so much for these timely and thoughtful comments. Your explanation and approach is the first that has made sense to me in dealing with my 26 month old’s ongoing hitting and throwing. He’s a lovable, vibrant, energetic guy, but often hits playmates out of the blue and has started throwing toys at me, babysitters and other kids at random. I tried everything (time-outs, firm Nos, removing him from the situation) but wasn’t seeing any results. Using your methods has been the first time that I have felt confident with the discipline, and he seems to respond in turn. Please keep articles like this coming – can’t tell you how helpful they are!

  13. can’t wait to read these comments…
    loved the post!

    i had a major need-to-channel-unruffledness day yesterday!

    xx sara

  14. Such a wonderful post. I find so many of your articles truly inspiring and so very helpful. I have two wonderful little boys – aged 1 and 3. I just need some clear advice however. My eldest son has difficulty behaving when friends visit for play dates. He hits and pushes his younger brother and frequently throws things – sometimes at our visitors. He also finds sharing his toys incredibly hard. I do my best to stay calm during these times and give my little boy thinking time if he is doing things I feel are dangerous for himself and others. I would love to have his friends round and for him to enjoy the experience, without feeling threatened and the need to lash out. Please could you suggest some strategies I can try to help play dates to run a bit smoother.
    I feel I must add that my son is otherwise a fun, happy, playful, inquisitive and balanced boy. I’d appreciate any advice. Thank you x

    1. Thanks, Louisa! I’m glad to be of help. It sounds like your eldest boy needs extra support when you have visitors. I would prepare him in advance and then shadow him as much as possible. The preparation will give him some autonomy and encourage him to actively participate in this event. And the calm, nonjudgmental, but assured shadowing will give him that extra bit of help and support.

      Before the guests come, I would say, “We’re having a couple of children over and they will want to use our toys. Please show me what you think you should all play with… And also, what would you like to put away?

      Then, when the guests arrive, if you sense your boy having difficulties, go close to him. “I’m coming close to keep you safe.” Then, perhaps, “I won’t let you push/hit. Please find another way to tell your friend what you want.”

      I’m not sure what you mean by the “thinking time”, but I don’t think that’s helpful. These are impulsive responses and children need our protection and intervention, not more time to ruminate about what they’ve done. I would give a brief response (like I’ve mentioned) in the moment and then let it go…with faith in your boy to figure this out with you as back up.

  15. Thank you for this timely article. Like so many others here, I am struggling with this issue daily. I feel somewhat validated knowing that my matter-of-fact response is on the right track. It can be difficult to remain visibly unruffled when grandma or another observer is present and yelling, “Don’t hit your mother like that!” One thing that continues to be an issue for me is the “I won’t let you…” approach. My toddler son is big for his age and quite strong. Trying to restrain his hands or feet is difficult for a petite woman like me. It’s even more difficult when I try the approach you mentioned about (“can you come inside by yourself, or do you need my help?”) If the kicking, hitting, and biting starts when you try to pick up the child, but you can’t just walk away. What’s next?

    1. Allison, If my kids’ grandma yelled, “Don’t hit your mother like that!” I would be agreeing, “Yeah, don’t hit your mother! I’m not going to let you do that.” This reaction would not come from a place of anger; it would be firm and out of assurance that I am helping my child. Do you think you might be confusing “unruffled” and “matter-of-fact” with passive or timid? It sounds like your son needs much more assurance and confident leadership from you.

      You say your boy is quite strong, but you are stronger, aren’t you? It can be disconcerting and even frightening for young children to feel like their parents can’t physically contain them… It’s hard for me to know exactly how to advise you with just the information you’ve given me, but your boy’s behavior indicates that he is not getting the helpful, comforting, firm responses he needs.

      I would also make sure you are preparing him in advance for transitions and speaking to him honestly and respectfully.

      1. If I can figure out how to implement this advice, I certainly will.

  16. Hello Janet,

    Just when you thought you had finished answering comments…

    I would love your advice on how to handle kicking the back of the seat in the car. I’m really struggling with how to handle this in the enclosed space when we can’t necessarily take the time we would otherwise do to work through this with him.

