Back to articles

When toddlers hurt others

Playground Quarrel

The image of cute, happy toddlers playing together is an image to be savoured. The reality is that that image is often not quite as idyllic as we would like. Sometimes the reality is that one disgruntled toddler has just whacked another one in the face in hot pursuit of the much in demand toy that the other toddler was holding.

As parents, we are often left mortified that our child has behaved in such an unsociable manner and worries of where this behaviour might lead occupy our minds. The truth is sometimes toddlers behave in ways that we would very much rather they didn’t. When they bite, kick, hit and pull hair it can be helpful to think about what may be going on for them and how best we can discourage unwanted behaviours.

Am I a terrible parent because my child is biting or hitting?

This is often the first place we go as parents. We must remember however that at this age children are very busy with the developmental task of growing their independence and recognising that they are separate from their parents.

All this while they are also developing their verbal skills, learning to share and explore their worlds with limited self-control! Add into this mix their own temperament which means some may be bigger reactors than others.

There is a lot going on for them, and sometimes that impulsive sinking of their teeth into another child is hard to control. We must remember that children are continually learning, and this is very much the start of the learning journey. Understanding what is happening for them can help us be more responsive and supportive so that they can learn more constructive ways to handle their big feelings and frustrations.

Children are not setting out to do unwanted things; there is always something triggering their behaviour. For some, they may be exploring their world and seeing what will happen. For some, they may be sensory seeking and accustomed to exploring the world with their mouths, for instance. For others, the frustration in not being able to either understand or articulate their feelings may be too much and result in that whack over the head or that ponytail being viciously pulled.

In short, it can be normal for children at this age to behave in unwanted ways. How we respond can either exacerbate this behaviour or lessen it so that it is merely a phase in their lives rather than something that sticks with them.

What can we do to increase positive behavioural choices?

1. Separate feelings and actions.

Children need to be taught from early on that it is ok to feel whatever they feel. We need to name feelings so that children can identify them. We can always use what’s around us to teach kids. We can point to the person shouting on the TV or faces in books and say “he looks very happy/sad/cross.” We can point out our own or their feelings, “You got cross when you had to wait for your food.”

The point is we are trying to help our kids identify what they feel so that they can learn to try and separate how they feel from their behaviour. We need them to learn that in the moment, it is frustrating/disappointing/ upsetting when I can’t get that truck or doll. When I have to wait for something, it is hard to have big feelings but hitting, kicking or biting are not good behaviours.

2. Be aware of what we role model and how we react.

We know that our kids are constantly picking up on how we speak and behave. If we respond to their unwanted behaviour by smacking or hurting them in any way, we are merely reinforcing that it is ok to hurt.

This seems completely counterproductive when this is the behaviour we are trying to stop. Having said that, it is also essential that we recognise our own feelings of embarrassment or anger when our children behave abysmally and manage how we behave in reaction to our emotions.

3. Provide firm boundaries.

When a child kicks, hits or bites, we can respond immediately with a “We don’t hit/bite/kick etc.” so that they know that this is not ok. We do not need to punish further, and we do not need to give too much attention to the negative behaviour. Still, it needs to be acknowledged, and it needs to be firmly pointed out that this behaviour is unacceptable.

4. Respond to the wounded child.

If a child has been hurt by another child, we need to comfort and respond to them. While doing so, we can help make sense of things “I’m sorry Jonny hurt you, hurting is not ok. I think Jonny wanted to play with that toy, and it was hard to wait his turn, but it is not ok to hurt.”

5. Sometimes toddlers need some extra play support.

If you know that your child is going through a phase of hurting others, then be around when they are playing so that you can try and deflect things and help facilitate positive play experiences. You may say something like, “I can see it is hard for Jonny to wait his turn, let’s take turns. Sam can hold the car for 10 seconds and then Jonny can hold the car for 10 seconds” and count it out for them. When you have seen that they were about to hurt and stopped, acknowledge that “I could see you were getting cross, but you stopped yourself from hurting Jonny.”

6. Give them alternatives.

Share with them that we don’t hurt and that we can use our words more effectively if we are having a hard time. Give them the script, “please can I have a turn to play?”

7. Allow children the space to move forward.

So often we get stuck in our own feelings that our child has hurt another that we don’t allow things to move forward. Where a child is repeatedly hurting then you may need to remove him/her from the area or leave a playdate, but most often these are isolated incidents, and children should be able to move through them without demonising the child.

Once we have acknowledged what has happened and attended to the child who has been hurt, children are ready to play again. We can encourage the child who has hurt the other child, to say sorry but forcing an apology is not useful and can result in increasing frustration for all.

In dealing with unwanted aggressive toddler behaviour, we need to be aware that our children are learning and in learning, they are going to make a lot of mistakes along the way. We can support them with a healthy combination of empathy and firm boundaries to help contain them on their learning journey.

Signup Ad

Have you tried the Nubabi Free Trial?

Get unlimited access to Your Parenting Toolkit for 2 weeks for free!

Track, Boost, Explore and Capture your child's growth and development.
Available on both mobile and web.

Sign me up!