My 14 month old is slapping and hitting

boy-nappyQ: I have a 14-month-old baby boy who has recently started slapping and hitting. This happens to everyone who gets at all close to him or within reach. He doesn’t seem to slap aggressively. It’s more in a playful way but, having said that, he can slap quite hard. We tell him ‘Don’t slap’, and say he is being naughty, but he just laughs and hits out again. My question is what should we do when he hits out and what level of discipline can you apply to a one year old? Would you recommend using a time out or naughty chair with him or is he too young?

A: In many ways, one year olds are at the most challenging of all ages to manage as a parent. At this age they are mobile and active, yet still cannot fully understand your instructions or communicate. As a result, one year olds can be “in to everything” and need lots of supervision and monitoring which can be exhausting for parents.

Whereas you might be able to leave a younger baby contained and safe for a moment, a mobile toddler is likely to get up and move and you have to be there to watch and supervise.

At one years of age they don’t yet have the understanding of an older preschooler who is likely to be more regulated, with a greater developed sense of safety which means that you can trust them for a little bit longer. Your question particularly raises the challenges of responding to “naughty” or difficult behaviour from a one year old. How can you help them behave if they don’t fully understand what you are saying? What discipline is appropriate if they don’t respond in the same way as an older child?

Tuning into the world of a 14 month old
Generally, 14 month olds are at the start of the road of asserting themselves and making their own choices (which are frequently different than what their parents want).

While they are on the cusp of learning language and communication, frequently they can’t find the words to express what they want and are still struggling to manage their overwhelming feelings.

This can lead to lots of full blown tantrums and meltdowns, and they need their parents to soothe them and help manage their feelings. They are also at an exploratory phase and with increased mobility are keen to try, taste and experience everything in their reach.

Frequently, as you have discovered, one year olds can display behaviours such as slapping, hitting and even biting and these are perfectly normal at this age. While these can sometimes be due to frustration, often they are driven by sensory exploration. Some children like the feel of slapping and the sensory feedback they get.

In addition, some children like the attention these behaviours gain from their parents (which might explain your son’s laughter) and this can cause them to do it again.

Focusing on do’s rather than don’ts
As you have discovered, saying “don’t” or “no” to a one year old can be counter-productive. Saying “Don’t slap” gives attention to the behaviour you don’t want and does not show him what you want him to do instead.

As a result, try always to show him the behaviour you want to see. For example, if he slaps, you can say “let’s give Dad a gentle rub/a hug”.

If he goes along with this, gently take his hand and guide him in the behaviour you want, giving him lots of reinforcing smiles and encouragement.

If he does not go along with this or continually wants to slap, it might be better to divert or distract him from the activity all together.

Simply move and say, “Let’s now play with the blocks” or “Look at that lovely book we can read.”

Discipline and one year olds
Given their developmental stage of understanding, discipline strategies that focus on consequences and choices such as time out generally do not work with one year olds.

Instead, it is best to use effective strategies such as positive guidance, distraction and soothing them when you encounter challenging behaviours.

If they reach the stage of having a meltdown or tantrum that you cannot soothe, then it is best to take a break and put them nearby – “Let’s sit down for a minute and calm down” – before re-engaging them shortly.

In this situation, try to remain calm and warm, and make sure to return to positive attention as soon as possible.

Help your son get his needs met without slapping
If you feel your son is quite a physical boy and likes the sensory feedback in slapping, explore with him other ways he can get these needs met in a fun way.

For example, maybe introduce him to some play dough and show him how to squeeze, slap and prod it. Or make sure to set aside a regular “wrestle time” with him when you can play physically in a safe way and have lots of fun together.

It can be helpful to do this as part of a routine with him (eg when you come in from work) so he knows when it is okay to have “rough” or physical play.

It can also be helpful to develop a “keyword” for the activity so he knows when it starts and when it is over: “Now it is ‘wrestle time’” or “‘Wrestle time is over now. Next is calm time/reading time”, and so on.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.