My DD is 16m old, and has lately been hitting when she's frustrated. She's not super verbal (but is learning a lot every day!), and is pretty strong-willed/hard to redirect.

Generally it goes like this: Something happens that she is not a fan of (the book we've read is over, she wants to get out of her high chair,etc), she aims for/hits my face. I say "Oh DD, please use gentle hands". I take her hands and stroke my face and say "gentle hands!". She hits me as soon as I let go (even if I back up out of reach, she goes for the face). I say "DD, no hitting. Gentle hands." She hits again. I say "no hitting" firmly, then gently put her on her bottom on the floor. She usually takes a second to look at me, then fake cries (I PROMISE it is a very fake cry). Sometimes she'll lay on the ground, sometimes she'll bang her forehead on the floor a few times (literally just 2 or 3 times, has never left a mark), sometimes she gets over it on her own after a moment. While she's tantruming on the floor, I'll talk gently to her and say "I know, you're so frustrated, you want XYZ. It's ok to be mad. Mama loves you even when you're mad."

Logically, I know she's hitting because she's having trouble communicating with us and/or is pushing boundaries. But it's to the point now where if I say "gentle" to her when she's NOT mad/frustrated (like petting one of our cats, which is a top 10 DD favorite thing), she starts hitting (usually me, usually my face) because she associates "Gentle." with when she's being reprimanded.

Is this normal toddler stuff? Am I reacting correctly to her? Is she destined to be a cage fighter when she grows up?