How to Stop Your Child From Hitting: A Sensory Approach

Written By

Shannon Wassenaar
November 3, 2023

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

There are many reasons a child hits. It could be sensory-related because of the need to escape a situation, they want an item, or they went through a recent change. 

If your child is hitting for sensory reasons, this blog will help you respond in a way that helps them learn to stop hitting! 

I’ll never forget the first time my toddler planted the palm of his chubby hands right SMACK onto my cheek. The impact of the hit was enough to make my eyes water. 

Why did my toddler just hit me? 
Did that actually just happen? 
What am I doing wrong? 

I remember feeling like a failure as a parent. 

To make matters work, I started getting judgemental comments from other parents and concerned questions from his childcare provider. 

Looking back on this moment, I wish I had been able to recognize one of the main reasons my little one started hitting. I wish I knew what I know now. He wasn’t a bad kid, and I wasn’t failing as a parent. He was hitting because he needed to communicate a need with me.

The need he needed to communicate with me was that he was overwhelmed in chaotic moments. His little body couldn’t handle how loud things were at a playdate or how many different things were happening all at once. When the feeling of “too muchness” entered his body, he hit.  

This blog is intended to prepare you for moments like this – when your child is hitting, and you need answers, strategies and support. 

The Nervous System’s Role 

Smell, noise, movement, taste, textures – these are all sensory inputs. Every person experiences their senses differently based on their unique nervous system. 

A child’s nervous system needs a certain amount of smell, noise, movement, taste, and texture; those sensory inputs help regulate their mood and their body. Some kids require lots of movement, noise, and visual stimuli, while other kids require less and are soothed in quiet, slow environments, for example. 

Your child’s unique way of processing their environment impacts their behaviour. Hitting can be a child’s way of communicating their need for more or less sensory input.

Get Curious About Your Child’s Sensory Needs

To help you understand your child’s sensory needs and behaviour more deeply, start by getting curious.

Sensory-seeking Needs

If a child is seeking sensory input from their hands, they might start to hit. If you’re wondering if this is the source of your child’s behaviour, get curious about what happens before the hitting occurs. 

  • Was my child indoors for most of the time before they hit?
  • Was my child sitting for most of the time before they hit?
  • Is my child typically active, restless, and energetic?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child is likely seeking sensory input and hitting is serving to meet this need. 

For example, Brody is a very active child – he struggles to sit still and gets restless or bored more quickly than his twin brother. Brody’s body craves lots of movement and sensory input to achieve a state of internal balance. After spending a long day inside or sitting in the car for long periods, he’ll start to whine. Whining behaviours are typically the first sign that he’s overstimulated. If his parents can’t get his sensory needs met, like giving him an opportunity to run around outside, he starts to hit his brother. 

Related Post: How to Tackle the Whining Phase

Sensory-avoiding Needs

Hitting can also occur as a reaction to way too much sensory input! Imagine a child in a room with bright lights, lots of sounds, and being touched a lot. When everything feels like too much, they may hit to release this feeling from their body. To help you determine if this is the source of your child’s behaviour, get curious by asking yourself these questions:

  • Is my child typically sensitive to specific sounds, smells, textures, lights, or tastes? 
  • Has my child had enough rest today (a break from demands)?
  • Was my child in a noisy or brightly lit environment before they hit?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child’s behaviour could be influenced by sensory overload. 

Jackson, for example, has a more sensitive nervous system than his brother. He gets easily overstimulated. When he hits his brother, it’s often his way of saying, “I need a break!” He knows that hitting gets him sent to his room. So, hitting serves the purpose of helping Jackson get his sensory needs met.

How to Stop Your Child From Hitting

Regardless of whether the behaviour served to increase or decrease sensory input, in most cases, the response to the behaviour remains the same. After getting curious and figuring out the root reason your child is hitting is because they’re trying to meet a sensory need, you can try the following three strategies. 

Get Your Parenting Guide to Hitting, Tantrums, Power Struggles, Rudeness & More!

A happy family of four enjoying time together at an amusement park. The photo captures a close-up of a smiling woman on the left and a beaming man on the right, both facing each other. They are looking lovingly at their two young sons, who are nestled between them. The older boy is grinning broadly and the younger one has a cheeky smile. The background is softly focused, with lights from carnival rides subtly illuminating the scene.

1. Connect With the Feeling, Not the Behaviour

Connect with the feeling by sharing what you notice about your child’s feelings and the situation they were in when they hit.

This might sound like: “You’re having a hard time using gentle hands because you were sitting in school all day, and now your body has lots of hitting energy.”

Focusing on the emotion and connecting with your child’s feelings through narration is a helpful approach for many reasons:  

  • Simply naming what’s happening can often reduce some of your child’s distress.
  • Gives the hitting less power.
  • Helps build your child’s emotional awareness. 
  • Repeated exposure to your narration will expand your child’s vocabulary and help build their emotional awareness.
  • Connecting with the feeling communicates to your child that you truly see them and understand their experience. 

In the long term, this approach can help your child name their emotions before they resort to hitting. 

And, when children feel seen and heard by their caregivers, it often reduces the need for connection-seeking behaviour, like hitting.

