The answer that most parents don’t want to hear but is nonetheless true is toddlers hit because it is developmentally appropriate for them to do so.
Toddlers and even most young preschoolers do not have the social-emotional capacity to properly handle strong emotions; even adults sometimes struggle with this.
When children feel joy or excitement, they often shriek or scream; hitting and even biting fall into the same basket; strong emotional reactions for intense feelings.
The best way to stop your child from hitting is to teach them about emotions and why hitting is not ok.
Time out and other punishments will not work because toddlers do not possess the knowledge or the ability to control intense emotions, so punishing them for something out of their control will not affect them.
Teaching why hitting is wrong will achieve much better results. To accomplish this, we need to teach them what appropriate reactions look and sound like.
When a child hits you or another child, pull them aside and say to them, "When you hit mommy, it hurts, and it makes me feel sad and upset. Hitting is not ok." If another child or sibling was hit and comfort the child and show your child how sad they made their friend feel.
Take the time to explore with them why they were mad. Children cannot learn to process emotions if they do not understand why they had them or what they are. You can say to them, "I understand you are mad because I said it is bedtime, but hitting is not ok. What could you do instead of hitting?"
If your child is too young to answer, offer them suggestions such as "When I am mad, I squeeze a pillow," or "Maybe you can stomp your foot 1x when you are mad."
While eventually, they will need to learn that stomping is not the best way for anger; it is a physical action that can help them process those strong emotions without hurting anyone.
Avoid actions such as kicking something or hitting something as those are violent actions. Stomping, squeezing, pulling, clenching, etc., provide sensory input without being associated with violence.
Sensory balls and pull toys are an excellent tool to help a child who is struggling with hitting.
Additionally, you can use dolls or puppets to act out scenarios where one person hits another and display alternatives to hitting. The puppet could say, "I am so mad I feel like I want to hit, but that will hurt my friend, maybe I will jump up and down a few times instead."
Have children role-play together (with fake hitting, of course). Teaching the appropriate actions in moments of calm will help them learn how to use those tools when upset.
Read books with your child. Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi is a fantastic resource as it talks about all the things you CAN do with your hands. Other excellent options are No Hitting! by Karen Katz and How Full is Your Bucket by Tom Rath & Mary Reckmeyer.
The last way to decrease hitting is preemptively. Children hit because they are mad or upset. Take notice of when your child hits and figure ways to prevent your child from being in that situation. If they hit when bedtime is announced, start using a timer and a 5-minute warning. If they hit when particular toys are involved in play, buy duplicates to prevent a conflict.
In the end, it is important to remember that hitting is part of a toddler’s behavior, but with these tools and time, you will be able to teach them appropriate ways to handle strong emotions and, in the end, eliminate hitting.