My toddler is slapping me!

Lisa asked what to do about her 19 month old son, when he slaps her on the face, for no apparent reason…

Oh Lisa, it’s so awful when our children respond with hitting us! Apart from any physical pain, we are often horrified at their behaviour, shocked that they would do it, wonder why they are doing it, and then if anyone is watching, we also feel embarrassed! What a mix of emotions!

There can be many reasons why a child might do this, including:

  • Frustration – they were angry because they wanted to do something and they couldn’t due to lack of skill, or because you said ‘no’.
  • Anger – At 19 months children have little capacity for self-regulation. So, when they are angry they let it all out – in this case you may have been the closest thing!
  • Opportunity – maybe you were too close, and they were (not politely) pushing you away!
  • Attention – seeking. When children don’t feel they are receiving attention for doing ‘good’ things like smiling, playing with blocks, playing alone, then they resort to things which will get your immediate attention. Possibly you were busy for ‘too long’ (according to the toddler), just when they needed you. With hitting, they do get your attention.
  • Copying – Is it a possibility they have seen hitting on TV or a video etc, or in real life, and are copying the action. Check how much screen time they have.
  • Transferring an action into the wrong setting. If a young child has been ‘practising’ a skill eg pushing a ball hard to roll it, they may copy that action across to other situations…. It’s possible pushing may become slapping.
  • Reaction – when he does it, possibly he gets a strong, dramatic response from you.

Without knowing the specific background, it’s difficult to say exactly why he does this.


So what do I do?

The action from you should be the same, regardless of the reason ‘why’:

  • an immediate response, in a calm, yet firm voice: ‘No Timothy/ Megan/ Kristy, you can not hit Mummy!’
  • This should be done at their eye level, not towering over them. If the child doesn’t make eye contact, don’t force it all.
  • There is no yelling (by you) and no explanation (eg it hurts me/ makes me sad) – none! The child will know what it is they’ve done wrong, if you make an immediate response.
  • When you’ve said this, then walk away – across the room, to the next room etc  (and with no slamming of doors, or banging things!)
  • The message the child needs to receive is that when they choose to behave in this way, you will speak firmly to them and then move away.
  • You need to do this every time, to re-inforce the message. Children, particularly younger ones, won’t get the message and understanding when you do this just once.

This strategy is the same to be used for biting, spitting, pinching – anything where they hurt someone.

In the peak of the moment, yelling at them, or displaying anger towards them will only confuse a young children.

All children need to know they are loved – yet as parents, we know there’s often times they do things we don’t ‘like’!


The important thing for parents is to convey your love for them frequently with hugs, cuddles, kisses, play time together etc so that the receive the message that you enjoy their company and want to be with them. During these activities, take the opportunity to tell them often: “I like it when we play gently together’ or ‘I like it when you speak nicely to Daddy – reinforcing what you do want they me to do.

When they behave poorly, it is dealt with calmly and firmly, but with little attention.

Give them the attention for the actions you want repeated, not the others!

Remember, at 19 months children have a limited vocabulary, so they aren’t able to tell us why they did it. Your calm, consistent actions will teach them what is okay.

Happy Parenting!

Image by Kathleen Franklin via Flickr