Hitting & Biting in Toddlers: How to Handle It - What do you do when your toddler acts out?
by Jeanne Sager
Maybe it's a daycare provider. Maybe it's a preschool teacher. Either way it's the call every parent dreads. You know the one we're talking about -- the call during which you find out your kid is the biter. Or the hitter.
Aggressive behavior is common in the toddler stage, but that doesn't make it any easier on parents who are struggling to figure out why their sweet-natured tot has turned into a holy terror. What do you do when your child is hitting and biting? Help is on the way!
Why is my child acting out?
Various studies over the years have tried to get to the root of aggression in toddlers. Is it nature or nurture? Scientists have found a genetic component, but that's not to say you're to blame. Kids act out for a variety of reasons.
"Toddlers often act out with aggressive behavior because they are frustrated," says Dr. Dyan Hes, the founding doctor at New York City's Gramercy Pediatrics. The issue is often tied in with development -- a child who isn't yet verbal may hit, bite, or throw things.
"Most toddlers cannot express what their needs are with words," she explains. "For example, he cannot say, 'I want that toy please.'"
Other kids may be verbal and able to express themselves, but they're trying to get our attention.
"If he hits, you pay attention," explains child development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. "Perhaps you have not been spending enough time with him -- REAL time, not just the business-of-daily-life time. His bucket is empty, but he KNOWS he’ll get your attention if he does the forbidden. Negative attention. Positive attention. It’s all attention."
How should I respond?
Parents may be ready to fight fire with fire, but the experts advise against biting your biter or getting angry.
"That will just teach the child that biting is acceptable, just like a child who is spanked usually will hit their peers," warns Dr. Hes. "It is a learned behavior!"
Instead she suggests telling a child that their behavior is not OK and removing them from the situation. Kids should be taken out of the room -- if possible -- and given a break to calm down, but they shouldn't be rewarded with special attention
"When the toddler does not get a rise out of you, the adult, the aggressive behavior lessens," Dr. Hes says.
Consistency is also the key, making sure the child always receives the message that the aggressive behavior is not acceptable.
"Parents need to shadow children who tend to be aggressive," Brown Braun suggests. "If you have a hitter or a biter on your hands, for your child’s sake and the sake of the potential victims, you need to be right there -- no chatting with the other parents. And you must respond to the behavior every time. Do not turn your head and ignore it, praying it will go away. It won’t!"
How can I help my child?
If you have an aggressive toddler, disciplining them is only the first step. They have to be taught how to act appropriately, substituting good behavior for hitting or biting.
"Children need to be given an emotional vocabulary starting very young," says Brown Braun, "'Oh, you are so frustrated that Mr. Bear doesn’t fit in the truck!' 'You are really angry. Mad! Mad! Mad!'
"When a child has a name for the feeling he is having, then he can express it, tell you about it, and get it out appropriately. You then can help him to learn what he CAN do -- [it] makes no sense to keep say what the child CAN’T do (hit, bite, shove) without saying what he CAN do."
How can I prevent the behavior?
There is no magic pill to get kids to behave, but parents who pay attention to their kids will likely being to notice patterns and possible triggers. Tired, hungry, overwhelmed kids are more likely to act out, and you need to plan accordingly. Don't take your toddler who desperately needs a nap out grocery shopping and expect them to be on their best behavior.
That said, not all triggering situations can be avoided; nor should they be, says Brown Braun. "He needs to be in those situations in order to learn the acceptable behavior," she explains. "He needs experience; it takes practice and trial/error."
Kids also need to know that they can get your attention without acting out. Watching your toddler like a hawk isn't just about catching them acting out. It's also a way to teach them about positive reinforcement.
"When you see the child NOT being aggressive, you need to jump in and praise the child," Brown Braun says. "'You used your words with Jeremy, and it worked. He gave you back your car.' Catch him doing the right thing."
And while you're at it, model good behavior. We are our children's first teachers, after all. If you interact calmly and peacefully with your toddler, they're learning to do the same with you and their playmates.
What do you do when your toddler acts out?