Picture a clear-blue summer sky. That's my 18-month-old son, James, when he's in a happy mood. Then imagine storm clouds filling that sky. That's what it's like when his mood suddenly darkens and James takes a swat at his dad or bites his big brother on the arm. There are reasons for my son's outbursts, of course: He needs a diaper change, he's frustrated that he can't get his shoes off, or he's jealous that his brother is hugging me.
I try to remind myself that this is normal for a 1-year-old. After all, hitting and biting are ways that toddlers test their limits and communicate their thoughts and emotions. "Kids this age don't have the ability to do or say what they want, and that frustrates them," says Parents advisor Jennifer Shu, MD, a pediatrician in Atlanta.
That's not the only explanation for these behaviors. There's also the lure of imitation: Your child may have seen his older sibling and his pal punching it out, and now he wants in on the action. "For some children, there's a trial-and-error factor," says Dr. Shu. "They see another person hitting and think, 'Hmm, let's see how that feels.'" Finally, some children -- those who are less easygoing by nature -- are predisposed to leading with their fists or teeth. "A lot comes down to temperament," explains child psychiatrist Stanley Turecki, MD, author of The Difficult Child. While some kids will just shrug and move on when someone snatches Elmo out of their hands, others go into street-fighter mode. Gypsy Bachiller's 20-month-old son, Max, is one of them. "He's smaller than his twin brother, Matt, but he's always been more aggressive," says the Miami mom. "He'll hit or push his brother when he doesn't get his way."
It's one thing to understand why your child hits and bites, but it's completely another to console a sibling who's got teeth marks on his hand or to be shunned from a playgroup thanks to your toddler's right hook. Here are some ways you can stop your child's hitting and biting.
Here's how to handle two common toddler tussles.
One of your son's pals swats him -- in full view of you and the other mom.
What to do: "Hopefully, the other child's parent will step in and discipline him," says Dr. Jennifer Shu. "If she doesn't, it's okay for you to say to the other child, 'We don't do that in our house,' then spend a few moments comforting your son." If the kids normally play well together, this could be a sign that they're getting tired or hungry, so it may be best to end the get-together.
Your daughter comes home from daycare with a bite mark on her arm.
What to do: Ask your childcare provider what happened to your little one's arm, then find out how she handled the situation. "You need to make sure that she responded appropriately, such as by separating the children, and that she spoke to the other child's parents," says Dr. Shu. If this happens more than once or twice, however, consider switching daycare providers. It could be a sign that the children aren't being closely watched.
Even if you believe that spanking is appropriate discipline for an older child, you should never spank a 1-year-old.
"At this age, your child is developmentally unable to connect your hitting him -- however gently -- with anything that he may have done," explains Dr. Stanley Turecki.
What about putting your child in a time-out? Unfortunately, this may not be an effective method of discipline for a child under 2, since it's still too difficult for a toddler to connect the punishment with the crime.
"The best way to discipline a 1-year-old is to be swift and stern," says Dr. Jennifer Shu. "Promptly remove him from the situation; then let him know that hitting and biting are not okay."