    I try very hard to stay unruffled, as does my husband (to the tune of, “Kicking hurts, I can’t let you kick me/Daddy, it looks like you are having a hard time stopping yourself so I am going to hold your feet now until you are ready.”). We’ve tried coming up with other things he could do together (punching his hands in the air, picking in the center between the front seats where he can’t make contact, etc), but he really seems to just want to kick the seats. He often laughs when I tell him to stop and hold him, to which I try to as-unruffled-as-possible respond “I am not laughing, and it is not funny to kick,” but I will admit that the laughing makes it much harder for me to stay unruffled, even though I know it is not at all personal, and may in fact be funny to him (hard to tell if it is true amusement laughter or nervous laughter or something else). Sometimes it works just to ignore him, but I would much rather help him solve the problem rather than ignore it.

    Part of the problem is that I can’t really effectively stop him from the front seat of the car, there isn’t room in our car for one of us to sit back with him so that we could, and we definitely can’t stop him when there is only one of us in the car. My husband has tried pulling over and waiting for him to be ready to stop kicking when that is an option, but that doesn’t seem to work either.

    If you have any ideas or thoughts about our current approach, I would be greatly appreciative!

    1. Tracy, since this behavior is something you really cannot control (like yelling or screaming), I would simply ignore it. You might just briefly say, “Please don’t kick” and leave it at that.” It sounds like the behavior is being focused on so much that it has become a game/power struggle that your boy can’t help but want to play and win! His laughing doesn’t make him a bad guy. The negative attention he’s getting is too thrilling for him to resist. He will stop kicking when it becomes no big deal to you… I promise!

      1. I agree!! Ignoring the kicking can do wonders in making it super boring and getting it to stop.

  17. You speak of toddlers, but what about older children? I have a home daycare, and I recently had an almost 5 year old (whom I’ve cared for since birth) who became more and more physically aggressive in the past few months. Last week was the worst episode. He punched and kicked me, and when I tried to hold him, he bit me and spit on me. When I walked away, he began tearing the playroom apart and threw a chair (amongst other things) at a baby. I obviously removed him from the situation, but no matter what I did or where I put him, (I put him in the kitchen, thinking he would be safe. He kicked the cabinets so hard he broke one) he continued this behavior for almost 2 hours. I finally called mom and unfortunately terminated care. I have tried working with the parents, but can not get them “on board”. Is this type of behavior typical of an almost 5 year old?! I’ve nver experienced this before in a child of his age. Should the parents look in to possibly having him evaluated?

    1. Melinda, this is a sad situation and I would have handled it as you did. The boy obviously has a lot of rage. I think the parents should definitely seek the help of a family counselor, don’t you?

      1. I agree, and I hope that is what they decide to do. I really am heartbroken that I had to let him go, but I need to look out for the safety of the other children in my care. I gave the parents information on local counselors, and early intervention, hopefully they choose to follow through.

  18. What about scratching by a 2yo? It is usually related to him having to do something he doesn’t like. So far I have responded by holding his hands and saying I know you’re frustrated but no scratching, but I’ve been wondering if I should offer him an alternative to it (like letting him scratch something else). I’m just not sure if that would work at this stage since he is only saying a few words. I guess what I want to know is: Is what I’m doing enough for now?

  19. I just started reading your blog so maybe you’ve answered this somewhere before. I have a 14 month old boy and his favourite way to play right now is to pick things up and throw them and chase after them (he’s only crawling so far), and part of that is slapping the objects so they’ll move away from him. He has also started slapping the cat, other babies, and people when he wants to play with them. We do the firm “No” and hold his hand if he doesn’t move away and encourage him to interact appropriately (by demonstrating ourselves and moving his hand to pet the cat nicely, for example), and if he doesn’t then we move him away from whoever he’s hitting, and then he usually goes on to play with something else. My question is whether we should also be discouraging him from hitting his toys like that, or whether he will learn to distinguish between when it’s okay to play like that and when it’s not. My gut says he will, but I was curious about what you have to say. Thanks!

  20. when can we begin doing this? i want to stop my daughter’s pinching, and i love the examples you give, but she is only 11 months. should i just distract her at this age?

