Does it feel like you have tried EVERYTHING to get your toddler to stop hitting, but nothing is working? As a psychotherapist who supports children and their families, I’m asked a question frequently: “How do I stop challenging behaviours like hitting and biting?” I hear from parents that they have tried everything from punishments to gentle parenting, but nothing ever works. The challenging behaviours keep happening. They ask me if they are doing something wrong or if their child is just a ‘bad kid’. 

Behaviours happen for many reasons, but never because a child is a bad child, even though it sometimes feels this way. Behaviour is communication. Showing challenging behaviour is our child’s way of letting us know something. Instead of punishing them for communicating their needs with us, we want to get to the root cause of the behaviour. Then we can help them learn new, more effective ways to communicate these needs.

Getting curious about the WHY behind the behaviour is one of the most life-changing skills a parent can have. 

Stopping Challenging Behaviours = Getting Curious!

Children typically have challenging behaviours for a reason. In my Parenting Little Kids course, I teach the four most common reasons children have challenging behaviours: 

  1. Sensory
  2. Escape
  3. Attention/Connection
  4. Tangible Item or Activity

Let’s look closer at each of them related to children hitting.

1. Sensory

Your child may be hitting because the behaviour provides a sensory experience that the child needs. For example, it may happen when your child is hungry, tired, overstimulated, needs to move their body, or other sensory reasons. 

What the hitting means: 

  • “I need to release a big feeling in my body.”
  • “This feels good.”
  • “This helps me relieve the pain I am feeling.” 


You get curious and realize that every time your child hits, it’s right before a nap, meal, or after spending a lot of time with other people or not moving their body. So this behaviour might be happening to communicate a sensory need. 

How can you help your child?

Remember the acronym S.E.T: 

  • Sleep: Has your child had enough sleep?
  • Eat: Have they had enough to eat?
  • Time: What has their time looked like today? Have they had a hectic schedule? Time with a lot of people? Do they possibly need a break?

2. Escape

Your child may be hitting because they are trying to remove themselves from a situation they are not enjoying. 

What the hitting means:

  • “I need a break.”
  • “This is really tough.”
  • “I’m overstimulated.”
  • “I’m bored of this.”


You get curious and realize that when your child hits, you send them to timeout. Unfortunately, the timeouts aren’t helping, and the behaviour worsens. You realize that instead of teaching them not to hit, the timeouts teach your child that they will get a break when they hit. 

How can you help?

  • Build-in breaks: Help them proactively escape the situation before the behaviour happens! For example, take them into the bathroom for a few minutes of quiet during a busy gathering. You could separate them from their sibling by having them come colour with you in another room. 
  • Teach a secret signal: Create a secret signal or wave that your child can use when they are in a large group and need a break. 
  • Practice asking for help: Teach them how to ask for help if something feels tough. Recognize they need help. Support and meet them where they are. 

“I see you are getting frustrated. Do you need some help?”

3. Attention or Connection

Your child may hit because they are trying to connect with you and get your attention. Even if the behaviour ends up making you yell or get angry, they are still getting the need for attention met! 

What the hitting really means:

  • “I need to connect with you.”
  • “I’m trying to tell you something important.”
  • “I want your attention.”


You get curious and realize that every time your child is hitting, they are accessing a lot of extra connection time with you. So it helps them have one-on-one time with you, even if that time is them getting in trouble. 

How can you help?

  • Proactively build in connection time: If they are nicely playing, go in and give them a quick wink or notice out loud what you see them doing: “I see you playing nicely.”
  • Set boundaries when you can’t give attention: “I can’t talk right now. I’m on the phone with Cara. I’ll talk when I’m done.”
  • Narrate when your child is trying to seek attention from you: “I hear you trying to get my attention.”

*Try to give limited power/attention to attention-seeking behaviour after setting boundaries. Instead of focusing on these behaviours, connect with the feelings behind the behaviour. This may sound like: “I can’t let you bite me. I see you are frustrated; what’s up?”

4. Access to a Tangible Item/Activity

Your child may hit because they want an item/activity, and they don’t know how to communicate this yet. 

What the hitting really means: 

  • “I want to have that item.”
  • “I want to do that fun activity.”
  • “I want something.”


You get curious and realize that your child hits when they want a toy or object. The hitting may be showing you they need to learn new ways to communicate or wait for access to a toy. 

How can you help?

  • Set expectations: “I won’t be getting you chocolate at the store today. I hear that is tough for you. You really want one.”
  • Narrate: Narrating feelings can help draw a connection. For example, “ah, you really want Tommy’s toy! It’s hard for you to let him have it!”
  • Practice: Model calmly asking for something in your day-to-day life to help them make new connections to ask for what they want. The more they see you asking and sharing, the easier it will become for them!

Getting curious is the key to helping our kids learn new ways to meet their needs!

As you can see from the examples above, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to working through behaviours. I can’t tell you exactly what to do to get your toddler to stop hitting. However, I can tell you the key to understanding why your child is hitting is getting curious.