Few things can make you second-guess your skills as a parent more than seeing your toddler whack another kid at a playdate or feeling him sink his teeth into your arm in a crowded checkout line. But as mortifying as these bad behaviors are, they aren't your fault, and they don't mean your child will grow up to be a bully. "Biting and hitting aren't uncommon at this developmental stage," says Miriam Schechter, M.D., a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in the Bronx, New York. "One-year-olds want to express their needs and feelings, but they don't always know how to do that without resorting to hitting and biting."
The way you react to your child's lashing out is the key to nipping it in the bud. Get down on his level, look him in the eye, and say in a calm, stern voice, "No hitting. Hitting hurts." If he does it again, remove him from the situation and put him in a one-minute time-out, suggests Dr. Schechter. "When you discipline your kid every time he hits, he'll learn that there's no excuse for violence," she says.
But don't wait until the problem intensifies to the point of a physical outburst before stepping in. Pretty much every toddler on the planet bites and hits for the same reasons, and once you know what to look for, you can steer your child away from aggressive behavior and help him share his feelings in more positive, peaceful ways. Check out four common triggers.
Toddler Trigger: She Explores With Her Mouth
Ever since your kid was an infant, she's probably enjoyed putting anything she could get her hands on in her mouth. This is one of the ways babies learn about their environment, and it doesn't suddenly change once she has her first birthday. "Whether it's munching on a friend's arm or biting while breastfeeding, 1-year-olds lead with their mouth," says Erin Floyd, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist in Atlanta.
WHAT TO DO If your child bites you when she's nursing, take her off the breast immediately. Look at her and in a firm, gentle voice say, "No." Let her latch on again, but if she continues to bite, repeat this process only once or twice before ending the feeding. It won't take long for her to realize that biting interrupts her mealtime.
Your toddler takes her cues from you when it comes to interacting, so be a good role model. Avoid play biting, such as nibbling on her fingers or lightly chomping down on her arm. This sends a mixed message, and she may mimic these actions with other kids.
Toddler Trigger: He's Trying to Defend His Turf
You've probably noticed that your child hits and bites more often on the playground or at a playdate than at any other time. The reason? He's surrounded by a bunch of kids who grab his toys, push him down, or simply invade his space -- and they don't necessarily listen when he tells them "Stop!" or "Mine!" Not acting out in anger requires impulse control, which kids don't fully master until they're older.
WHAT TO DO If your toddler hurts someone, take time to cool down and give him the "no hitting/biting" speech. You can also ease tension by introducing another toy or game. "Distracting the kids with a new activity is often the easiest way to diffuse a dispute," says Dr. Floyd. If they're fighting over a toy, give it a minute to see whether they can resolve the conflict on their own. But when it looks like it's going to escalate into hitting or biting, say: "If you can't take turns, I have to take the truck away." And don't let your child keep a plaything that he's snatched aggressively. By making him give it back, you're letting him know that being rough won't get him what he wants.
Toddler Trigger: She Can't Find the Right Words
Like everyone else, 1-year-olds get bored, hungry, tired, and overwhelmed. The difference is they lack the verbal skills to communicate these emotions, which can make them even more frustrated. "Since your toddler's vocabulary isn't fully developed yet, she's more likely to use her body to show her feelings or to strike back in disagreement," says Dr. Schechter.
WHAT TO DO Pinpointing the reason why your toddler is upset can be tough at this age: Is she hitting because she's annoyed she can't find her favorite toy? Or does she want a snack? Help her put words to her gestures. If she slaps at the sippy cup of juice because it's not what she wants, for example, respond, "You want milk! Say, 'milk.'" And encourage her to keep at it by making sure you praise her when she does use her words. Before long, she'll learn that speaking is a much more effective way of getting her needs met than aggressive behavior.
Toddler Trigger: He Doesn't Feel Like Himself
When your toddler has an off day, he may simply lash out because he's cranky and doesn't have many coping skills. "Even kids who don't hit or bite often can lose control when they're stressed or at the end of a long day," says Dr. Schechter.
WHAT TO DO Paying attention to when and why your child has outbursts is one of the best ways to prevent them. If he hits when he's tired, have him take a nap at least an hour before a playdate, and put him to bed at the same time each night. Or if he bites when he's hungry, stick to a regular meal schedule and take snacks with you to the playground or on errands. When you notice his frustration level is rising (for instance, he can't get his favorite train to stay on the track), offer to help or get him involved in a new activity. You may be tempted to let hitting and biting slide when he seems out of sorts. But you should treat the incident as you do on any day -- otherwise, he may conclude that it's okay to act up in certain situations.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Parents magazine.