    1. Sarah, honesty can’t wait! You can begin setting this limit right away. I don’t believe in distraction at any age.

      1. Thank you! I have copied your words and printed them out so my husband and i can remember them

  21. Hi Janet,
    I am always referring to your blog whenever I need help with my two boys. Thank you for all your help & excellent advice!
    I have twin boys who are 27months old. One of them recently has started to pinch, kick and push the other one. I try to remain unruffled, while at the same time console my other son who is hurt by his brother (often crying/screaming). I usually do the consoling first, then tell the other brother “no pushing, its dangerous to do that…. I wont let you pinch him, it hurt your brother when you pinched him..etc”. I also tell the ‘aggressive’ twin to pinch the cushion whenever he feels angry or upset, instead of his brother, and try to catch his hand if I can get it in time before he pinches or pushes. With twins, we are hyper aware of any sibling rivalry, so I always try to be mindful and give equal attention to both boys. Janet, do you have any advice for dealing with twins fighting/pinching etc? Any tips on how to approach this situation without shaming or making the behavior worse? Thank you so much for any thoughts you might have.

  22. Hi Janet,

    Like so many other people that have commented, I also love your blogs. My sister is an early childhood educator and got me onto RIE. It all resonates with me and I’m loving seeing our daughter flourish. So thank you for all your thoughtful blogs and responses!

    What is challenging me at the moment is another child at the parent-led centre we attend together. This child has been shoving (sometimes quite hard) other children for at least six months now, usually focusing on one particular child for several weeks. Yesterday he shoved my daughter hard and hurt her head. She was very upset and when I tried to talk the boy and my daughter through it, the mother was not interested and put him in the buggy.

    Other parents including the mother of the boy usually address the pushing by saying ‘gentle hands'(and I know your stance on that!). I’ve tried saying ‘I won’t let you hit/push/shove’ etc and its just not working. According to the mother he’s pushing because he likes the person he’s pushing (his way of saying hi), he is bored or he is tired. Its really not okay though. At what point do I suggest the mother takes him home when he pushes? Not as a punishment but as a consequence. This is all quite awkward and I would appreciate your help 🙂

  23. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for posting this up on FB. Very timely for me and my 27 month old son. He has recently started attacking kids (only younger or smaller) out of the blue. He will be playing alongside someone and then *bang* he’s pushed them over and is pushing his hands into their faces. He is also being very rough with babies like squeezing their limbs very hard or pushing them over (if they’re standing or crawling). It is hard as it seems so sudden and I can’t work out why he is doing it. I asked him today, after he pushed down on a babies tummy really hard, if he felt angry and he said ‘Yes’ so I asked if he was angry at Mummy and he said ‘No. Angry at him.’ and pointed to the baby.

    1. I should also add, we don’t smack or punish and we don’t have a tv in the house so he isn’t exposed to casual violence.

  24. hi,
    really loves your article.Iam mom of three boys. elder one is eight year old, secong four years and third one eldest son is really problematic.he uses only abusive languages like bitch,rascal ,scoundrel etc etc. we have done everything to make him in the right track.he is very angry always .he use to beat us and out of anger if i beat him he will give its double. my second child was very calm and quiet but now he started going to he also started having temper problems and is using dirty languages. plz help

    1. Please don’t hit your kids. That just causes them to be angry, have a disconnect with you and hit. You have to model for them and treat them the way that you also want them to behave…

  25. This site makes me feel so affirmed, I parent like this, I home ed autonomously, but my husband is old fashioned in his views regarding children, their behaviour and his response to it. Harsh and ultracritical, this is causing an imbalance and I don’t know how to correct it, now my kids are becoming teens and all their anger is at me! I am lost at the moment. 🙁

  26. I am just wondering about hitting as my 21 month old just started with it. She doesn’t do it out of frustration or anger, but just out of the blue she’ll hit me or someone else – for instance this morning she did it as I was buttoning her onsie. I usually grab her hands and firmly say “NO! We do NOT hit!”, which has led to her crying. So is there a more gentle way to get her to understand or is my firmness what she needs? Thanks so much

    1. It sounds to me from Janet’s post that you need to be more matter-of-fact about it rather than saying it “firmly” with the capital “NO” and exclamation marks. Also, Janet wrote above that saying “We do not hit” is too abstract and general. You need to be more specific. “I will not let you hit,” etc.

