19 - 21 Months

Kicking, biting, and hitting: understanding and responding to your toddler’s tantrums

A baby and an upset young child wearing matching red shirts
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We don’t have to tell you: toddlerhood has its challenges. Kicking, biting, and hitting are all common at this age, and knowing what to do can be really hard, especially if you’re in public or at someone else’s home.

Here’s what’s important to remember: behaviors like these are very common at this stage of development, and they peak between 18 and 24 months. Your child kicking, biting, or hitting does not say anything about them being “good” or “bad.” Nor, for that matter, does it say anything about your parenting. 

Still, understanding the reasons why your child might be behaving like this—and having a few tricks up your sleeve—can really help.

Why do toddlers kick, bite and hit?

Your toddler doesn’t want to hurt you. When they kick, bite, or hit, they are experimenting—almost every toddler does this at some point. Here’s why:


Your toddler is just beginning to realize that they are their own person, which is the beginning of developing empathy. Still, your child isn’t yet able to understand how their actions affect others. Empathy is a skill that takes years to develop.


Your toddler’s prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that helps them make decisions and manage strong emotions, is not yet fully developed. 


Because they can’t yet express all of their emotions, especially in the heat of the moment, sometimes these big feelings come out with a kick or a bite.

What can you do about toddler kicking, bitting, and hitting?

This kind of behavior can be alarming and can sometimes bring out a reaction in us that we’re not expecting or proud of, like a flash of anger, gripping our toddler’s arm a little too tightly, or speaking too harshly. 

There are ways of responding that are loving, firm, and effective. When your toddler hits, they’re seeking a response, which is why your reaction matters.

Remain calm

As much as you may feel compelled to grab your child’s hand and act on your own embarrassment or anger, this can backfire. Your child’s brain is not mature enough to process “do as I say, not as I do.” If you respond with too much physicality and/or with a loud, sharp voice, you are modeling precisely what you are trying to teach your child not to do. 

An overly strong reaction may also compel your toddler to recreate the scene so they can make sense of it. If they experience a moment of fear and surprise at your strong reaction, they may want to test out this new feeling. All they know in the moment is that they kicked, bit, or hit, and you reacted in a big way that scared them. Will it happen again? They may keep exploring the behavior while they make a connection in their brain between fear and aggression. 

Be loving—as well as firm and clear—in your response

A measured, purposeful response when this behavior is happening is hard, but makes a big difference. Gently and calmly move their hand away with a quick explanation: “don’t hit” or “I can’t let you hit.” 

Move them away

Man hugging an upset toddler from behind

Sometimes you may have to physically pick up your child and remove them from the scene as calmly as possible. If you’re the one being hit, you can try putting them down, then sit on the floor behind them as you envelop their whole body in a firm hug. The boundary this creates can be calming, and your presence reassures them that you’re there for them no matter what. You can repeat something simple in a soothing voice, like “hitting is not okay, and I am here and I love you.” 

Validate what they’re feeling

Even if you don’t accept a certain behavior, you can validate the feelings that caused it. In a calm voice, say “I can see that you are really mad. Taking turns is hard, but hitting hurts and it’s not okay.”

Bring attention to the other person and check in with them

“Look, hitting made your friend feel sad. They’re crying now. Let’s see if we can make it better.” Instead of forcing your child to apologize, focus on modeling empathy by showing them the impact of their behavior right after it happens. 

Be patient and consistent. Your toddler’s journey to self-control, communication, and empathy takes time—and you may need to do this kind of coaching more than once or twice. Remember that although you may be embarrassed, kicking, biting, and hitting are common and not at all a predictor of your child’s personality. 

Learn more about why tantrums happen and the best ways to get through them.


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Posted in: 19 - 21 Months, Child Development

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