Award-winning author, L.R.Knost

When Children Hit~10 Tips for Parents

[Portions reprinted from The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline by L.R.Knost. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood also available on Amazon and through other major retailers.]

Toddlers and preschoolers are still in the early stages of learning to communicate verbally. Add to that the fact that they have little-to-no impulse control and very immature social skills, and you’ve got a recipe for an instinctive physical response (i.e. hitting, kicking, biting, hair pulling, throwing things, etc.) to situations in which they are frustrated, angry, scared, or just tired and out-of-sorts.

Many parents who practice gentle discipline wonder where their little one picked up the behavior, not realizing that it is a normal and age-appropriate reaction, albeit an unacceptable one. Very often parents are advised to spank their child to train them not to hit others, especially those who are smaller and weaker than they are.

The concept of using consequences, physical or otherwise, as a deterrent for hitting is based on the misconception that small children have the capacity for forethought (i.e. If I hit, I will get in trouble. Therefore I will not hit.) and that they are choosing to disobey. The fact is that the prefrontal cortex, where reasoning, logic, and forethought take place, is highly immature in toddlers and preschoolers and actually doesn’t develop fully until the mid-twenties! (see Dr. Tina Payne Bryson’s The Whole-Brain Child) Small children act instinctively and impulsively even when not stressed simply because that is what they are developmentally capable of, but when they are stressed even the small amount of self-control they may have attained flies right out the window, and before they know it (literally!) they’ve reacted physically to their stress.

The plain truth is, though, that even if punishment was effective as a deterrent, a gentle response to physical aggression is literally the only response that a parent can make that won’t actually reinforce the aggression. Responding with counter-aggression by powering-up on a child, whether physically or verbally, merely reinforces the idea that ‘might makes right’ and that whoever is the dominant figure at any given moment has the right to force others to bend to their will.

Obviously, parents who practice gentle discipline don’t believe that hitting a child to teach them not to hit others is an appropriate or even logical option. But knowing that they don’t want to resort to physical punishment and knowing what to do instead are two different things entirely.

So, what other options does a gentle parent have when confronted with a little one who has started lashing out physically?

1.)    Supervision! Supervision! Supervision! When you have a child who is acting out physically, it’s vital to remain in visual contact with them whenever they are with other children. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s important not to leave small children alone with a child who is struggling with physical aggression. Some steps you can take are to either take the child with you when you have to leave the room, take the other child/children with you, or use baby gates to section off areas where you can separate the children to play (in a non-punitive manner) when you have to be out of visual range.

2.)    Intervention. Consistent intervention by an observant parent, preferably before the situation escalates to physical aggression, is essential in order to protect the other children. When you see your child heading toward a physical response to a situation, reminding them to use their words or offering a solution to the problem will often help avert a lash out. If your child has already started to become physical, but hasn’t fully escalated, reminding them to use their gentle hands will give them a little head’s up that they are headed in the wrong direction and give them an opportunity to redirect themselves. Suggesting alternative options such as those below will equip your child with the tools they need to handle their feelings in acceptable ways.

3.)    Respect. Respecting a child’s possessions helps them to share by offering them the chance to choose. Feeling more in control of what does or does not need to be shared is a proactive step toward a child feeling more in control of their body and impulses. You might allow their room to be off limits to their siblings or possibly have a ‘special’ toy box where they can keep a select few toys that they don’t have to share, but can only play with in their room or when the other children are sleeping or otherwise occupied. If a situation arises where they aren’t willing to share something, they can have the option to choose to put that toy in the ‘special’ toy box, but will have to take out one of the other toys in the box and share it.

4.)    Outlets. Children who feel out-of-control need outlets for their ‘big’ feelings. If they’re angry, they can go to their room and punch a bop bag or go outside and throw or kick a ball around. But if they’re headed toward a meltdown, they’ll need help processing their feelings, and a Calm-Me-Jar and Time-in Cozy Corner may be the best option.

5.)    Practice. Role playing can be helpful with a child who repeatedly lapses into physical aggression. You can take turns being the ‘hit-ee’ and ‘hitter’ (you’ll want to avoid using labels such as ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor’ with your child) and show them different ways of handling situations that you know have caused them difficulties in the past.