      Janet said in one of her answers above: First, “we don’t hit/kick” is not direct or accurate enough to be helpful. (The child might think, “well, you don’t, but I do.”) I have found that “I won’t let you” or “I can’t let you” or “Don’t kick” are much clearer and better…and help both of you to engage directly.

  27. But can u give me an example of “firm but respectful way” ?? Thats what i need help understanding. 🙁 like today i woke my son up a few hours earlier than normal due to takin my mom to surgery, he was very frustrated n energetic all day, plus he didnt want anything to eat, just a nibble here or thr, whn we were eatin lunch at a restaurant he wanted to eithr b under the table or layin down in booth w his feet up. Acting out. I kept gettin on him to sit right and eat but he just kept acting out thn started makin loud noises thn started hittin me. I lost it, smackd him on the butt n that made it worse. Thn he was mad on top of everything else. How could i have handled the situation better?

  28. I have a 3 year old son, but I also watch a 3 year old boy and a 1 year old boy while their parents work second shift. I have been having A LOT of issues with the other 3 year old boy being very agressive with my son. Sometimes it stems from him wanting a toy my son has, but from there it will turn very quickly into asking into punching/pushing/slapping across the face. Sometimes it’s just completely unprovoked!

    I know it’s probably hard having to sleep at a near stranger’s house a few days a week, but I can’t have my son being bullied in his own home. I don’t want to stop watching them, because that will just be another adjustment for them. So, what can I possibly do?

  29. i had a situation where a toddler, a year older than my 14 month son, bit his finger really hard. what do you say in a situation like that to the other child?

  30. I tried that and my 3 year old Jeremy won’t stop.I’m getting tired of it!Jeremy also won’t stop pinching!My dog push me down and he jumped on my dog and pinched my spine and I screemed.WHAT SHOULD I DO?

  31. Hello there. I may be late to this conversation, but it’s certainly not too late for my family. My 3 year-old (just turned 3) has recently started hitting during play with her peers. It seems to happen when she doesn’t get her way right away, or when a friend refuses her in some way. I’ve also noticed it happens more when she’s tired or overwhelmed. We are practicing using the phrase “I won’t let you…” and stopping her, and that usually works very well, although we usually have to repeat ourselves. My question is, what is an appropriate response when the hitting happens when we are not in the same room? This happened yesterday, and by the time we got there, the other child was crying, and our daughter was clearly upset, also. I understand that both kids were tired, and so we can do more to end playtime before the tiredness sets in. Should we be supervising all play until this behavior abates? I will add that she has a good friend who is a little older who has resorted to hitting on many, many occasions in the past, and so we have dealt with this issue in the converse — is it possible that our daughter is hitting now because we didn’t do a good enough job of preventing her friend? Thank you (all) for such wisdom and insightful comments.

  32. Lindsay R says:


    My 21 month old boy bites and hits when I’m nursing my 4 old daughter. I announce that I am going to feed her and try to make him as comfortable as possible before I begin. Once I’m nursing, he tries to bite her and I all over. I have tried blocking him and telling him politely that it is not nice to bite others and that it hurts Mommy and Stella. I have also let him bite me repeatedly while ignoring to see of that would work. I have also tried to take away things when he does it. Obviously, we’re still in the adjustment phase of having a baby. Just not sure what else to do.

  33. When holdin my 2 year old on my hip while holding onto shopping or placing my 2 year old in the high chair it is very difficult to hold her arms when she tries to scratch me as both of my hands are occupied. When I ask her why she scratches Daddy she says “it is fun”

  34. I need help with my 2yo biting in daycare. I am a full time working mom so he goes to a full day daycare. Because the biting happens only in school and not at home, I do not have the luxury of having the ‘teaching moments’ where I can intervene or help him with the biting.

    The daycare providers notice he bites when fighting with other kids for toys while saying “I don’t want XXX to do this / have this!”. Or he bites when other children are crying. Recently it has escalated to biting other children even where there is no obvious trigger. I have been trying to tell him at home not to bite and the teachers have been doing their best to pull him away when he appears to want to bite. Its gotten so bad that other parents are getting annoyed and I don’t blame them!

    He is quite verbal and can express himself pretty well but temperament is highly spirited so I suspect he may be very “frustrated” with other children beyond what he could express. I am at my wits end trying to figure out how / why this is happening and how I can more effectively communicate to him not to bite. Any advice is appreciated!

