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Breaking Your Toddler's Bad Habits

The first time your toddler slaps your face or chomps on your shoulder, you may wonder, Where did I go wrong? It can be shocking to see your usually sweet child push, knock, or bite his way around the playground. But before you beat yourself up over such behavior, you should know that hitting and biting at this age are typically not malicious -- your 1-year-old simply isn’t aware that his actions hurt others. Aggressive acts are a normal (and thankfully temporary) part of development. They almost always stem from a toddler’s natural curiosity and lack of language skills.

“Biting is common because toddlers are in an oral stage -- they explore the world around them with their mouths,” explains Patricia Mikell, assistant director of Graham Windham Manhattan Mental Health Center and a child therapist in New York City. “Toddlers are also exerting their independence now, and some kids express their willfulness by hitting others.”

Why Toddlers Strike

It’s not clear where toddlers get the idea to hit; even the most affectionate parents have kids who sometimes lash out. The habit may be largely due to their natural impulsiveness and trouble regulating emotions. Some kids are simply more short-tempered than others. And certain tots may learn to bite from relatives or caregivers who give nibbles for fun.

Your child may also hit or bite simply because she can and she revels in practicing the new skill. If she’s ever received positive reinforcement for aggressive behavior -- whether in the form of the toy she was vying for or a chuckle from you -- she may continue to bully for the potential payoff. And unlike a 2-year-old who’s adept at declaring, “No, I’m not tired!” your toddler may thrash her arms or sink her teeth into you to protest naptime. “One-year-olds haven’t yet mastered the power of language,” Mikell says.

Aggressive behaviors are more common in group settings, where conflicts are more likely to arise, says Kurt Fischer, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A dispute between two toddlers over a toy, for instance, can easily escalate into a physical fight. “If young children are interacting a lot, such as at day care, hitting and biting become social skills and a part of their survival instinct,” he explains. Distraction is key to heading off any tiffs between toddlers.

You can equip your 1-year-old with more appropriate tools for getting his message across as well as boost his self-control with these expert strategies.

  • Show your disapproval. The instant your child’s fists fly, state loudly and firmly, “No! We do not hit.” Self-restraint doesn’t come easily at this age, so you’ll need to repeat yourself often to drive home the point.
  • Remove your toddler from the situation. Calmly take her to a quiet corner and explain that hitting or biting is not allowed. This will give her a moment to regain her composure.
  • Block the assault. If you see an attack coming, catch your toddler’s hand in midair or place your hand over his mouth. The dramatic halt will certainly grab his attention.
  • Apologize for your child. If she hits or bites a playmate, turn your attention to the victim. See if the child is okay, and make sure your toddler hears you apologize; she’ll see that you don’t like how she has behaved, and she’ll gradually learn empathy. Apologize to the other parent, who will likely understand that you’re working on curbing this passing habit in your child.
  • Never hit or bite back. It’s an ineffective way to show your toddler what his actions feel like to others. Instead, it conveys that this kind of behavior is acceptable.
  • Don’t play-fight. Though roughhousing can be fun, avoid nibbling or hitting when you play. If your child strikes you, react with a frown or a sad face. You might say, “That hurts Mommy.” Never laugh off violence.
  • Encourage words. Help your toddler use language and gestures to communicate. He may be able to point to his cup when he wants milk or say simple words like “mad” when he’s frustrated. If you reward his efforts to talk, your child will ultimately learn that words are a more effective and socially acceptable way to meet his needs than violence.