Is Your Toddler a Bully?

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Many toddlers go through a hitting phase.  For some, it is brief and fizzles out on its own, but for other toddlers the behavior escalates or doesn’t stop, leaving parents more than just a bit frazzled.

Take this scenario for example:

You’re at playgroup and your 18 month old walks up to the toddler next to him.  With little warning he gives him a good smack right on the forehead.  You apologize, slightly awkwardly, for your child, and inwardly wonder what you’ll ever do to get him to stop hitting.

I’m guessing that, if you have kids, you’ve experienced something similar whether you were the parent of the child hitting or the parent of the child being hit.  This bullying behavior can manifest itself in all sorts of behaviors including biting, pushing.  Taking toys away from another child is also common, but, I believe happens for slightly different reasons than the other behaviors so I’ll save that one for another post.

So, you’ve come to terms with the fact that your child “bullies” other kids.  Stay calm, it’s not the end of the world.  Simply because a child goes through a hitting phase (which, by the way, is a perfectly normal stage) does not mean your kid is mean, and it does not mean your child will grow up to be a bully.  Nevertheless, you do want to find healthy ways to discourage and stop these behaviors.

Here are some tips for turning a bad behavior into a better one:

1)  Recognize the reason behind the behavior.  There are a few main reasons why toddlers hit, push, or bite.

  • Trying to communicate.  Most toddlers don’t yet have the communication skills to express emotions including excitement, anger, and frustration.  Some children express these emotions through behaviors that are seen by parents, caretakers, and their poor little peers as being agressive.
  • Trying to initiate play.  This plays off the reason listed above.  Most toddlers do not yet have the communication or social skills to initiate play with a peer.
  • Seeking attention.  They could be seeking the attention of the peer they just hit or they might be seeking the attention of an adult.  When do children and toddlers get the most concentrated attention?  When they get in trouble. (<—If your child is a first or only child they may never experience this :))
  • Experimenting with cause and effect. This is one of the ways children learn.  “Hmm…what will happen if I hit Sam? (hit)  Oh, he will cry.”

2)  Deal appropriately with the behavior according to the reason for the behavior.

  • Do not overreact!  Do not yell, spank, or lecture the child.  Parenting styles aside, if the child hit to seek attention, yelling and lecturing will only serve to reinforce the behavior.  As for spanking; well, it’s kind of counter productive to hit a child in order to teach him not to hit.
  • Redirect. In my opinion, redirection is one of the most effective parenting tactics when trying to eliminate this kind of behavior in toddlers.  Redirection is all about getting to the child before the punch is thrown, the push is launched, or the teeth are sunk.  When you see your toddler about to engage in one of these behaviors, point out a toy you think they’d like, or step in by verbally expressing what you think they are feeling (e.g., “you’re mad because you want the toy that Katie has”).
  • Replace the negative behavior with a positive one. If you notice that the child is about to strike, or if the child has just hit, pushed, or bitten you can say something like, “We love our friends. We give them hugs.” have the child give a hug, a pat, or encourage them to do something gentle *Note: if your child is seeking attention through hitting, pushing, etc., this tactic might not work for you.*  Make sure you praise and encourage them when they use these good behaviors.
  • Time Out: This is a naughty word to some parents, and other might balk that I would suggest putting a toddler in timeout, but hear me out.  If the reason behind the bullying behavior is attention seeking, then the quickest way to extinguish the behavior is to remove the child (momentarily) for all sources of attention.  Find a quiet place away from everything where you can put a little chair or stepstool.  When the child (toddler) hits, say in a very neutral voice, “you don’t hit”.  Carry the child, facing away from you to the timeout place and sit them there.  At this age you may find it is not even necessary to make them stay in the chair.  For some children the act of being removed from the situation and being placed in the chair may be enough for them to get the message.

We found it necessary to utilize the Time Out method with my youngest.  He started hitting his older brother for sport and thought it was a great game.  All it took was about 5 days of consistently (consistency is KEY) using this method and the hitting stopped.

All kids are different, and what works well with some children may not work so well with others.  Do you have any tips or advice to add?  Perhaps, something other that what I mentioned worked well with your kids?