2. Set a Boundary 

Setting boundaries around behaviour is one of the most loving ways to protect your child, and it prepares them to interact with their world in effective ways. 

Our own childhood experiences often shape the way we perceive boundaries. It can be challenging to view boundaries as loving or to implement boundaries in your home if your caregivers held harsh standards for you.

It can also feel tricky to view boundaries as loving if you never had boundaries as a child. Instead of setting boundaries, your parents might have ignored your behaviour or said, “Suck it up.” You might not feel like you have the tools to set a boundary because it was never modelled to you.

The key is to state a boundary in a loving way AND hold the boundary firm. Boundaries need to be high in warmth. A firm and loving boundary can sound like: 

  • “It’s okay to be upset, but I can’t let you hit me.”
  • “You can cry, but hands are not for hitting.”
  • “I can’t let you hit your sister. I’m going to hold your hands to keep our bodies safe.”

Boundaries are loving because they’re protecting your child from doing something they don’t actually want to do. Your child doesn’t want to hurt their sibling – they have a sensory need and an impulse within their body that needs to be released. Your boundaries say: “I love you so much, I won’t let you hit your sister. I know you love your sister, AND you’re having a hard time controlling your body.” 

Boundaries are loving because they prepare your child to interact with the world in healthy and effective ways. Hitting won’t help them in the “real world,” so setting boundaries around their behaviour is a loving way to set them up for success in the future. Your boundaries say: “I will prepare you to interact with the world in more helpful ways because I love you so much.”

Whether your child is hitting to get sensory input or hitting in response to sensory overload, setting a boundary around this behaviour is one of the most important ways to respond.

Related Post: 3 Expert Tips to Confidently Set Boundaries

3. Redirect

When a child struggles with hitting behaviours, it’s important to address the sensory need beneath the behaviour. Sometimes, offering kids an alternative behaviour can help them get their sensory needs met in more effective and helpful ways: 

For example, if your child is overstimulated, you can lower the sensory input in the environment. This can be as simple as: 

  • Moving to a quiet corner of the room. 
  • Turning off/down background noise. 
  • Dimming the lights. 

For kids who are hitting, they may need more sensory input in their hands. It can help to redirect them to an object, activity, or location where they can get the input they are seeking. This might look like:

  • Offering a drum or tambourine to play with.
  • Clapping repeatedly to the beat of their favourite song. 
  • Bouncing a basketball outside. 

Redirecting your child might sound like: 

“I can’t let you hit your sister, but you can use the energy in your hands to give yourself a big squeezy hug!”

“I wonder if your body is saying it needs a break. You can spend some quiet time in your room, or we can make a blanket fort for you to read in.”

Pay attention to clues that your child is ready to be redirected. For example, whining behaviours often occur before hitting. When you notice the whining, this is a good time to shift the sensory input or redirect your child to another environment.  

Punishments, Threats, Bribes, and Ignoring Aren’t Effective

You may have noticed we didn’t suggest ignoring your child, punishing them with timeouts or spankings, threatening them, or bribing them. 

Using these strategies when your child hits are short-term solutions. The hitting might stop in the moment, but the root of the problem – such as one of the five main needs of a child not being met – wasn’t addressed. If the root of the problem isn’t addressed, you’ll likely see more hitting, or your child just learns to shift their response to a different challenging behaviour such as lying, screaming, biting, or kicking. 

Other Reasons Your Child Is Hitting 

Keep in mind that sensory is just one piece of the puzzle, and there are four other common reasons your child may be hitting. 

Most behaviours are communicating one or more of the following needs: 

  • Sensory 
  • Escaping 
  • Attention/Connection
  • accessing a Tangible Item or Activity 
  • Stability

Check out our blog post, “The Ultimate Guide to Aggressive, Lying, Whining, and Defiant Behaviours in Children,” for more details about each need.

More Support to End Challenging Behaviour

If punishments have been your response in the past, you are not alone. Feelings and experiences from your childhood can make it hard to respond to hitting lovingly and confidently. A lot of the parents I’ve worked with find themselves having big reactions, like yelling at their child or punishing them. While other parents feel overwhelmed by hitting, so they ignore the behaviour and hope their child will grow out of it.  

If you’re ready to change your response and begin parenting in the most loving, confident, and effective way, we’d love to help. 

Or, if you’ve tried validating feelings and setting boundaries and are still struggling with challenging behaviour, we have so much more to share with you that will help.

Our Parenting Little Kids course is everything you need to end hitting, prevent other challenging behaviours, discipline and set boundaries effectively, reparent yourself, and connect with your child. 

You deserve to enjoy this precious and all-too-short stage of life with your kids. 

Explore Parenting Little Kids

Get simple parenting tools sent straight to your inbox.

    Article By

    Shannon Wassenaar
    Shannon is a Registered Psychotherapist, Content Specialist, and Highly Sensitive Parent with a passion for understanding, and promoting human relationships. Shannon holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Psychotherapy. She began her professional career as a trauma therapist, and continues to support families from a trauma-informed perspective. Shannon uses her knowledge and experience to create educational content for parents, and treatment plans to help families flourish. In her spare time she enjoys taking long walks, playing recreational sports, and sipping a hot latte at a local cafe.