Gentle Discipline: Dealing with Hitting

Gentle Discipline

Dealing with hitting can be one of the hardest parts of raising a child. The hitting stage is one that nearly all children go through at some point. It is most common between the ages of 18-36 months, but can happen either side of that time frame. My 3-and-a-half year old totally bypassed it when he was little, but is now making up for lost time!

The hitting phase can be an incredibly difficult one to negotiate. As a parent, you can feel as though you have somehow failed. You may blame yourself for your child’s outbursts, and the strong outpouring of emotion from them can be very hard to cope with. Their unchecked anger and frustration can tap into emotions of our own that we’d forgotten we had. Their rage can subconsciously remind us of the rage we felt as children that may have been ignored, brushed off or punished.

Is it my fault?

Gentle Discipline: Dealing with HittingThe short answer – probably not. Of course, if the child has been exposed to violence – on the TV, in their own home, at playgroup or similar – that might well have had an effect. However, it is important to remember that even children who have never witnessed a violent act are still likely to lash out at some point. I know lots of people would disagree with me here, but I believe that aggression is a very normal, very human trait. Sometimes, lashing out feels like the only appropriate way to deal with rage, whether our logical brain would agree or not!

Why do little children hit?

Simply put, it’s because they haven’t yet learned a better way to express their big feelings. We’ve all been there before – when you are just so unbelievably cross that you just have to slam a door, or stomp up the stairs as loud as you can, or scream into a pillow. Young children have not yet developed a sense of impulse control, so they may well be physically incapable of restraining themselves in highly emotional situations. As they grow older, their ability to control their impulses improves.

Should I punish her?

I personally don’t believe that punishing children is a fruitful exercise at the best of times, let alone at a time so emotionally charged as this. At the same time, though, children of all ages do need to learn that hurting other people or animals is not okay. There are ways to deal with hitting which are reassuring, accepting, respectful and that will help them learn to cope with their big feelings without hurting others. The thing that always should be remembered about gentle discipline is that it’s not about “nipping it in the bud”. It’s about forming a strong connection of trust, love and respect between yourself and your child. It’s about being a team, not showing the kids who’s boss.

Furthermore, we must remember the above point made about impulse control. You may well be punishing a child who can’t actually stop themselves from hitting right now. By dealing with the hitting from a place of love and trust, and by assuming that your child is a good person who wants to please you, the hitting will happen less often (and cease altogether) as their ability to self-regulate improves.

OK, I get all of that, but what can I actually *do* when he hits?

WHY: Figure out why they are hitting. Are they hungry? Tired? Angry? Feeling insecure? Looking for attention? Have they had their game interrupted by a sibling or parent? Knowing the reason will help you deal with your child effectively and respectfully.

EMPATHISE: Lets use the game interruption scenario as an example. To us, play is just play. Doesn’t seem all that important. But to the child, play is their entire world. To them, their game is just as important as whatever errand you have to run that’s caused you to have to pull your child away from it. Of course, that is life and sometimes your child will have to go along with your plans rather than their own, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to remember how it must make them feel.

REFLECT & EXPLAIN: Get down to their level and connect with the child. With my preschooler, I say something like “I can see you’re very angry. You’re so angry because I made you stop playing so we can get ready to go into town. Being angry is okay, but it’s not okay to hit.” Sometimes, he won’t be ready to listen and will respond with shouting and/or more hitting. If this happens, I will physically remove myself from his area (whilst still remaining present) and tell him why I am doing so. If he is lashing out uncontrollably, I will sometimes have him sit in the hallway until he has calmed down. I am always careful to tell him that he is being removed from the room to keep us safe, and that he is welcome to return as soon as he feels he can stop hitting.

GIVE AN ALTERNATIVE: When they have calmed down enough to listen effectively, give them a short list of alternative ways to express their anger which are effective. You might encourage them to scream into a pillow, stomp their feet, express their anger verbally (“I AM SO CROSS! RAAAAH!”), draw their feelings, hit something soft like the sofa or a pillow… the possibilities are endless. They may laugh in the face of your alternative at first, but as time goes on it will sink in and one day, like my Monkey did the other day, they will surprise you by restraining themselves from hitting and doing something else instead.

