In this article we’ll discuss a very common concern for parents of toddlers – how to stop hitting, biting and other undesirable behavior our toddlers might display from time to time. We’ll also dive into what drives this behavior and how to react if your toddler displays these behaviors or conversely if your toddler is on the receiving end.
This can be an incredibly confronting topic for parents…
…NO ONE wants to be a parent of the “hiter” or the “biter” … it can be embarrassing and scary!
The good news is while less than desirable it’s a normal part of toddler development and boundary testing …and more often than not very easy behavior to modify.
Hitting, biting, pinching and pulling hair – why do our toddlers occasionally go all Mike Tyson?
If you’ve dived into our Toddler Toolkit course you’ll be very conscious that our toddlers’ brains are still developing and they are still learning the appropriate way to behave.
So why do toddlers bite, hit, kick, pinch etc.?
Lack of language skills
- Children bite or hit because they don’t have the language skills to express themselves effectively.
- They may use physical aggression as a way to communicate their needs, wants or feelings.
Frustration or anger
- Toddlers may hit or bite when they feel frustrated or angry, especially if they don’t know how to express these emotions in other ways
- Children often learn by imitation, so a child may hit or bite if they have seen or experienced aggressive behavior in others, such as siblings or parents.
- Aggressive behavior is a normal part of development for many toddlers, and is often a way for them to learn and test boundaries.
Lack of attention and oversight
- Some children might hit or bite when they feel ignored or neglected
Reframing our language around toddler aggressive behavior
When your toddler hits, bites or hurts another person it can be incredibly confronting.
You’re not alone if your first thoughts are “you aggressive little sh!t – how did I raise such a demon?”
While biting and hitting behavior is not OK…. nor is it an appropriate way to react at any age, it’s our job as parents to help guide our toddlers into how to manage situations and teach them more appropriate ways to communicate.
Some of this will start with reframing the language we use around these less than desirable behaviors.
When we label hitting, biting, or hurting others in any way as aggressive, it indicates an intent to hurt someone else.
Often for toddlers, they’re not trying to hurt someone intentionally. They simply don’t know how to communicate or problem solve in the moment – hitting or biting are their instinctive responses.
As a general rule always ensure your toddler knows it’s the behavior you don’t like not them.
Give them alternatives and suggest the more appropriate option.
Instead of: “stop hurting your sister”
Try: “It looks like you’re trying to tell your sister to stop taking your blocks, say “stop it” instead of hitting please”
When we view our toddler’s behaviour as something shameful and try to tackle it through control and judgement, we don’t leave any room for growth.
Instead of “Stop biting …I cannot believe you just bit your sister – go to your room!”
Try: “biting is never okay, I wonder what we could try instead next time when you’re feeling frustrated?”
Talk with empathy and understanding when approaching this behaviour
Instead of: “I’ve told you you need to STOP pinching your brother!!!!”
Try: “I know you’ve been trying really hard lately not to pinch your brother but it looks like something happened today that made it hard for you to use your words instead?”
Rather than expecting immediate compliance and perfection, approach this space with curiosity which allows you to empower your toddler
Instead of: “No hitting or biting at daycare OK?”
Try: “When you want to talk to the other kids at kindergarten, you could try tapping them on the arm, or you could say “excuse me” – which one do you want to try today?”
Top tips to stop toddler hitting, biting and other less than desirable behaviors
Your tools to help manage hitting/biting/pinching/pulling hair can include:
TIP 1: Looking for what’s driving or triggering the behavior
- There is likely something causing your child’s behaviour that you’re not aware of.
- Are they trying to get something – or get away from something?
- Prevention is better than cure, so if you can avoid your child being triggered, the challenging behaviours won’t occur.
- This approach of limiting exposure to the situation works well for the teaching period, while your toddler is still learning new ways to manage the situation through the proactive tools you’re using.
- Which leads to the point below…
TIP 2: Teach your toddler functional replacement skills such as:
- Coming to tell an adult – great for when conflict happens and is the source of the behaviour
- Walking away – helpful for social interactions that are heading in the wrong direction
- Squeezing their hands – great for sensory kids who might have an element of sensory seeking in their ‘aggressive’ behavior, and squeezing allows a different option to get that input
You can teach these skills by:
- Role playing
- Using soft toys, figurines or dolls house people to act out situations and solutions
Remember: as with all toddler teaching and learning we talk about in the Toddler Toolkit – this needs to happen when your child is calm and regulated – they absolutely won’t learn in the heat of the moment.