  35. I tried posting this before, but don’t think it took…

    We have had an extremely difficult hitting (and pushing) issue with our son, who is now 2 1/2, for well over a year.

    He pushes and hits other children fairly aggressively mainly when they enter his space or threaten a toy. Sometimes it’s in anger, sometimes it’s in fun… but, it’s out of control.

    Thinking back, his main playmate from 10 months on hit him until he was around 18 months, at which time he really started emulating the behavior. When he was hit, we always talked about his emotions, that it hurt, etc. and talked with both children.

    However, I’m not sure it’s due to the other child. He started “swatting” at us around 10 months jokingly. At 18 months he was also playfully hitting and laughing. We went through a period of time where he would randomly run up and hit other children, two in particular. The way I’ve responded is to a) stop him and make sure the other child is OK b) get down on his level, looking him in the eyes and calmly telling him that I wasn’t going to let him hit me/other people. We talk a lot about how hitting hurts and we can’t hurt other people. However, the hitting hasn’t ceased.

    When he’s angry he talks about hitting the two particular children, one moved away over 6 months ago, but he’s stuck in a loop. When he’s mad at inanimate objects, he talks about hitting them. He’s associated hitting with anger. I try to give him the words “I don’t like” or “This makes me mad” rather than hit, but it’s not working.

    Around 2, he would see babies at airports, shops, etc. in his stroller and try to swat at them, hit pictures of babies in books, talk about hitting while looking in the mirror, etc. It’s maddening.

    We are an AP family and I’m almost constantly with him. I feel that sometimes he acts out more with me than if my husband takes him to the park. This makes me feel like I’ve failed in some way, but I keep going.

    I’m obviously frustrated at times, though I try to hide it and keep my composure. I’ve tried so hard to be calm and positive.

    I talk through all of his emotions and give him the words. “I’m angry because…” I offer plenty of outlets for him to get his energy out. I have been afraid it’s a fear response, so we do all we can to make him feel safe. He and I witnessed a pretty horrific bike wreck a year ago. I reacted pretty strongly, freaking out about it afterwards, since we were the first people on the scene and the car almost hit us in the process. I worry some of that stuck with him, though at the time we talked through it.

    The hitting is no longer random. It’s now either when he gets really excited or a toy is threatened. I try to look for signs and intervene if things appear to be escalating to a dangerous level. It seems to be a very primal fight or flight response.

    We work through turn taking scenarios with dolls and he ends up hitting the other doll with his. We talk about using his words, like “I need space” since personal space seems to be an issue.

    I’ve taken him to positive parenting structured playgroups, where I’ve literally had to stop him from hitting kids in the head with toys they are trying to take. The faciliator tells me I’m handling the behavior correctly, but nothing seems to be helping. He is gaining a little control however. If I say his name, he stops and considers his actions. Other parents are constantly saying, “You are so patient. I would have lost it by now.” I get stares on the playground and I’ve just given up caring what other people think or embarrassment when an incident happens. It’s just him and me working through it together. Sometimes we leave if he can’t control his body or if any signs of fatigue, hunger, etc. are present.

    My big fear is that preschool is coming up. We are going to be in a co-op environment with other parents. I plan on being there every day, but I’m afraid my presence might also be a hinderance for him. I think it might benefit him to have a more structured environment with teachers.

    I’m at my wits end. He’s a wonderful, smart, hilarious boy. All the kids want to play with them, even though he’s slap happy. But, I fear he’ll get kicked out of school, won’t be able to socialize properly and maintain friendships, and that this behavior has become so ingrained that it’s going to stay with him past toddlerhood. He even hits and talks about hitting in his sleep. 🙁

    I fear I’ve done something horribly wrong and now he’s “stuck.” I’m hoping time and consistency will change this, but I live in fear of social situations. He’s always running off as well, and I hate to have to set SOOOOO many boundaries, but it’s my job to keep him safe, which I keep telling him over and over.

    I started taking him to OT thinking it could be a sensory issue. So far, the only thing they’ve told me is that we perhaps need to strengthen his core some more. ???

    I’m desperate. I get hit, kicked, or poked every day and can never fully relax and just be. Seriously, the minute I do, something happens.

