Aggression in toddlers: 5 common reasons for hitting + biting

They are full of energy—that energy can overcome them and they start acting kind of crazy.

toddler hitting others

My first child is a gentle, peace loving little boy who wouldn't hurt a fly. For the first years of his life, I was sure that I could take all the credit for his calm and kind nature. It was clearly a parenting success story—because aren't children a product of their environment?

That's what I thought until my second child bit a baby in the head. That's right, sometimes my almost 2-year old daughter hurts her friends. As a parent, do I take credit for that too? When it comes to hitting and hurting, there's usually an interplay of nature and nurture. Yes, the environment and parenting approaches do impact this behavior. But so do genetic, developmental and biological tendencies.


Regardless of the cause, parents can get very wound up and upset when they see this type of behavior. However, many times hitting and hurting fall within the range of normal development. When they are treated with respect and gentle discipline they can be managed in a positive manner.

When it comes to hitting and hurting, it's important to understand there are five primary reasons that young children hurt others.

1. Sensory

Many children have sensory sensitivities. That means the way they touch, feel and explore the world is different from the way you experience it. As a result, they may be more likely to squeeze, pinch, push and kick other children. You might see these types of behaviors as they grow and develop. When we start to identify sensory tendencies, we can help our children find more socially-appropriate ways to get sensory needs met.

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Children have either sensory sensitivities or require more-than-typical sensory input. Kids who have an extra sensitive sensory system might be on high-alert. That means if they are crowded by other children or touched in a way that makes them uncomfortable--they might hit or hurt as a reaction. Parents can assist by respecting their child's need for space and removing them from over stimulating situations.

On the other hand, some children need more sensory input. These children may hit or hurt as a way to explore the sensations of touch. Examples of this would be children who tackle, wrestle, pinch, squeeze, and hurt in other ways that provides that extra stimulation that they seek. For these children, it can be beneficial to give them extra sensory stimulation such a big hugs and deep-pressure massages. Seeking out an Occupational Therapy evaluation may be in order for children who display significant sensory sensitivities.

2. Behavioral

When we see a child hit, we have the tendency to react strongly—which is completely understandable as this type of behavior is completely unacceptable in our adult world. Therefore, it really strikes a nerve.

The result is that sometimes we freak out.

We tend to give a great deal of attention to episodes of hitting and hurting. Attention can be very attractive to children, whether it's positive or negative. Instead of responding to these incidents with great dramatics, a calm and centered response will be more effective.

3. Curiosity

My daughter tends to hurt the kids who have the biggest reactions. I once saw her gently push a little girl with one finger—and the other child erupted in a major meltdown. There's a great deal of curiosity that plays into this. What happens when I use my body in this way? What type of reaction can I elicit from this person? Or from a larger perspective: what is the impact of my actions on the world?

All of these questions are natural and developmentally appropriate for budding explorers. In these instances, removing a child from the situation and redirecting him/her to another activity of interest will often satisfy this curiosity.

4. Energy

In some ways, children are like puppies. They are full of energy—that energy can overcome them and they start acting kind of crazy.

This might surface in ways such as being destructive or hurting others. So if a child has been cooped up all day indoors, they may need to expend that energy with more regularity. That means getting outside, stretching and exercising as a way to expend that extra energy.

5. Communication

Before our children have adequate language and reasoning skills, they tend to use their bodies to communicate.

If you have a child with language delays, they may get particularly frustrated with the inability to communicate and as result, be more likely to hit. As communication develops and social skills are improved, these types of behaviors usually begin to subside.

So whether you have a hitter or a gentle angel, know that it's not entirely a parenting win/loss. As parents, we can support our children by providing a gentle, responsive approach to hitting and hurting.

At the end of the day, this behavior is never acceptable, but we should be aware that there are certain biological and developmental considerations that contribute.

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