Biting and hitting are common problems during the toddler years, and whether your child is on the giving or receiving end, your goal is the same: you want the behavior to stop. But how? Well, that depends (first) on WHY your child is biting and hitting and (second) if he or she has a clear understanding of right and wrong.
What’s the Reason?
There are two big reasons young children bite and hit. The first is reaction. People respond to pain, and babies and young toddlers get a kick out of watching the response. The pain isn’t important. In fact, they don’t understand they are causing pain. All they know is that a specific action causes a predictable response. They are exerting control over their environment, and it’s fun. You can tell they enjoy the game because their bite or punch is accompanied by a smile or giggle.
The second big reason is more sinister. As toddlers gain experience interacting with their environment, they learn that exerting pain gets them what they want. Think of it as baby bullying.
It’s important to understand which reason applies to your child. If he or she is a happy biter or hitter and just looking for a response, then your best bet is simple re-direction. Don’t react in an exaggerated way. Give a firm “No!” and move on by providing a quick distraction, such as an activity or object or their reflection in a mirror. Be sure to respond in fun and exaggerated ways when your child engages in socially-acceptable actions. And try to head trouble off at the pass by anticipating a bite or punch before it happens and providing a quick re-direction that results in appropriate behavior.
Right vs Wrong
Dealing with biting and hitting changes when it becomes a tool your child uses to get his or her way. By the time it gets to this point, children have a clear sense of right vs wrong, and while they know the action is wrong, they continue to bite and hit because it works. So… you have to make sure it doesn’t work. Biting and hitting should never result in your child getting his or her way, even when you were fine allowing what your child wanted. Instead, WAIT until he or she is displaying appropriate behavior and THEN grant the wish.
Language and Discipline
Many times, children bite and hit because they are unable to express themselves with language. Read to your children often, encourage words, and try to anticipate needs BEFORE frustration kicks in. If you are concerned about your child’s language development, be sure to talk to his or her doctor about it.
Delinquent biters and hitters may require more than anticipation and re-direction. Sometimes discipline is required to extinguish the behavior. Discipline should always be predictable and consistent. An immediate time out lasting one minute for each year of age is almost always effective as long as you do it every time your child displays the problem behavior. After the time out, give a loving hug, explain why the time out occurred, and move on. Never bite or hit your child as a form of discipline. It’s not effective and is entirely hypocritical.
When Someone Else’s Kid is the Problem
If you are a babysitter or daycare worker, these tactics are appropriate for the biters and hitters in your care. But what if your child is the recurrent victim of a biter or hitter? First, set up a meeting with the adult caregiver. Find out what’s going on and how they plan to get the situation under control. Feel free to send them a link to this article if they need some pointers. Finally, if the behavior doesn’t stop, it’s time to find another child care option, one with better supervision and an effective and appropriate means of dealing with those baby bullies.
For more advice for your child’s toddler years, join Dr. Mike in the PediaCast Studio!
Emergency Medicine Physician Team; Host of PediaCast
Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.
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