    I started doing “time ins” reluctantly, where we both go to a corner of a room together and talk about hitting if it happens. I have also started making him apologize to children he hits or ask them if they are OK, so he can see their emotion.

    Sorry this has been lengthy. Please let me know if you can offer any more ideas of positive strategies to help my little guy get out of this loop.

    I want this time to be as magical as it can be.

    1. one thing that jumps out at me here is the fact that you seem to be talking about it a LOT. whilst it’s important to talk about it, you don’t need to do it all the time, he must know by now that he shouldn’t be doing it and why. if you’re talking about it and focusing on it all the time yourself, it’s going to be something he also focuses on and makes it more difficult for him to break the cycle. although AP can be great it sounds like you are both in this cycle and perhaps some time away from you with different teachers/carers could be helpful. i would say it is worth a try for certain.

  36. Could you please respond to Lei and Tracy. They both talked about spanking their kids and you seem to able to talk to people more effectively and calmly then I can when it comes to the spanking topic. I’m very against spanking and believe it makes children aggressive and fear their parents. Everyone deserves the right not to be hit, especially defenseless children.

  37. Hi Janet. I’m desperate for insight into my son’s latest aggressive behavior. He has always been a pretty spirited, aggressive kid. He went through a lengthy biting phase, hit his sister daily for almost two years, and is very quick to get very angry. Your blog, and others like it, have really helped to guide me though his challenging phases and I’m so grateful for your insight, as putting it into practice has ensured a loving, trusting, respectful relationship between us. However, he’s taken to punching his sister (he’s 4, she’s 3) in the face….hard. Not over extremely major frustrations, just the daily sibling struggles such as sharing, etc.. Today he punched her because she started talking to me when he was. I asked her to hang on a sec, because he was asking a question, and he looked over and socked her in the nose. I’m trying desperately to separate my own shock/feelings over this in effort to handle this with him in the right way.
    My husband and I are working hard to give one on one time to each of them during the week. And we have different, special things we do with them individually. We aren’t a yelling house (except for my occasional slip….which punching brings out), and have never spanked. My son is very, very attached to me and is my little buddy. It makes me so sad to see him hurt his sister so badly. I haven’t even begun to allow myself to feel what my daughter has gone through, being physically assaulted by him since she was a baby.
    Please help.

  38. Please, I need help !!!
    So my son 2 years and 8 months is such a happy, healthy, smart boy, he has been at home with me since he was born, no daycare, no nannies at all, just him and I. We also don’t have family around, sometimes they come visit but that is like once a year, so it has been just my son, my husband and I since he was born.
    There are two things that are being very complicated, first is, he is in the need of a haircut and has been for awhile and we have tried to take him places but he just moves and fights the whole time, even when I want to do it, he doesn’t let me at all, same with his toe nails.
    And my second problem is, he’s starting with this very stressful thing I’ll give u and example… I tell him, please drink your water and he comes to me to take but then he said no so I put it away and he says he wants it but again gets closer and it’s no again and he does that with everything, with us trying to hold him or with laying down to go to bed, everything you can think, and he gets mad about it and starts throwing stuff and of course crying.
    What can I do? I’m starting to get very desperate about it. I do not know how to react anymore.

    Please help me!


  39. KristinMC says:

    I really like these ideas. What if I missed some of these opportunities to remain “unruffled” many times when my oldest was a toddler. Now he just turned 7 and likes to push boundaries with me and his little brother…What to do with a 7 yr. old that does some of these things?
    Thank you!

    1. It’s really still the same advice for a 7 year old. If you give me a specific situation I can advise you. Thanks, Kristin!

      1. KristinMC says:

        Thanks, Janet! An example would be if he’s told “no”, too often his response is screaming in my face, trying to move me (shove), saying “I’m not going to listen to you.’ If he’s really angry, he will flail at me, trying to hit or attempt a bite (more like a threat, won’t actually bite down). He is willing to pinch his brother or knock him down to get a toy, too.
        These things aren’t all the time, and are enough that our household isn’t peaceful. Been working a lot on my own inner peace and non-reactivity.

        1. Similarly, my daughter is 4.5 and “holding her hands” to keep her from hitting is really impossible. I have to grip her full body in my lap and lean my head away or else she’ll head butt me, spit in my face, etc. So when they get older, stronger, and there’s a smaller sibling in the same space to also keep safe…then what? She says that holding her hurts her. If I try to walk away, she follows and continues to try to hurt me. She only behaves this way when we turn the TV off (and we don’t watch it often). My plan is to not turn it on again for a very long while.

