Hitting: It Depends

toddler with red adidas sweat shirt

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“So, when my child hits, I should block and say “I won’t let you hit?”

Sometimes. It depends.

“What if I can’t be there or I don’t get there in time? Should I tell them firmly that it wasn’t okay to hit?”

Sometimes. It depends.  (just an aside…do you think they don’t know that it wasn’t okay?)

“But my child is hitting all day long–should I be concerned that there is something else going on that is bigger than me just setting limits?”

Sometimes. It depends.

“I read that I should not leave my child with their big emotions when they are upset, which is what I would be doing if I walked away when she hits me. Is that okay, to walk away?”

Sometimes. It depends.

“If things get really out of control, I have sometimes taken my child to spend some time in their room to “cool off” and “take a break.”  But then that sounds like “time out,” which I know we’re not supposed to do.   Is it okay to put them in their room?”

Sometimes, it depends.

“It seems like he thinks the hitting is a game, it doesn’t seem like he is doing it because he’s upset.  In that case, should I be ignoring the hitting and not really saying anything at all?”

Sometimes.  It depends.

“I’ve tried to offer her a pillow or something else that she can hit, but she doesn’t want to, she only wants to hit me, and it seems to just make her angrier.  And I read that kids taking out their emotions on an inanimate object makes them more aggressive in the long run, rather than less.  So should I be redirecting her to something she can hit?”

Sometimes.  It depends.

“Is it okay to put my child in their own safe playspace and for me to step away if they aren’t able to stop hurting me?”

Sometimes.  It depends.

“I’ve heard you say “we don’t hit” is not okay, because the use of the word “we” when speaking to children is inauthentic and inaccurate, since they are a part of “we,” and they do hit.  Does it really make that much of a difference?  I mean, in our house, it’s true that none of us hit one another, that’s a family value, so “we” seems accurate here.  Is it really worth getting that nitpicky to train myself not to say that?

Sometimes.  It depends.

“Sometimes, when my child goes to hit, my husband holds their arms to stop them. I feel like he’s violating their body autonomy, and the other day, my child yelled “You’re hurting me!” when he did it. A friend of mine told me that it’s still okay because sometimes you have to hold firm boundaries physically especially with young children.  This just seems to go against everything about respectful parenting.  So, is it ever okay to hold a child’s arms, even if they’re yelling “You’re hurting me!”

Sometimes.  It depends.

“My kids, who are 4 and 5, hit each other about once a day when they’re playing and they get frustrated.   Most of the time, it’s the five-year-old hitting the four-year-old.  We want to have a violence-free household and letting children hit one another is just not okay with me, and yet no matter what I try, it seems to happen anyway.  I read on your page that sometimes, it’s okay to let that go and not really do much about it.  That’s hard to swallow, but can that really be sending the right messages about harming others?  Is it true that that could really be okay and it won’t make my kids think aggression is okay?

Sometimes.  It depends.

“Someone in one of my online groups said that we should read the book “Hands are not for Hitting” with our toddler.  They said it made a big difference.  Is that something you would suggest doing?  Does a book usually change kids’ behavior?”

Sometimes.  It depends.

“I’m a person who really really needs clear directions and to know what to do and not do.  I struggle a lot with knowing what to do and when to do it, and I just want to know what I should be doing.  I keep asking, and you keep saying “it depends.”   Is that just your answer to every question, because it just doesn’t seem helpful?”

Yes.   Always.

I’m not in this business to tell you what to do or for you to ask me what is right and wrong.  I am in this business to support parents as they seek to develop their own confidence, trust in themselves, knowledge of child development, and, most of all, their own critical thinking skills, so that they can weigh all variables and make the decisions that are right for them and their families, with confidence and assurance that they are doing “the right thing.”  In parenting–indeed, in any relationship– there is no “never” or “always.”

But surely there are better and worse ways to deal with children hitting?  Yes.  There are.  We discuss all of them on a regular basis every day in my groups and I have written about them in my blogposts on limit setting.  And the decision about when and how and where to make use of every single one of those ways is dependent on a long list of variables, including but obviously not limited to the age and developmental stage of the child, the frequency and intensity of the hitting, the history of how it has been responded to in the past, what happens before the hitting, the stress factors in the child’s and parents’ lives, how emotionally regulated the parents are on an ongoing basis, what has already been tried, the tone of voice and expression that is used when setting a limit, the confidence of the person who is setting the limit, the degree to which the children are set up for success (or the converse), who is being hit, what the child’s affect (how they seem to feel) is when they are hitting, whether the child has similar challenges in other settings or with other people, and so many more.  They all matter, and they all deserve your attention.

Not to toot my own horn too much, but this is the very core of why individual consults or coaching with a respectful parenting coach or child development specialist can be so valuable, and why it cannot be replaced by participation in an online group.    What happens in a consult is that we take apart all of those things, we answer all of those questions, we look at what’s going on for the child and the parent from every angle. And when we do that, we are able to find solutions that match that child, that situation, and that family.  Groups are so very helpful, and yet they are never and can never be compared to individual attention that focuses on just you.

“But aren’t there any consistent recommendations or guidelines to at least start me off?”


  • Hitting a child is always wrong.  Hitting them “so they know what it feels like” is just as wrong.
  • Asking a child under 6 or 7 “why did you do that?” or “how would you feel if someone did that to you” is largely unreliable, developmentally inappropriate, and not recommended.
  • Punishment (intended to make a child feel bad about what they did or fear you, with the idea that that will make them stop the problematic behavior)–including punitive isolation (i.e. “time out”, “the naughty chair/step/area.”) is wrong-headed, ineffective, and incompatible with respectful parenting.
  • Yelling doesn’t help.  Sometimes we can’t help it, because our own emotional regulation is not what it should be.  But it doesn’t help.
  • Your first task–in any situation or any family or in any example–is to remember that all behavior is communication and an attempt to get a need met.  No exceptions.  There is no such thing as “for no reason” or “out of nowhere.”  There is always a reason, always a need being expressed.
  • Your second task–in any situation or any family or in any example–is to observe, dedicating your time and your best critical/analytical thinking skills to learn what the underlying communication or need is, as addressing the need is always the way to address the behavior.  Behavior is just the way needs show up.  We have to go “upstream” and figure out what’s driving that.  Again, there is no shame in getting help in figuring out what’s really going on, that’s what consults are for.  When the need is met, the behavior will go away.
  • There is no situation in which it does not benefit you to work on your own emotional regulation, including projections or triggers.  We are our children’s models for emotional regulation–they learn from us.
  • It always benefits you to understand child development, across all domains (motor, cognitive, emotional, social, brain development).  Putting behavior in developmental context can really help normalize things or help you understand why kids do what they do, which can help you with how you perceive it.  The best resource for this knowledge (even though they are very dated in their examples!) is the Louise Bates Ames books, called (conveniently) “Your Two Year Old”, “Your Three Year Old”, etc.

That’s a start, anyway.    Remember there’s always a reason.  Get curious.   Observe.   Go upstream.    Compassion.   Think.   Experiment.  Weigh options.  Trust yourself.  Ask for help.  Confidence.   Try something new.   When it’s not working, try something else.  Remember development.

You can do this.

To learn more about or engage more deeply with “it depends”, watch my video blog on the topic here.

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