One minute you’re playing beautifully with your toddler. You are stacking and toppling blocks together. Then, the next minute: Whack! You get socked in the arm. A little stunned, you think, “Surely, that was just an accident. There’s no way my darling daughter would hit me ON PURPOSE.” But then it happens again—and this time she is laughing about it!
Toddlers are tiny balls of energy who can, at times, struggle with their self-control. There are different reasons why a toddler might start suddenly biting, scratching, pulling hair, hitting, or pushing families members or playmates.
- Teething: Molars and canine teeth tend to come in during toddlerhood—they are painful and may cause your toddler to start chomping down anything they come in close contact with—including you!
- What To Do: Try offering your child a teething ring, biting toy, or something cold to gnaw on.
- Reaction: Did you let out a big, “Ouch!” after your toddler tried to take a bite out of your shoulder? Chances are, he thought that noise was pretty darn funny, and who doesn’t love a good joke?
- What To Do: Remain calm. As startling (and painful) as it is to be bitten, keep your response to a minimum: “It hurts me when you bite; I don’t like it.”
- Frustration: Little ones who don’t have the words to express themselves can sometimes get frustrated over being unable to communicate what they want.
- What To Do: Talk and read to your child as often as possible to promote language skills. Talk about how you feel with your toddler. Identify their feelings for them so they can learn to identify them themselves. Then set a limit: “I know you are frustrated that you can’t have a cookie right now, but it is not okay to hit.”
- Anger: In a world full of new and interesting things, it’s easy for toddlers to feel upset when they want a certain toy or to touch valuables in the home.
- What To Do: If possible, place valuables out of sight or try distracting your toddler with another toy or book to read. Give a reason why they aren’t able to have what they want, then give them something they can have.
Stop It Before It Starts
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), preventing aggressive toddler behavior starts with providing a stable, secure home for your toddler. Being a good role model also goes a long way in showing your toddler how to behave. Some people think that you should bite or hit your child back to show them how it feels. We do not recommend using this strategy. It is confusing to young children, hurtful, and is not good modeling. Instead, try:
- Stay Close: If you’re playing at the park, stay close and keep a watchful eye as your toddler plays with other children. Step in quickly if it seems that your toddler might try to hurt another playmate.
- Praise the Positive: Give lots of attention and praise when your child plays gently with another child. “You two are doing such a good job taking turns with the trucks.”
- Use Your Words: If you see your toddler getting impatient and frustrated waiting their turn to play on the swings, help them communicate their needs: “Maddie, say, ‘I would like a turn on the swing please.’”
Biting The Hand That Feeds
Lots of toddlers go through a developmental stage of hitting or biting—try not to take it personally. If your toddler hits or pushes you, here are some steps to try to nip the behavior in the bud:
- Get down to their level and gently lower their hand down and away from you.
- Calmly but firmly say, “We don’t hit.”
- Show your toddler how to be gentle with their hands by hugging or holding hands.
- Offer an alternative to hitting with a silly game that uses your hands.
Toddlers sometimes act on their feelings. With limited self-control, it’s no wonder that toddlers can act out their feelings by hitting or biting when they feel out of control of their world.
Take the time to observe whether anything in their lives has changed that would lead to them reacting with hitting or biting. This can help you to understand the “why” behind it all.
- Has your family moved recently?
- New sibling?
- Started daycare?
It can also be helpful to look at:
- Where does the action takes place (only at home, or just at daycare)?
- To whom is it targeted (mom, dad, the babysitter, or other children)?
The Use of Quiet Time
In cases where your toddler is feeling overwhelmed and they resist your other efforts to calm or redirect them, you could try a “quiet time” technique. If Marcus continues to hit over not being able to use the red shovel, calmly and gently remove him from the situation: “Marcus, you are still hurting your friend. That tells me you need some quiet time.” Walk your toddler over to another spot (preferably some place boring) and ask that they sit quietly and still for 1 minute before returning to the sandbox. The AAP recommends using the guideline of 1 minute of quiet time for each year of your child’s age.
After 1 minute, have your toddler return to the sandbox and offer extra praise when you see him playing nicely and being gentle.
Most children want to please. Give positive feedback, letting them know exactly what they are doing that you like to see. Tell them when you are frustrated or angry, and let them see a healthy way to cope. This can reduce misbehavior, as well as help to strengthen your bond and relationship.
This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (andupdatemywebsite.com). Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website (https://parentingnow.org/) or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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