TIP 4: Setting up House Rules and Rewards
- We’ve got a entire section on this in the Toddler Toolkit – Setting Limits and Boundaries section, keep these positive and behaviourally based.
TIP 5: Notice the positives
- It’s so easy to get caught up in the negative behavior BUT Whenever you see your child managing their anger appropriately, make sure you praise positive behavior them by labelling specifically what they’ve done.
E.g. “wow I’m so proud that you were angry and you chose to come and tell me the problem rather than hitting your brother!”.
- Positive reinforcement will encourage all the functional replacement skills you’ve been teaching them
What to do when your child bites or hits another kid?
If the teacher tells you that your child has bitten another toddler at childcare, it’s important to take the situation seriously and take appropriate steps to address the behavior. Here are a few things you can do:
Acknowledge the behavior
- Let the teacher or other parent know that you understand that your child’s behavior was unacceptable and that you take it seriously.
Ask for more information:
- Find out when and where the biting incident occurred, who was involved, and what the consequences were.
Talk to your child:
- Discuss the situation with your child, and explain to them that biting is not acceptable behavior.
Apologise to the other child and family:
- Note: if it’s in a childcare setting often they will keep the child in question confidential but in most cases you’ll probably work out who it is
- Express regret for your child’s behavior, and let them know that you’re working on addressing the issue.
Work on prevention:
- Develop a plan with the teacher to help prevent future biting incidents, such as increasing adult supervision, teaching your child appropriate ways to express emotions, and praising positive behaviors.
- Remember teaching and learning needs to happen when your toddler is calm and regulated
- Keep in touch with the teacher or educator, and ask about any biting incidents, if happened and also let them know what steps you are taking to prevent future incidents.
What to do when your kids gets hit or bitten by another kid?
While having your child get bitten or hit will raise eternal fires inside you – you’ll want to chase the kids down the street with a broom …BUT the first things to remember are:
- It’s much easier as a parent/family to be on the receiving end of a hitting or biting incident
- The kid who did this isn’t evil
Talk to your toddler about strategies to do if it happens again and how to remove themselves from situations if they think it’s dangerous.
Some strategies might include
- Learning the phrase “Stop I don’t like that”
- Telling an adult straight away
- Walking away
- Not fighting back
- Modeling appropriate behavior if your toddler hits or bites you
Toddler bites are painful biting hurts – how to stay calm in moment if your toddler hits or bites you:
If you’ve been bitten by a toddler you’ll know a kids bite feels like a shark bite – their teeth are new and sharp – BIG LOUD reactions are the most natural response but not often the best and modifying the behavior in the long run.
First, make the environment as safe as possible – ensure other children are safe.
As much as humanly possible, stay calm and cool. You may be physically and emotionally hurt – it’s a very reasonable response – but just like managing a tantrum the Toddler Toolkit STAR approach will guide you – the S stands for (SELF CHECK) – regulate your own emotions first. Remember an escalated adult cannot de-escalate and escalated child. Take a BIG breath if you need.
By remaining calm, keeping your voice low and quiet you’ll model excellent regulation skills. Help your child to co-regulate.
Don’t expect your toddler to apologise in the moment – wait until they are calm and regulated to talk about saying sorry and to start the teaching and learning
When to seek help
Beyond this article The Toddler Toolkit will walk you through a range of behavioral modification and emotional regulation strategies you can work with your toddler on to help stop toddler biting and hitting, if you’ve been working on these consistently for a few months and your child’s hitting and biting behavior is persistent, it may be helpful to seek the advice of a pediatrician, child development expert, or therapist. They can help you better understand the underlying causes of the behavior and develop a plan to address it.
Remember, it’s important to keep in mind that biting, hitting, hair pulling and pinching are common behavior among toddlers, especially those who are still learning how to communicate their needs and feelings.
That doesn’t mean you should be permissive about these behaviours. This is your opportunity to set limits and empower your toddler to take on new skills which will ultimately give them the confidence to feel safe and secure in their world.
With the help of the teacher, parents, and other professionals, you can work together to help your child learn to manage their emotions and develop appropriate social skills.
Paediatric Psychologist Amanda Abel and Paediatrician Dr Golly have written the Toddler Toolkit to support parents through the parenting toddlers from tantrums, toilet training, fussy eating and everything in between – over 15 modules these Paediatric experts will guide you to a gentler calmer way to parent.