  40. Alejandra Ellis says:

    My almost 6 year old is having such a hard time and it makes me feel horrible! 3 months ago my husband (daddy) walked out on us and refused to talk about it at all. Monday we had to put our 11 yr old kitty to sleep due to cancer. Tuesday, my daughter snapped and wants to scream at me, hit me and kick me! At school i asked her to pick up her jacket that she threw and she got angry and stomped on it. I said that is not ok and then she moved to the hitting and yelling :**( at home i try to hold her and tell her she is safe and i see that she is angry and each time it takes a good hour to help her calm down. We talk about what triggered her anger when she is in good spirits. I dont know how else to help her and it kills my heart to see her so angry. Please help!

  41. I am a grandma (retired teacher) who babysits my grand kids every day. My mother-in-law ran a preschool and she taught me magic phrases to use when my children were young. With the one year old who is starting to hit, I just grab her little hands gently and kiss them and say, “Let’s have kind hands.” Or, I say, “Make your hands gentle,” and then distract her to another activity like a tickle game or reading a book. At that age, the hitting is not out of anger. It is just learning an appropriate way to play. In that way, not only am I unruffled but she is getting positive attention in another way.

    Hitting and biting in older children is another thing, altogether. It usually has a deeper cause and just dealing with the behavior won’t solve the problem. My four year old grandson doesn’t do it often, but when he does, it is when he has not had the right kind of attention. It’s usually my cue to make sure he is feeling loved and cared for.

  42. Overall I feel fairly confident in my unruffled response when my 17 month old hits or acts out but not when it genuinely hurts me. Sometimes, out of nowhere, he head butts me or slaps me and knocks my glasses off my face. It can really hurt especially if I don’t see it coming. I’m trying to just walk away without giving too much reaction. After his out burst it’s really hard to cuddle or play with him because I am afraid of him lashing out again. What can I do?

  43. Hi, I appreciate this post- however, my child has way more stamina than this.
    She will throw a fit for hours all the while she’s following me around, screaming hitting and kicking me (she’s two in a couple days). If I tell her, “you are mad but you can’t hit mommy so I’m going to hold your hands.” It’s a crazy bear hug wrestle match and as soon as I let her go she will hit me again. She doesn’t want to be held (she’ll hit if I try) but she screams “HOLD YOU MAMA” and hits me anytime I take a step away from her. The only way not to get hit is by separating myself from her physically (read: door or put her in her crib). She’s screaming in her crib right now. I don’t know what to do!

  44. Ok if a dad chimes in?

    First, thanks Janet for writing this article. Having two boys (4.5 and 3) who can get physical with their expressing emotions can happen often. Helping them to express their emotions and giving those emotions a name can help turn physical action into words.

    One thing that has helped for my 4.5yo is his “angry stick”. Those toy sticks that when you tip them back and forth, it makes that funny noise? We out it up, away where, when he is angry, has to walk away from the situation, and shake the stick. The action of walking away gives him that time to take a breath, do something physical (moving the stick), and the noise is pretty funny, so makes us laugh. I think the important thing to remember is to still address the emotions and talk about what happened and how we feel.

    Regarding the post about sleep battle, I know how you parents are feeling. I think the thing to remember is everything is in phases. With our 3yo moving to “big boy bed”, he was up a lot at the start; it was a new adventure! But they are also discovering a new found sense of independence too. For us, my 3yo was excited, I often found a mountain of books in bed with him in the mornings, but now it’s a cuddle, song and quiet in bed… But now I’ve jinxed it.

    Good luck parents, and thanks again Janet.

  45. Jaent, I have an 18 month old who has been a biter when teething from the first set of 4 he got at 9months. Well now it seems like it’s fun for him, at least I think it’s about the fun OW he sometimes gets. Other times I think it’s his 2yr molars coming in.
    I totally understand & will try the holding his hands and say “I can’t/won’t let you hit me.” But I’m wondering what I can do other than say “I can’t/won’t let you bite me.”
    Do I hold his head away from my body when I say it? I’ve talked to his dad & daycare lady and I’m the only person he seems to bite. Sometimes it’s just running his teeth on me but not always. I have tried giving him a teether but he throws it.
    I am going to start doing the firm no, I can’t/won’t let you bite me but would really like to know what else I can or should do.