FIND A SOLUTION: At some point (it needn’t be straight away, especially if emotions are still running high), talk with your child about what happened and why it happened, and what you can both do to help prevent it from happening again. Using the same example as above, the conversation might go something like this:


Mama: “You were very angry with me yesterday, and you hit me because you were so cross. Could you tell me what made you cross?”

Monkey: “I wanted to finish playing and you said no.”

Mama: “OK, so it made you feel very cross that I wouldn’t let you finish your game. It was very important to you and it made you feel sad and angry that we had to stop to go into town.”

Monkey: “Yes, I wanted to finish. I love playing cars.”

Mama: “OK honey. So, next time, when we have to go somewhere, I will tell you ten minutes before we have to go so you have time to finish your game. Do you think that would help?

Monkey: “Yes, tell me before.  That’ll be good”

Mama: “Ok honey.Now, do you remember what happened when you got cross?”

Monkey: “I hit you mummy.”

Mama: “Yes, you did. Hitting hurts and it makes mummy feel sad. What do you think you could do next time to show me how angry you are, instead of hitting?”

Monkey: “Um… I could stomp my feet and SHOUT really really loud!”

Mama: “Yes, you could! That sounds like a great plan.”


Of course, the conversation you have with your little one will depend on how verbal they are. The problem solving is the most important step, because this is what will help prevent the situation happening again in the first place.  Obviously, it may not be possible to do this with a very young child.  In this instance, you will focus on encouraging them to use alternative means of self-expression.

Really, when you get down to it, it becomes clear that gentle discipline is about so much more than disciplining our children – it’s about disciplining ourselves. It’s about dealing with how their emotions affect us, and in turn how they affect our parenting. It’s also about patience – about accepting that ‘results’ aren’t the most important thing here. Yes, you will see results, your child will learn that hitting is not okay – but they will learn this without ever questioning your love for them, or the fact that they are just as important as anybody else.

Has your child gone through a hitting phase? How did you deal with it?


image: drew coffman @ flickr


  1. tanya says

    Love this post! Very timely for me as well, as the topic came up in a mama’s group I belong to about spanking your child just today. I only have a 4 month old right now, but am filing all this great information away, and find that even posts that talk about older children solidify my belief in gentle, attached parenting.

    I do have a question that came up from my group – one mama shared that her 2.5 year old recently showed physical aggression towards her 4 month old. He hasn’t shown any to this point. Indeed, I know that sometimes this behavior comes from feeling left out or missing the role of being the baby of the family, and special time and attention may provide the reassurance and love the older child needs. Would you add or change how you deal with aggression towards a new baby, or simply treat it the same as any other type of hitting behavior?

    • says

      Hi, thank you for commenting! It’s lovely to hear that this has been useful for someone.

      I’m certainly no expert, but in the event of sibling aggression I would deal with it in much the same manner, with a big focus on reassurance and, like you said, special time and attention without the baby there. Having a new sibling arrive has got to be one of the most difficult things in the world for a small child to have to deal with. Also, getting the older sib involved in baby care can be really beneficial as it not only makes them feel useful and helps them find their place in the family again, but it can be a really good practical way to show them how to be gentle with the baby. Often, especially with very young ones such as the toddler in question, they can be heavy handed towards the baby because they simply don’t realise that they are delicate and need to be treated gently.

      My Monkey struggled a lot when Squish arrived (and still does from time to time, especially when Squish learns a new skill… like snatching, lol) and two books i found really helpful were “How to talk so kids will listen, and listen so kids will talk” and “siblings without rivalry” (both are by the same authors, I can’t think off the top of my head what they are called but the books are easy to find in a search). Maybe your friend would find them useful?

  2. says

    Oh thank you. I found you through dirt and diapers blog. This is SO relevant to me right now. My 2.5 year old son does this. He hits when he gets angry. However, he never rages he just sometimes hits me. He also throws. I think having that alternative list is good then I can say that after. Good post!!


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