About Amy @ Oh So Savvy Mom

Amy is mom to three, wife to one, and a sister and aunt to many. Her family is a former military family now settled in Lehi, Utah. Oh So Savvy Mom began as a way for Amy to share parenting and product advice with others. Just as she has evolved, Oh So Savvy Mom has evolved into a resource for Healthy Living for Families, Food, Parenting, and Family Travel.


  1. michelle bardos says
    i feel like my girls are bullies but only to each other LOL
  2. Great post. Lucky me I only had one incident with my oldest son and he showed his not so cute behavior toward me. Granted he was jacked up on a Halloween Sugar Buzz. I nipped that in the bud by sitting him in the corner. For some reason he never did it again
  3. Great post, Amy! Lincoln's too little to have a problem with this, but there is a little girl at church who likes to hit him. The mom is always in the room, but she never does anything to stop it. He'll just be sitting on his blanket in Sunday school and the little girl will come up - looking like she just wants to pet his head (like two of the other girls do) - but then she tries to gouge her fingers in his eyes! I try to redirect her to, "Be soft!" and show her how to interact, but then she goes for his eyes again! I've decided to just pick him up when she comes around. It's difficult to deal with this issue when you're not the parent. What do you suggest for dealing with this issue, when you're not the one in charge and the one who is isn't stepping up to the plate? I know putting her on time-out wouldn't be appropriate, but do you think redirecting her attention would be? What do you think?
    • Jami, I'm so glad you brought this up. I was going to include something about this, but the post was so long already, I was afraid to make it any longer. You're right, you can't really put another person's child in timeout (unless you are tending them for the parent). I agree with you that the best thing to do would be to get to that child before that child gets to your kid and engage them in some sort of play (i.e., redirect them). If that doesn't work there is nothing wrong with just picking up your child and moving them. :)
  4. I totally agree with the tactics you recommend. Along with those I have to remember that the toddler is very rarely doing this to be mean (I don't think I have yet took meet a mean two year old). I also must NOT get angry because it isn't only confusing to them, it is just plain mean since they are probably just as confused as you are! That being said you shouldn't have a loved tone either. Matter of fact is almost always the way to go when disciplining. Oh and last IT IS JUST A PHASE (if not ignored).
    • Exactly Kar. I tried to convey in this post that there is really a reason other than "bullying" (which is why I used the word in quotes at the beginning of the article) that toddlers hit. The neutral tone of voice is so important when disciplining. It helps prevent power struggles, and attention seeking behavior. And, you're right, the hitting thing is usually just a phase, and a completely normal one at that. Thanks so much for all your thoughts!
  5. Yesenia Morales says
    Thank you so much for this post. My 14 month old is actually going through this phase and constantly hitting or pulling his 4 y.o brother's hair. I will try your suggestions and see how it goes.
    • LOL, sounds just like what my little guy was doing to his brother! I hope it works well for you. Just remember whatever you decide to do, be consistent. From one mom to another, I wish you the best success. ;)
  6. The lack of communication skills is definitel key I think. Redirect as consistently as possible.
  7. great advice - I really stress time out with my son because of his autism - he usually needs to get away from a situation and have some quiet time to gather his thoughts... even simple redirection works for a first offence...
    • Heather, A lot of the advice I wrote I gleaned not only from my experience with my own children, but also from what I learned as a therapist for children with autism. Redirection is HUGE for kids with autism. We also did "chair time" (basically a modified time out) when kids needed a break from a situation. Sounds like you're a great mom! Thanks for your comments!
  8. My little guy has hit his terrible 2 stage head on. Consistency is definitely the key!
  9. Excellent comment. When your child has the ability to communicate, this should definitely be your initial reaction. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting!
  10. time out seems to work well with us.. but i hope my child isn't a bully!
  11. i am a pre-k teacher, i put lots of kids in time out, LOL
  12. So far, mine is only 11 months but she's not showing signs of bullying at play group. In fact, she often times will go to a new kid and stroke their arm, like we taught her to be "gentle" with us. Let's hope that continues!
    • That is wonderful that you are proactively teaching her to be gentle. Some kids are just naturally gentle, but for those that may not be, I think that helps a lot. We noticed that when we started giving our younger son gentle alternatives to use when interacting with his big brother it helped a lot.
  13. Good cover on this topic.
  14. chelesa sims says
    great topic. i often worry about my son being a bully and hurting another child. He is a big guy .He is 3 and is half my size and is about 50lbs.