When a Two Year Old Hits

Asian Chinese little sisters struggle for blocks

This may be a two-year-old being aggressive with their older siblings, or a child in a two’s program hitting classmates. I tend to think there are three (long run, four) parts to the answer:

Coach being gentle

  1. You might read Hands are Not for Hitting by Aggasi, No Hitting by Katz, No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford and Baby Be Kind by Fletcher.
  2. You can teach “hands down,” by playing Simon Says and every third or fourth direction be “Simon says, ‘hands down,'” and encouraging them to put their hands by their sides. Or, play Freeze Dance with the direction “hands down” when the music stops.
  3. You can provide a visual cue by taking a picture of them with their hands down by their sides and show this to them when you remind them to, “keep your hands down.” This might be a reminder in general when they go to play, or your warning language if you see the behavior coming.
  4. You might practice a “gentle touch” or “nice touch” when you greet each other.
  5. Be sure to praise occasionally when they remember to be gentle, “you gave your friend a nice hug. That was gentle!”
  6. You might show and tell them about ways to give high fives, shake hands, give a gentle hug or hold hands, and praise when they do it gently.

Coach the triggers – The first step to being able to coach triggers is to identify them. It may be helpful to keep notes about the aggressive behaviors for a few days, be sure to note what sparked the behavior. This might be being told, “no,” having to share toys, getting the wrong color cup or rough house play that went too far. Coaching out of the moment might be role playing related scenarios, giving puppet shows, drawing a picture of the situation going well, providing a visual cue or reading related children’s storybooks. Here is a post about coaching wanted behaviors. The goal of coaching is to encourage wanted behaviors over time.

It may be helpful to listen to my free online workshop on coaching wanted behaviors.

Discipline in the moment

  1. A little attention to the victim first – Avoid looking at or talking first to the child who was just aggressive. Look and speak to the other saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” or, “ouch, that hurts! Do you need a hug?”
  2. As a parent, I tend to think the next step should be a logical negative consequence. Logical negative consequences are an imposed, related outcome. If they hit over a toy, they lose the toy for some amount of time. If they push for a particular seat on the couch, they are off the couch for that day. If there was no context, just a drive by, you might have them separate. This may be playing in another room or sitting out for a turn.
  3. Once this is served, it is good to either go back with a sentence of emotion or better choices. Also, it would be helpful to make a mental note of the trigger, so you can coach later.

The fourth long run answer is coaching emotion language and empathy. I say long run because, two-year-olds aren’t expected to have much in the way of emotion language and tend to have a very limited sense of others. Since they are not well versed, it is good to include emotion language and impact on others in the moment. This would be, “I know you are frustrated. You wanted that toy.” and, “wow, your friend is sad. Grabbing his toy made him feel sad.” Out of the moment, helpful to coach these things as well.

With all of this, remember you are talking to a two-year-old. This means when you are coaching or disciplining you only get a few short sentences.


Push Back to Dad Traveling for Work

Dear Dr. Rene,

My husband was recently on a two month work trip (which will be a frequent occurance). My almost three-year-old son is a fairly emotional child and has always been very attached to me, although we had made significant progress in the past with him being okay with Daddy doing bedtime and being alone with Dad. While my husband was gone, my son hardly talked about him and didn’t exhibit many signs of missing him, though I brought him up often so that he knew his daddy was thinking about him. We were able to Skype occasionally, and he was always excited to see him on the computer. The first day or two of him being home were fine.

It has been five days with daddy home and our house has turned into mayhem. My son will not be in a room by himself with his father, he won’t let his daddy help him do anything, he says “I don’t like Daddy,” he hits him if he tries to carry him, and so on. We have tried to be understanding of it to an extent, he gets physically upset and “scared” – but I don’t want to reinforce his fears. Its gotten to a point that we feel it may be partially a control issue for my son – and we don’t want him to feel like he can manipulate a situation by throwing a fit to get what he wants. We are at a loss for how to handle this. We expect it to take time, but aren’t sure of the appropriate approach. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.


Sarah, mother of two

Dear Sarah,

I am going to answer this in two parts. The first is how to best manage the push back that is happening now. The second is how to better prepare and move through the next separation.