6.)    Silliness. One of my favorite tools when dealing with toddler’s and preschooler’s aggression is playing the “I’m the boss of you, hands!” game (can be used for mouth, feet, etc, too) in which I remind them that they are the ‘boss’ of their hands and ask them to tell their hands what they can or cannot do. (i.e. Me: “What are you going to tell your hands if they try to snatch a toy?” Child: “I’ll tell them, ‘No way, hands! I’m the boss of you!”) Little ones love the idea of being the ‘boss’ and generally respond well to this type of play. Also, check out the Time Out Toy Box if toy throwing is an issue. (Note: For younger, non-verbal children who may not be ready for the “I’m the boss of you, hands!” game yet, if they’ve hit, pinched, snatched, etc. try ‘checking’ to see if they have gentle hands by exaggeratedly examining their hands and then kissing each palm and declaring, “Yep, that’s a gentle hand, all right!” The positive, declarative statement will help them to develop a positive self-image and set the foundation for self-control as they grow up believing that, yes, they are good and gentle little people!)

7.)    Modeling. If your child has already hit someone, you will need to first address the injured child’s needs.  If you’re angry with your child for hitting, and you very well may be, it’s okay to share that with them in a calm voice and let them know that you need a moment to consol the injured child and to calm down before you will be ready to talk with them. What you are actually doing is modeling self-control and coping mechanisms, important components for your child to learn in order to master their impulse to lash out.

8.)    Verbalize. Offering words to express your child’s feelings of anger or frustration when they have lashed out (i.e. “I see that you don’t want to share the ball. That makes you angry. I’m sorry you’re angry, but I can’t let you hit. What can you do instead of hitting when you’re angry?”) will help your child learn how to verbalize their feelings over time instead of simply acting on them as well as reminding them of the options you’ve provided for them to redirect their aggression into acceptable outlets.

9.)   Expectations. It’s important in all aspects of parenting to frequently take a step back and examine your expectations to make sure that they are reasonable in regard to your child’s age, developmental stage, temperament, etc. Unrealistic expectations can put significant pressure on a child and cause a great deal of frustration and stress which can lead to aggressive behaviors as well as conflict in your parent/child relationship.

10.)   Honesty. If physical punishment has been a part of your parenting, removing that entirely from your parenting toolbox is a great start toward easing some of the anger, stress, and frustration that is fueling your child’s aggression. Being honest with your child about your own struggles with handling things physically as well as apologizing for using threats, intimidation, and physical pain to control them in the past will begin the healing process in your relationship.

Always try to keep in mind that behaviors are communication. Listening ‘between the lines’ to your child’s aggression will help you to discern whether your child’s behavior is communicating an unmet need such as hunger, a nap, or attention (Yes, attention is a valid need!) or if they are communicating a big emotion that they’re having trouble processing or if they are simply out of their depth and need an adult to help them handle a situation. Children are actually great communicators, just not necessarily verbally. It’s up to us adults to ‘listen’ carefully, empathetically, and calmly to our children’s behavior and then offer them our gentle guidance, wisdom, and support.

*Note: Frequent, out-of-control acts of aggression may be a sign of a deeper problem. If you suspect that your child may be suffering from trauma, autism, ADHD, health issues, or any other issues, be sure to consult with your pediatrician about your concerns.


Related posts:

Spare the Rod: The Heart of the Matter

One of the hot-button issues when it comes to discipline and children is spanking, and the more Christian and conservative the audience, the more hot the debate becomes! There are no verses in the New Testament that support spanking, flogging, whipping, or otherwise hitting children. In the Old Testament there are…


You’re Not the Boss of Me!

Few things ignite a parent’s temper like defiance. It feels like a slap in the face, a direct challenge to our authority. Power card…played. Gauntlet…thrown. Challenge…accepted? Time out! No, not time-out as in punish your child, but time out as in hit the parental pause button, take a step back, assess the situation, and get some adult perspective.


Babes and Boundaries~A Gentle Parenting Perspective

Parenting is soooo tiring and frustrating at times. Sometimes you just want to sit a small child down and say, “Do you know how much easier your life (and mine!) would be if you’d just be REASONABLE?!?” But we know that wouldn’t do any good because the words ‘reasonable’ and ‘toddler/preschooler’ just don’t play well together. The thing to remember is that gentle parenting doesn’t mean parenting without boundaries.


