For Jackie Kolek, of Westport, Connecticut, it was the straw that broke the playgroup's back. When her son, 13-month-old Nathaniel, whacked a smaller kid's head with a wooden puzzle piece, she realized it was time to leave the group for a while. "He's a lot stronger than other kids his age—and I'm afraid he's going to turn into a bully."
The good news for moms of one-year-old bruisers: Biting and hitting are developmentally appropriate. The bad news: That's small comfort when your kid is the most "developmentally appropriate" toddler on the block.
It's important to understand the underlying reasons for your little one's newly aggressive stance. "Put yourself in your child's shoes," says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. "The whole world is bigger than you. You want complete independence. You can barely talk. You think people can read your mind. And now, someone has taken the toy that is rightfully yours." Here, some of the challenges facing your tot at this age.
Words fail him. Expressing feelings is just plain hard for a toddler. Because your one-year-old can't make himself understood verbally, he hits and bites to communicate, to exert autonomy, and to deal with frustration, says Katrina Reynolds, R.N., a pediatric nurse in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
She's playing defense. Sometimes, she's got a legitimate gripe. Perhaps another child grabbed her bottle, tripped her, or pulled her hair. Not hitting someone when you feel like doing it requires real self-control. She doesn't have that yet.
He leads with his mouth. One-year-olds are orally fixated, says Gretchen Kinnell, author of No Biting and director of education and training at the Child Care Council of Onondaga County, in New York. Kids learn by putting things into their mouth—including their friends' arms. It's usually just a form of sensory exploration.
She's experimenting with cause and effect. Ever wonder why so many toys for toddlers are designed to make noise whenever they're touched? Kids this age are discovering which actions provoke reactions. So when she thinks, "I wonder what will happen when I bite my friend," she's testing her impact on the world.
He needs his space. Toddlers don't have a good grasp of spatial relations. So they often find themselves cornered in a small area, too close to other kids. As a reflex, they try to claw (or hit or bite) their way out.
She's just feeling out of sorts. Maybe she's simply hungry, tired, or overwhelmed. At age one, she doesn't have a lot of coping skills to fall back on when the going gets tough.
Clearly, your one-year-old has ample cause to believe that hitting and biting are a fine response to a world that can be confusing or frustrating. Your job is to steer him safely away from those behaviors. Here's how.
Just say "no." An incident requires an immediate response. Use little words and a big tone. In a firm, serious (but not threatening) voice, say, "No! We don't hit! No biting! Biting hurts!" Then redirect her to something she can do, Reynolds advises. Tell her she can hit a pillow, stomp her feet, or use her words.
Don't let him profit from attacks. He doesn't get to keep the toy that he got through aggressive means. If a strategy works, he'll keep doing it, Kinnell says.
Pay more attention to the victim than to the culprit. In doing so, you model compassion and teach your child that she can't grab the spotlight by acting up. Praise good behavior. Pay your toddler with positive reinforcement when he doesn't resort to fisticuffs, Reynolds says ("You gave your friend a turn. Good for you!").
Shadow your biter. Sure, you'd rather spend playgroup socializing than playing kiddie cop. But you need to stay one step ahead of your child, anticipating and blocking her next bite. Remove toys that trigger conflicts.
Give him some gentle diversions. To relieve some of your tot's frustration, provide him with soothing sensory activities. A foolproof choice: water play (a basin with an inch of water and some cups, funnels, and scoops).
Allow them some breathing room. Cram toddlers together like sardines, and you shouldn't be surprised if they act like baby piranhas.
Most of all, remember that there's no malicious intent when a one-year-old hits or bites. Your little one means well—she just needs to learn better ways to express her needs and wants. And that's something even adults have to work on from time to time.