In the moment, when he refuses to be in a room alone with daddy and bucks at being carried, the idea is for dad to go heavy on the empathy, validate his feelings, but then move forward with the activity. If his push to make daddy leave the room or put him down works, it reinforces his effort. This would be saying something like, “I know you are frustrated! You really want to be with mommy,” or, “wow! You are mad. You want me to put you down,” for at least several sentences. Then move forward with, “but for now it’s daddy,” or, “I am sorry, but I need to carry you right now.” All of this should be done in a calm way. The idea is to understand the upset, it is what it is. Then dad moves forward with what is reasonable, being alone in a room together or being carried as needed. Dad should avoid matching anger or giving in to the demands.

I also completely agree, while there is empathy there should also be limits when the behaviors are unacceptable. There is discipline when he hits and appropriate response (ignore during and neutral after or some consistent plan) when he tantrums. Yes, he is upset and this is well within normal limits for behavior for his age, but the consistent discipline response is needed to reign in the behaviors in the long run.

Around all the travel, I would try to find a little time each week that the two of them can spend time just being together. This could be a board game in the playroom, a trip to the playground or an ice cream run. Not to leave you and baby out, but it’s a time for them to hopefully connect individually over something fun.

Before the next trip, make the child a family photo album (Sassy makes a 6 picture one) including at least a few pictures of him and dad. Be sure there are family photos framed in his room and talk about dad often during the separations. During the next trip, plan to have them Skype as many days as possible.  It may also be helpful for dad to send postcards or other small things in the mail every few days and pictures online.


Dr. Rene

‘Playful’ Hitting Question

Parent Question: How do I teach my 20 month old daughter not to ‘playfully’ hit my face when I’m holding her sometimes? I tell her no hitting and be gentle with mommy, but she just finds it funny, so I end up putting her down.

Answer: I would say it in a firmer voice than usual and with a straight face, “that hurts,” and put her down the first time and each time. Don’t wait until the second hit or attempt. Later in the day, I would coach how we touch people and practice being gentle. When she does touch nicely, gush a bit. Say, “wow, that was so nice. You touched me in a gentle way!” She is young for much more.

I hope this helps!

Dr. Rene

>Hitting at 22 months

>Dear Dr. Hackney,

I attended your Positive Discipline class. Every time Sean (22 months) goes to hit someone, I say, “Hands down: hitting hurts” while holding his hands down. He seems to find this funny and just laughs every time I do it. Once his hands are free; he hits again. I don’t feel like I am getting anywhere.

No matter how much I practice the “I” messages and empathy, he seems to overlook all that and go for the jugular. For example, he is transitioning to the two’s class at daycare. Today, he was very upset about this, and as soon as we got to the class room, he starting trying to hit a little girl that came over to play with him. I practiced the positive discipline technique described above to no avail. I am realizing that Sean is a very willful child, but I need to be able to rein in this aggressive behavior. Any other ideas would be appreciated.

Jennifer, mother of son age 22 months

Hi Jennifer,

The I messages and empathy at this little age are to build emotion language and to calm the caregiver. They don’t tend to have a big impact on behavior until a bit later (3s) when children better understand their impact on others and reflect a bit on behavior. With that said, keep using the language because eventually you want him to use the language rather than the hitting, so he benefits from the continued modeling.

Right now, it is curbing such as “hands down” in a firm tone. If you can get in front of the behavior so to curb before it happens each time all the better; this means, expect it rather than be surprised.

You could be coaching him as he approaches another to “be gentle.” The idea is to first coach and practice the better behaviors out of the moment when no one is hurting. So, tonight when you tuck him in, you might say, “I am touching you in a gentle way. Be gentle,” while you touch his arm softly. Then say, “Can you touch mommy gentle?” (Hopefully) “Yes, that’s gentle! I like when you are gentle.” You are actively teaching a gentle touch. Do this every few days with similar language, and then start to incorporate that language as you coach in the moment; as he approaches a new friend, you might say, “Be gentle, gentle touches,” and, hopefully, you are ready to say, “Hands down,” and curb before it actually occurs. But you can’t really start that and expect it to be effective until he gets the basic concept.

You might also add a bit of a consequence, such as when the hitting does happen to immediately move away from the activity at hand. Your language of consequence may be lost on him at that moment, but the actual follow through if it happens consistently may help to lessen the behavior. This means, if he hits someone in the block center, he is moved out and away from that center, sending the message “if you hit you must move to a different activity.”

Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.