Tots to Teens~Communication through the Ages and Stages

The evolution of children’s communication proceeds at a steady and relatively predictable pace, though the timing is influenced by factors such as individual personality, cognitive development, home environment, etc. Here’s what to expect through the ages and stages…


In Cold Blood

Parents worldwide almost universally have one thing in common…a deep, heartfelt desire to raise their children ‘right,’ to do their best to raise healthy, responsible, happy people. And, again almost universally, those parents look to others to help guide them on their parenting journey. Sometimes they look to their own family or to close friends, but often they seek out parenting guides, trusting that what they read in a book from a parenting ‘expert’ must be right…right?

What they don’t realize is that anyone can write a parenting book, and it’s often the expertise in marketing rather than in parenting that sells the most books. Here are excerpts and quotes from and about some of today’s most widely read and trusted self-proclaimed parenting ‘experts’…

Jesus, The Gentle Parent

Your Baby isn’t Trying to Annoy You; He’s Trying to Communicate!

Better Children, Better World

Toddlers: Teens in the Making

To a Toddler Sharing is a 4 Letter Word~MINE!

Confession and A Challenge

Toddler fighting sleep? Here’s help!

Parenting in Public: Toddler Time

One Slippery Sock & Other Silly Tools for your Parenting Toolbox!


Award-winnning author, L.R.Knost, is the founder and director of the children's rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood ; Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages ; The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline ; and Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting the first four books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, and children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series.

38 Responses

  1. Melissa

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you for sharing these tips!! We were able to diffuse a possible hitting situation once already today with a slightly modified version of the ‘special toy box’ scenario. Little Sister snatched a toy (which we’re working on as well) which nearly always triggers a hitting response from our Little Man. Instead we stopped, asked Little Sister to please give the toy in question back, as she had not asked first if she could play with it, we apologized, then we told Little Man we understood that he did not want Sister to play with that toy, and did he have any other toys that he would mind sharing with Sister instead? Immediate diffusion! Being given the opportunity to be in charge of which of his things he was willing to share really helped!!
    We’ll be working the ‘Boss of Me’ game too! Thank you sooooooooo much!!

    June 20, 2012 at 1:40 am

    • L.R. Knost

      I’m so happy to hear that, mama!

      June 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm

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  5. Catherine

    I’m benefiting from trawling your site and listening to your approach to children. I’ve become a regular now. I just wanted to say ‘hi’ since I’m here to gather some resources as I continue to try to gently steer Th (son, 4yrs) through a period of hitting and impulsive interactions with his siblings. Thank you! I can’t wait to try engaging him with being the ‘boss’ of his hands.

    July 15, 2012 at 6:32 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Hello and welcome! I’m glad you are finding things here that resonate with you, mama. The “I’m the boss of me” is awesome not only in the short term, but in the long run, as well, because then their ‘boss’ is always with them, even when they’re teens and are away from us more often.

      July 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  6. Hi, I have been spending lots of time on your site because I feel like it has so much great information. I have a 2 1/2 yr old son who can be the sweetest thing on earth when he wants and a hurricane of energy the rest of the time. He has occasional bouts of problems with pushing/biting. These seem to be phases that come and go. The biggest challenge I’m facing is that when he loses his temper (specifically with me) he starts crying and screaming and lashes out physically hitting, scratching, and biting. I have had some really bad bruises from him biting me and have a scratch from him scratching me on the face. I hate even talking about it because I think it makes him sound horrible. My response when he acts like this is to try to get him away from the stimulus, and hold his arms down and say “I will not let you hit me.” or “We can be mad but we do not hit. Use your words. Say I am mad.” He is really headstrong and does not follow instructions easily. I feel like these can be qualities that will be positive someday once he gets self control but I don’t know what to do in the meantime! My greatest fear is him hitting or biting another child the way he does me.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:11 am

