Understanding Hitting Behavior in Children

You watch your child hit someone on the playground. 

You’ve gotten the 3rd call this week from your child’s school that they hit a peer.   

You just filled out your 5th pink slip on aggressive behavior for your child’s pre-school.   

You’re exhausted.   You’re frustrated.  You’re feeling helpless.   WHY are they doing this?     Today we want to address hitting – to help you, the parent understand and address a common yet challenging behavior among young children – hitting. 

As parents, we strive to create a safe and loving environment for our little ones to grow, learn, and express themselves. Understanding the reasons behind hitting is the first step towards addressing this behavior effectively and fostering healthier ways for our children to navigate their emotions and relationships. Today, we will delve into the underlying reasons for hitting, uncover the emotional needs behind the hitting.  Hitting is a common form of physical aggression among young children and can be challenging for parents and caregivers to address. Here’s our guidance on the underlying reasons for hitting and strategies to support children in developing more appropriate behaviors:

Communication and Emotional Expression:   Young children often lack developed verbal skills to express their emotions effectively. Hitting may be a way for them to communicate frustration, anger, or discomfort.   What can be helpful in these scenarios is encouraging the use of age-appropriate words to express emotions and needs, and teach them alternative ways to communicate such as using gestures or simple signs. Furthermore, modeling appropriate emotional expression and help children label and understand their feelings, fostering emotional literacy.

Imitation and Mimicking:  Children are natural imitators and learn by observing others. If they witness hitting behavior from caregivers, siblings, or peers, they may imitate it without understanding the consequences. We suggest modeling gentle and non-aggressive behavior in interactions with others, demonstrating positive ways of resolving conflicts and expressing emotions. What also helps is storytelling or role-playing to demonstrate the impact of hitting on others and emphasize the importance of gentle and kind actions.

Frustration and Overwhelm: Hitting can be a result of feeling overwhelmed, experiencing sensory overload, or struggling with transitions in their daily routines. We recommend creating a structured and predictable environment to reduce frustration and support children in managing transitions more smoothly.  Introduce calming strategies such as deep breathing, counting, or using sensory tools to help them regulate emotions when feeling overwhelmed.

Desire for Attention: Some children may hit to gain attention from caregivers or peers, even if it’s negative attention.  We recommend ensuring that the child receives ample positive attention and praise for appropriate behaviors, reinforcing positive interactions.  Teach the child alternative ways to seek attention and engagement, such as asking for help or showing enthusiasm in positive ways.

Lack of Social Skills: Hitting can arise when a child has not yet developed appropriate social skills to navigate conflicts or share with others. What can be helpful is teaching and role-playing essential social skills, including turn-taking, sharing, and using words to express needs or desires.  Encourage structured play with peers to provide opportunities for social interaction and cooperative play, supervised by adults who can intervene and guide if conflicts arise.

By addressing hitting behaviors with sensitivity and understanding, we can effectively support children in developing healthier ways of expressing themselves and relating to others.  Navigating hitting behaviors in our little ones can be a challenging aspect of parenting, but armed with understanding and compassion, we can support them as we play a crucial role in guiding our children toward healthier ways of expressing themselves and managing their emotions. Remember that each child is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. 

Check out our handouts section of Parent Hub for a handout on 20 ways to decrease hitting or aggression at daycare.