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Why does my toddler hit and scratch me?

Hitting and scratching are common behaviors in toddlers between 1-3 years old. It can be upsetting when a toddler lashes out physically, especially against a parent or caregiver. However, there are understandable reasons why toddlers engage in these behaviors. By understanding the causes, parents can learn positive and effective ways to address hitting and scratching.

Is hitting and scratching normal for toddlers?

Yes, hitting and scratching are developmentally normal behaviors in toddlers. Toddlers have limited impulse control and communication skills, which can lead to frustration and physical outbursts. While concerning, it does not mean something is inherently wrong with the child. Hitting and scratching peak between 18-24 months when toddlers are rapidly developing but still lack emotional control. Most toddlers grow out of these behaviors by age 3-4.

What causes toddlers to hit and scratch?

There are several underlying reasons why toddlers hit and scratch:

  • Lack of impulse control – Toddlers act on impulse without thinking first.
  • Inability to communicate needs – Hitting occurs from frustration over not being able to verbalize needs.
  • Seeking attention – Hitting may happen if a toddler feels ignored.
  • Expressing difficult emotions – Anger, sadness, frustration can lead to hitting.
  • Mimicking others – Toddlers learn by imitating, even negative behaviors.
  • Seeking control – Hitting helps toddlers assert independence and control.
  • Sensory processing – Hitting provides sensory input for some toddlers.

While hitting starts as accidental, toddlers soon learn it provokes a strong response in others, which can reinforce the behavior. It is a normal phase, not a sign of an underlying problem.

When is hitting and scratching a concern?

Most toddlers will engage in some hitting or scratching while learning emotional regulation. It becomes concerning if it:

– Happens frequently and severely
– Is directed at other children or animals
– Happens alongside other behavior issues
– Causes injuries

Recurring hitting or scratching resulting in bruises, cuts, or other harms merits an evaluation by a child’s pediatrician or counselor.

Why Do Toddlers Hit or Scratch Their Parents?

Parents are often the most common target of toddler hits and scratches. There are unique reasons this occurs:

Seeking attention

Toddlers learn quickly that hitting provokes a strong response from parents. The attention, albeit negative, may reinforce hitting. Some toddlers hit when feeling ignored or wanting attention.

Close proximity

As primary caregivers, parents spend the most time near toddlers. More contact provides more opportunity for hitting or scratching to occur.

Comfort level

Toddlers feel safest expressing emotions around their parents. Hitting represents a developmental stage where big feelings overwhelm toddlers. They know parents will still love them afterwards.

Establishing autonomy

Separating and becoming independent is a key developmental task of toddlerhood. Hitting allows toddlers to assert themselves and establish boundaries with parents.

Inability to communicate

Toddlers lack the language skills to express their needs and desires. Hitting communicates their frustration over not being understood.

Testing limits

Toddlers are just learning what behaviors are acceptable and what earns a reaction from parents. Hitting tests boundaries and responses.

Hitting parents represents normal developmental behavior, not intent to harm. With empathy and teaching, toddlers can learn not to hit or scratch.

How to Stop Toddlers from Hitting and Scratching

It can be challenging to curtail hitting and scratching. Punishment is ineffective with toddlers. The following strategies can help minimize and eventually eliminate these behaviors:

Remain calm

Toddlers provoke reactions through hitting. By staying calm, parents send the message that hitting won’t get attention. Stay neutral and avoid overreacting.

Set clear limits

Simple limits should be set and enforced every time hitting occurs. For example, state firmly “No hitting” and have the toddler sit apart briefly. Consistency sends the message that hitting is unacceptable.

Redirect behaviors

Distraction is effective with toddlers. Quickly redirect them into another activity when agitation arises. Offer alternatives that engage their hands and mind.

Age Alternatives to Hitting and Scratching
12-18 months Bubble wrap, soft blocks, playdough, board books
18-24 months Pounding toys, songs with motions, dumping bins of objects
24-36 months Arts and crafts, playing with water, singing, dancing

Acknowledge feelings

Recognize what is provoking the toddler’s behavior. Empathize with their feelings and frustrations. Giving words and validation to their emotions can diffuse hitting urges.

Use gentle touch

Lightly touching or massaging toddlers can calm and soothe them when upset. A loving touch offers connection and reassurance.

Model gentle hands

Demonstrate soft, kind touches on the toddler. Show them how to be gentle with others through touch. Guide their hands in appropriate ways to pet animals or hug gently.

Praise positive behaviors

When toddlers accomplish tasks without hitting, take notice and offer praise. Positive reinforcement encourages good behaviors to continue.

Avoid spanking or hitting

Parents hitting toddlers sets the example that hitting is okay. It also fails to teach emotional regulation. Avoid punitive discipline that mimics hitting.