    • L.R. Knost

      Lashing out physically is a normal (but particularly trying for parents!) part of toddlerhood. Keeping in mind that aggression is communication like all other behaviors, work on trying to identify what your little guy is trying to communicate to you. Is there a particular time of day he tends to lash out? Are there triggers such as hunger or tiredness? Does the aggression tend to occur after a busy day or while you’re trying to get out the door to start your day? Paying careful attention to these kinds of things will give you clues as to what is causing his frustration to boil over into aggression. Slowing down in the mornings, reducing the amount of activities during the day, working on regulating his eating times and naps to his own unique needs, etc. are all possible steps you can take to help reduce the frustrations that are contributing to his aggression. While you are working through this stage, be sure to stay very close to him when he’s playing with other children. Be vigilant, watching for any signs of frustration that may lead to aggression, so that you can step in and either gently help him through the feelings or guide him away from the other children before he lashes out. Hope that helps, mama!

      July 20, 2012 at 8:04 pm

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  10. Brandi

    Can you please try to help me? I love your blog and desire desperately to be this kind of gentle parent. I have been very consistently gentle, and my husband is also very supportive of this approach and is wonderful with our babies. I found this article but I am missing our specific problem. I understand about diffusing or intervening BEFORE our 25 month old darling pushes his 9mo sister. I can almost always catch that in time. But when he gets angry with us for not giving him exactly what he wants when he wants it, he SOMETIMES over the last 2 weeks will smack my husband or me right in the face! We are almost always on his level because we aim to be there in all interaction rather it is playing, teaching or correcting. So we are getting hit in the face! Typically it does not seem diffusable because he will be going along just fine and then it happens! He is on a nice schedule for sleeping and eating and we even structure a bit of his play with 2-3 activities on most days. The activities are mostly sensory and we do some coloring and letter recognition, counting etc. But nothing heavy at all.
    What are we missing? Does it just take a lot of time for them to stop this behavior? Or be able to think about it before doing it?
    There is just something about gently telling your child no, no and attempting to redirect/distract etc. and getting smacked in the face for it that is particularly disheartening! Please help! What do you recommend?
    ((HUGS)), Brandi, Jack, Nick and Heidi

    October 23, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      Sounds like you’re doing a great job, mama. Time is exactly what your little one needs, along with gentle, consistent, calm reactions when she lashes out. She doesn’t have the self-control or forethought yet to stop herself from reacting physically to her strong emotions, so she needs you to help her by 1.) stopping her before she hits as often as you can; 2.) offering her other outlets for her frustration; 3.) helping her to process her emotions before they reach the boiling point if/when you can; and 4.) taking whatever steps are needed (and reasonable) to reduce/eliminate frustration by giving her choices, making sure she is rested and fed, spending one on one time with her reading/playing a few minutes each day, and giving her plenty of outdoor time as well as free time (i.e. play time without sibling or friends, etc. so she can enjoy her toys without having to share). Gentle parenting isn’t about producing ‘perfect’ children, but instead about helping perfectly normal children through the ages and stages of development respectfully and kindly. Hope that helps! 🙂

      October 23, 2012 at 6:53 pm

  11. Louise

    Thank you so much for this article and your thoughtful response to the questions posed by other readers.

    My husband and I have been following a gentle parenting approach with our 17 month old twins. We are currently having a significant problem with our daughter biting our son. We have followed many of the suggestion you have already provided, with the key one being to stop it happening in the first place. However, we have had a particularly bad day today and she has bitten her brother twice, once drawing blood. I feel so disheartened that I missed my chance to prevent this. I’m specifically struggling with what to do following the biting incident.

    My son is distraught and clearly confused as to why his sister has bitten him. I have to comfort him, but while I do this, my daughter also becomes distressed. In some instances she will continue to either hit or bite both her brother and me, while I comfort him. I’m not sure how to manage both of their valid feelings at the same time.

    We are working hard at giving both of our babies one one one time every day. We are also working hard at teaching them about playing gently with each other and taking turns, but I’m sure it will be some time before this works.

    They’re are still very young and I’m at a loss. I’m worried that I’m not meeting my daughter’s needs and she is responding to this in her own way and I’m particularly concerned with how this may impact our future relationship. On the other hand, my son is sometimes visibly afraid of his sister and this is not something that I want to continue. Are you able to offer any suggestions on how to deal with these issues between two children of the same age when there are no other adults present?

