Stopping and Preventing Behaviors
For many toddlers, hitting or biting is a one-time event. But for others, it's a habit until age 3, when most kids outgrow the misconduct, thanks to increasing language skills and an ability to regulate emotions. Even so, experts say parents must address it as soon as it starts. Resist the urge to raise your voice, because an emotional reaction will only enhance the entertainment value for your child. Be fast and firm, serious and stern. Here are some strategies to help you correct the behavior:
Be consistent. There's no timetable as to how many incidents and reprimands it will take before your child stops hitting and biting. But if you respond the same way every time, he'll probably learn his lesson after four or five incidents. "Eventually, your daughter will realize, 'If I hit the dog, Mommy swoops in and redirects me, so I won't do this anymore,'" says Carter. For 2- to 3-year-olds, a time-out is another effective intervention. "When my son Daniel was 2, he would slap my arm if he didn't get his way. I said, 'No hitting' and 'Do you want a time-out?'" says Shana Aborn, of Ridgewood, New York. "Sometimes that was enough to stop him in his tracks."
Give him an alternative. A 2-year-old can learn to open his mouth wide and roar like a lion or clench his teeth and growl like a bear. "Making a loud animal noise is satisfying to toddlers because it's scary and funny," Youcha says. "The 10 seconds that it takes for your child to think about the sound and then make it will buy you time to distract her and redirect her to another activity."
Know your child's triggers. Once Aborn realized that Daniel was prone to smacking her arm when he was fatigued, she became adamant that he nap every afternoon and go to bed on time every night. Does your daughter bite when she's hungry? Give her a healthy snack, and adhere to a strict meal schedule. And don't forget about outdoor play as a prevention technique -- even in chilly weather. "Being cooped up inside all day increases a child's frustration level," says Dr. Karp.
In social situations, toddlers often hit because they don't want to share. For a playdate at home, remove all toys that have emotional meaning to your child and make sure that there are enough interesting toys to go around. "If there's only one school bus, a conflict could erupt," Carter warns. When the playdate is at someone else's house, shadow your child so that you can distract him before he has a chance to unleash his inner Bamm-Bamm. "If you know your son will yank a certain toy away from a playmate, redirect him by saying, 'Come over here and look at this neat toy,'" Youcha says.
Consult an expert. If your child is still hitting and biting after age 3, it may indicate an emotional issue or health matter that's best addressed by a pediatrician or child development specialist, says Youcha. In preschoolers, these behaviors may be linked to stress from delayed language development, a recent death or illness in the family, or a new teacher or student whose presence has changed the classroom dynamic.
And how is Pete Crowley? Now a 5-year-old preschooler, he's anything but a bruiser. "Pete learned quickly that there would be consequences if he broke the rules," says Brigitte Crowley. "When he was 3 and I was a volunteer in the classroom, a girl whacked Pete in the head because he was sitting where she wanted to sit. He sat with his hands on his lap. I don't know if he was being a good boy because I was there or because I'd reminded him so many times to keep his hands to himself. Either way, Pete made me proud."
Freelance writer Cynthia Hanson lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and son.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2006.
The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.