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Why Your Toddler Hits and Bites

toddler boys fighting

Alexandra Grablewski

Three-year-old Caden Branchflower is occasionally guilty of hitting his younger brother, Ridge. This might seem like bullying -- after all, he's a big boy hitting a smaller child. Luckily for Caden, that's not how his mom, Erin, sees it. "He doesn't know how else to express himself at this age, so I just step in quickly," says Branchflower, of Fort Collins, Colorado. "I explain that we don't like that behavior and it's not okay."

She has the right attitude. While many parents of hitters, biters, and spitters panic when their toddler acts out, they shouldn't feel too bad. Technically, a child this young can't be a bully. "Two- and 3-year-olds don't yet fully understand their emotions or anyone else's, so they don't intentionally hurt someone's feelings," says Edward Carr, PhD, leading professor in the department of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Toddlers are constantly testing cause and effect -- "If I do this, what will happen?" They're also using the only tools they have, says Theodore Dix, PhD, associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. "They don't have the skills to get what they want in a reasonable way, so they may act pushy or overly defiant," he says.

Still, that's not a free pass to sit back and let your child be mean. If you don't intervene now, he may become a real bully as he gets older because he won't know another way to express his needs. Here's how to end aggression now.

  • Call a time-out. If you see your child hitting, biting, or spitting, stop the behavior immediately. Try to speak calmly, but if your child doesn't listen, take her aside and say, "You're out of control. You need a time-out to calm down."
  • Don't demand an explanation. Asking a child why he did something wrong implies that there may be times when it's okay to be mean. That's not to say you shouldn't look for a cause. If your kid pulled his friend's hair because his pal was hogging the swing, do help them take turns after you've dealt with the hair-pulling. "This shows kids they live in a just world and that if they tell you about something unfair or upsetting, you'll try to fix it," explains Dr. Dix.
  • Try not to lose it. Some kids believe that any kind of attention beats no attention at all. So if you freak out when your child does something wrong, she'll be intrigued ("Wow, Mommy went crazy!") and she'll have incentive to act up again.
  • Tie kids' actions to other people's feelings. Toddlers have a limited understanding of how their behavior affects others. Your child needs to know how his friend felt when he got kicked. Say, "That hurt Sam and made him feel bad." Tell him you know it's hard to share, but kicking someone is not the right thing to do.
  • Help your child calm down. Toddlers get just as upset as adults do when they lose control. After a brief time-out, talk to your child in a comforting and compassionate way. Say, "I know it feels terrible to get so upset and make someone else feel bad." This helps kids understand their emotions and learn to label them.
  • Don't force kids to include others. Sometimes, your child may act like a bully by excluding other kids, but it's actually a normal part of social development, says Dr. Carr. "In a small group, toddlers get their friends' approval when they tell another child he can't play," he says. "By excluding someone, your child is saying 'You're special' to the kids she's already playing with." The solution: Find a time when your child and her left-out buddy are apart and let her know that you saw what happened -- and that excluding someone isn't nice.
  • Start teaching problem-solving skills. Do make it fun: Use imaginary play to help your child learn positive ways to resolve a sticky situation. You might pretend to be another child who has taken your toddler's favorite toy. Teach him how to use his words ("That's my toy -- please give it back"), and if that doesn't work, tell him he should ask an adult for help. Act out these scenes often so that the lessons sink in. Just keep trying -- and soon you'll have a really sweet kid.

If you've ever seen a child mumble a halfhearted sorry, you might think that it's pointless to ask your toddler to apologize. After all, will she really mean it at this age? Maybe not -- but even if she doesn't today, she will someday, and it's a good idea to start practicing now. "Your child will come to understand what being sorry really means," says Dr. Edward Carr. "And it's helpful to encourage her to say it now." Do be empathetic: Tell your child that you know saying sorry may be hard for her because it means she's done something wrong. "Explain that it feels bad to know you hurt someone, but it's important to tell people we're sorry when we do."

You've probably seen her at the playground: the clueless mom who doesn't seem to notice that her kid just sank his teeth into your child's arm. While you can't come out and tell someone to discipline her child, it is possible to get an oblivious parent to step in -- without putting her on the defensive.

  • First, state the problem simply: "Your child just bit my daughter. Can you help me?" Once the kids start calming down, encourage them to do something independently for a while. "You might say, 'Let's see if you can both build the mommies some cool sand castles,'" says Dr. Edward Carr. "If the kids are busy doing something fun and positive, they won't be slugging each other."
  • And if that doesn't work? You can always leave if things get too rough. "Bottom line: If the other mom really thinks biting is no big deal, the kids shouldn't play together anymore," says Dr. Carr. But in most cases, the other mom will feel terrible about her child's behavior and will try to get him to stop.



Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the January 2008 issue of Parents magazine.