    Thank you in advance.

    November 8, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    • L.R. Knost

      It sounds like you are actively seeking to meet needs and are doing an excellent job of it, mama. Parenting, whether gentle parenting or other forms of parenting, isn’t like a mathematical formula where we can input a logical sequence of numbers and expect an equally logical outcome. Parents are simply humans raising humans, and that means that we will struggle and worry and make mistakes and, even when we feel like we ‘get it right,’ the little humans we’re raising are unpredictable and have their own ideas about how they’ll respond! All that to say, it will take time for your little girl to develop forethought and self-control. You are doing the best you can to handle the biting preemptively, and that is the single best approach you can take. Those times you don’t intervene in time are unfortunate, but they are teachable moments for you to model empathy to your little guy so that both of your children will learn how to respond to others’ pain. Comforting your son first, saying, “I’m so sorry you’re hurt,” and giving hugs, etc. are all good things to model. If your daughter continues to try to hit/bite etc. while you are comforting your son, you can try stepping behind a baby gate, still within visual contact of your little girl, just long enough to meet your son’s needs, then step back in to your daughter to comfort her. If you find that there are specific times your daughter tends to bite, such as when you are making dinner, then you can separate the two of them during that time by putting one or both in highchairs in the kitchen with you and letting them play with some plastic bowls, spoons, a bit of water, etc. Or if the biting occurs pretty much every time you step away from them, make a habit out of scooping one or the other up and taking them with you wherever you’re going (babywearing is great for this!). Another possibility would be to create two safe areas next to each other with baby ‘fencing’ and let them have breaks from each other by having separate playtime while you cook/clean etc. Just keep in mind, even though it can feel like every ‘mistake’ or misstep or lost opportunity will have a negative impact on our little ones, the reality is that our overall parenting, our empathy, our listening, our hugs and kisses and shared laughter and tears, will have the greatest impact on our children’s future. Hope that helps, mama! 🙂

      November 9, 2012 at 12:00 am

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  18. Love your info on the brain regarding impulse control.


    August 7, 2013 at 9:08 pm

  19. Ines

    If this is what your articles are like, I really sincerely hope I win a book or two or all three. What an amazing article. In school we give toys a break or time out sometimes when children are having a hard time playing with it together. The children have started to do it themselves when they start arguing over toys. Its a great way to dissolve some unnecessary power struggles and tension!!!

    August 7, 2013 at 9:17 pm

  20. Faye

    This post came at the perfect time for my family! Thank you! 🙂

    August 7, 2013 at 10:13 pm

  21. Laura Merrigan (peters)

    would love to win one of your books!!!!!

    August 7, 2013 at 10:49 pm

  22. Pati Mattison

    Would love to win any of these books. Thank you so

    August 7, 2013 at 11:42 pm

  23. Amy

    Pick me! Pick me!

    August 8, 2013 at 12:05 am

  24. Carmen Poveda

    Anything wouldn’t be better than winning this prize.

    August 8, 2013 at 7:21 am

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  27. michelle

    I have a 16 month old who hits and bites occasionally. I think this behavior is normal and not out of anger, but is happening because he is a learning and curious boy. Whenever he hits or bites, I tell him that we do not hit or bite, but we use gentle hands or kisses. I then stroke his cheek or kiss him. However, this usually does not work. He usually keeps hitting. If he does, then I try to redirect him. Am I on the right track? We use gentle parenting, by the way.

    September 9, 2013 at 2:46 am

    • You’re most definitely on the right track, mama. Parenting tiny people is a bit like washing your hair…lather, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat…lol. Consistency is the key. Keep modeling the desired behavior and gently setting boundaries by repeating what they are and redirecting his behavior to more appropriate outlets. You’re doing a great job, mama! 🙂

      September 9, 2013 at 6:31 pm

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  31. I love step number 10. I think it can be very powerful to talk to your child honestly about your struggles. My own children have really responded to understanding that Dad doesn’t always have all the answers and that I am willing to apologize when I’ve made a mistake. Thanks so much for your words of wisdom.

    November 26, 2013 at 2:02 pm

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