With empathy, consistency and redirection, toddler hitting can be curtailed over time as they gain language and emotional skills. It also shows that while hitting may occur, your love for them remains constant.

When to Seek Help for Hitting and Scratching

Recurring hitting or scratching that causes harm or occurs alongside other behavioral issues warrants outside support. Seek help from the child’s pediatrician or a child counselor if:

– Hitting or scratching is escalating in frequency and intensity
– Bruises, cuts or injuries result from the behaviors
– It is directed at other children or animals
– Happens across multiple environments and caregivers
– Lasts without improvement past age 3

Continued hitting can signify issues like:

  • Speech or language delays
  • Learning and developmental disorders
  • Trauma or adverse experiences
  • Poor modeling by others
  • Lack of attachment

Early intervention can identify if developmental issues underlie chronic hitting and scratching behaviors. Targeted treatment and support helps minimize continued harm to others.

Professional Resources

Seeking help from qualified professionals can provide interventions to curb hitting and guide parents in positive responses.


A pediatrician can evaluate if hitting stems from atypical development or physical issues. They can refer families to early intervention services.

Child counselor

Counselors help identify emotional reasons behind hitting. They teach coping skills to toddlers and discipline techniques to parents.

Occupational therapist

Occupational therapy helps with sensory processing issues that may prompt hitting for input. Therapists offer alternative activities.

Speech therapist

Speech therapy builds communication ability to express needs without hitting. Therapists improve language comprehension.


Psychologists can diagnose and treat emotional, behavioral, developmental or psychological disorders contributing to chronic hitting.

Seeking professional support offers toddlers help overcoming behavioral challenges. It also gives parents guidance in effective, nurturing responses.

The Difference Between Typical Toddler Hitting vs. Concerning Behaviors

Distinguishing between common hitting and that which necessitates intervention can be tricky. Here are developmental norms versus concerning signs:

Typical Toddler Hitting

  • Happens occasionally when frustrated. Not a daily occurrence.
  • Does not result in injury or harm to others.
  • More impulsive than intentional. Not meant to truly hurt others.
  • Most often directed at familiar caregivers.
  • Resolves by age 3 with maturation and guidance.
  • Is not tool-based or premeditated.

Concerning Hitting Signs

  • Occurs frequently and daily.
  • Results in bruising, cuts, scrapes or lasting pain.
  • Seems purposeful and intended to injure others.
  • Directed toward peers, animals or strangers.
  • Continues without improvement by ages 3-4.
  • Involves use of objects or advance planning.

Seeking professional help is warranted if hitting seems premeditated, causes injury, or does not improve with consistent discipline by ages 3-4.

Positive Parenting Responses to Hitting and Scratching

It can be challenging not to react punitively when a toddler hits or scratches. However, there are positive, patient ways to respond:

Stay calm

Take deep breaths and remain neutral rather than angry. Overreacting can escalate the situation.

Acknowledge feelings

Say “I see you are feeling very upset right now. I’m here to help.” Validate their emotions.

Set limits

In a firm tone, state “Hitting hurts. I won’t let you hit.” Follow with giving them space to calm down.


Shift their attention to another activity or toy that engages their hands and minds positively.

Model gentle touch

Show them how to touch gently. Say “Gentle, like this” and take their hands to stroke your arm lightly.

Offer alternatives

Give them acceptable ways to express frustration like using words, hitting a pillow, or squeezing a stress ball.

Provide comfort

If they are upset, soothe them with hugs and validation. Meet their underlying need for connection.

Responding with empathy, consistency and guidance demonstrates acceptable ways to handle emotions that don’t involve hitting or scratching others.

When Does Hitting and Scratching Behavior Peak in Toddlers?

Hitting and scratching behaviors tend to follow a predictable pattern during toddlerhood:

Age Hitting and Scratching Behaviors
12-18 months First instances of hitting appear.
18-24 months Hitting peaks as toddlers encounter more frustration.
24-36 months Hitting continues but decreases in frequency.
3+ years Most toddlers outgrow hitting behaviors as language and emotional control develops.

Hitting and scratching arise between ages 1-2 but become most prevalent from 18-24 months. Hitting gradually declines and disappears in most toddlers by ages 3-4 as self-regulation improves.


Hitting and scratching are common but understandably concerning toddler behaviors. They arise from normal development challenges like limited communication skills and difficulty controlling impulses and emotions. Setting boundaries while also offering support helps guide toddlers to more positive ways of expressing feelings. Hitting does not mean a child is inherently prone to aggression or poor behavior. With maturation and thoughtful parental responses, toddlers come to regulate these behaviors and channel them in constructive ways. Consistency, limit setting, emotion modeling, redirection and professional help when warranted will see both toddlers and parents through this passing developmental phase.