  46. My almost four year old has this hitting, kicking, biting thing down and I haven’t been able to help him through it. His first reaction to something I say that he doesn’t like or agree with is to hit me. I tell him “I won’t let you hit me”, I tell him I’m going to hold his hands to help him but as soon as he can’t use his hands he’ll kick and bite. So I end up holding hands and feet but he doesn’t like it at all and seems to just get more upset. Or he’ll pick up anything he can find and throw it at me. He doesn’t do it to my husband but he will hit/punch his little if he is close by now. So it only seems to be getting worse even though I feel like I stay calm for the most part every time. What should I be doing differently? How do I let him express what he needs to when he seems to just want to hurt me or his brother to get his feelings out?

  47. Hi Janet,
    I just listened to No Bad Kids on Audible for the 4th time and I have to tell you that you have created a major shift in my experience as a parent. I am a SAHM of a 19m old daughter and a 3.5y old boy. I have been solidly using your approach for about a week and have seen undeniable results. I also feel more joy and overall success as a mother, more than ever to be honest.
    My question is 2 parts and revolves around aggression. He has been wonderful over the past 3 days he’s been home with the normal tantrums and such ( which all dissolve much quicker now, but all on his own with my calm support). He was sort of a nightmare before but understandably since I wasn’t his anchor at all. We used to do timeouts for 3 minutes when he freaked out and hit his sister or ran away, but now it’s all words and some actions to take some time in his room with me till he can calm down.
    We spent all of yesterday together, with our normal ups and downs on his part, but overall so much easier on mine with the new way of speaking to him. It was a great day.
    Then today, Monday, back at school (he goes to a high energy, play based school where his teacher LOVES him and totally gets him) the Director informed me that he bit 3 times today, once on the cheek. She told me to wait to talk to him about it, but to gently bring it up.
    When he came home, he clawed his sister 2 times before his nap after we all played together, and I told him “I don’t want you to scratch her. That hurts her.” The second time I said, “I don’t want you to do that” My tone was calm and firm. He responded with, “I did it 2 times”. With no remorse at all, more of a smirk. I am not sure what the next step would be if he keeps acting out against his sister like this at home. How would you respond to that?
    It seems like he is trying to get a charged reaction from me like before-which I won’t do.

    I am also wondering if the school’s atmosphere is creating more aggression in him instead of acting as a release for his high energy. I work at a different school where I take my daughter that is really mellow, and I wonder if I should transfer him. I want what is best for him. Any advice? Thank you so much for your guidance!

    1. Thanks for sharing your success, Sierra! That makes me very happy.

      In regard to your questions… I think you’ve nailed it here: “It seems like he is trying to get a charged reaction from me like before-which I won’t do.” But I feel certain that he is actually hoping you won’t have a charged reaction, but still be able to help him control his behavior. I think he is indicating he needs help with this at school as well. In other words, he’s asking through his behavior, “How are you going to handle this now? I still need help!” He knows you don’t want him to do that, so I wouldn’t continue to say those kinds of things. I would be as on top of his behavior as you can, physically blocking him, etc. (all very calmly, remembering that he is a tiny, non-threatening guy). I would focus on assuring him you will keep him safe and that you see him acting in an out of control manner. So, saying something like, “That’s not safe (stopping his hand from scratching). I see you feel like scratching your sister! I’m going to keep you safe” (subtext: “don’t worry”).

      I can’t really comment on the school without knowing a lot more. His behavior shows that he trusts the teachers, but it letting them know he needs more hands -on help…maybe calmly shadowing him for a few days to prevent him from acting out.

      Here’s a post that might be helpful to you:

      You might also want to check out my podcasts for examples of tone, etc.:

  48. My soon to be wife has a 2 1/2 year old that has vilent loud tantrums when she wants something and don’t stop until her mom gives it to her even if she has to go and buy it at the store I tell her no I will not give it too you when you are having this tantrum then her tantrum continues then her mom gives in gives it to her and then baby’s her
    What do I do ? I’m at wits end

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