Why Toddlers Get Physical
A toddler's first hit, slap, or kick probably begins as an innocent exploration of a playmate—either a greeting gone awry or just plain curiosity about the reaction it will produce. Then, based on the subsequent reaction, toddlers might learn to use aggressive behavior to achieve desired outcomes, such as getting another child to drop a toy or move out of the way. Even when these behaviors become more intentional, young children genuinely don't have a good sense of others' feelings. (That whole egocentrism concept is still unfolding.)
Toddlers are great imitators, and bouts of head-slapping among kids at daycare can be as contagious as a cold. "They pick up things like hitting, punching, and karate-chopping from each other," says pediatrician Dr. Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, author of Mommy Calls. "They might see an older sibling doing that and think, 'This is fun!'"
Another big reason for aggressive behavior (and bad behavior in general)? Limit-testing and attention seeking! Toddlers are learning what's acceptable and what's not, and they're looking to you set those guidelines. That's one reason why you might see hitting or slapping at home, yet when you ask your child's day care provider, you only hear that she's an angel. "That's actually a great sign if children only save bad behavior for you," says Altmann, because they're doing these things to elicit a boundary from you.
What to Do
"Hitting and punching are definitely no-no's and need immediate discipline and removal from the situation," says Altmann, "because that could hurt another person." Say in a serious voice, "No. No hitting," and remove her from the situation. "If you do that a couple times, they'll learn, 'I'm not going to get to play anymore if I do this,'" says Altmann. Try reminding your child before a play date that if she hits or slaps, you'll take her home (and be prepared to follow through). Tell her that she can say, "My turn," or, "I'm using this," if sharing is the issue, and that she can ask you for help if she gets frustrated. If she makes it through a play date—or even 20 minutes—without a problem, lay on the praise.
Calmly but firmly telling toddlers what's not okay, and then showing them what is, is simple but effective. "Kids at this age, they really do want to please their parents, and [they] look at you as role models," says Altmann. So give your child the words and actions you want him to use. For example, show him how to sort of pet a friend's arm, saying "Nice, nice" or "Gentle." If you notice her getting pushy with another child, reiterate, "Oh, that's a little too rough. Remember to be gentle. This is how we touch our friends." Also, if you notice your toddler politely handing a toy to a friend or appropriately hugging a him hello, be sure to acknowledge it: "Good sharing!" "That was a great way to show him you were glad to see him—you were being very gentle." Positive reinforcement is so much more powerful than punishment.
Keep in Mind
The key to disciplining a grabby, slappy toddler is consistency. Talk to everyone that cares for your child, and agree to respond the same way any time she hits or kicks. Altmann says that having regular reinforcement of what is and isn't appropriate can usually extinguish physical, inappropriate behaviors within a week. "[These behaviors] will come out again when they're in different situations, so go right back to your consistent approach," says Altmann.
Remember that your toddler notices everything you do, and watch out for the ways you model aggressive behavior. A playful swat at your husband shows that sometimes hitting is funny. A spanking or a slap on the hand as punishment tells your toddler that those are the ways to handle people that aren't acting in the way you'd like.
Make sure that children have outlets for these physical behaviors that are okay, like kicking balls around outside or smacking sand down into a bucket. And don't feel bad about asking for advice, especially about behaviors that could potentially be harmful to another child. "It's always a good idea to reach out and ask pediatrician for some tips. Parents get nervous about asking for help, but it's really not that big of a deal and a quick phone conversation can really give you some great ideas," says Altmann.