How to Handle a Toddler That Hits or Bites
Parenting toddlers can be a complex journey, especially when you are confronted with aggressive behaviors like hitting or biting. As your little one explores the world around them, they might occasionally express their frustration through hitting or biting.
While it’s undoubtedly challenging, understanding why toddlers resort to such behaviors, and learning effective strategies to manage it, can make this phase more manageable.
Understanding Your Toddler’s Behaviors
- Communication Deficits: Toddlers, for the most part, lack the skills to represent their needs or emotions in a socially appropriate manner. When their attempts to communicate verbally fail, frustration may lead to aggression as an alternate form of expression.
- Emotional Expression: Toddlers haven’t yet developed full emotional regulation skills. When they’re overwhelmed by strong feelings like frustration, they may lash out physically.
- Imitating Behavior: Children learn by observing, so if they’ve observed hitting or biting behaviors in their environment, they may mimic it without understanding the consequences.
What to Do When Your Toddler is Hitting or Biting
- Stay calm: Take a deep breath and try to understand what’s happened before and after your child’s behavior, before you decide on a course of action.
- Evaluate: What happens when these behaviors are presented? Is it to escape a presented task? Are they trying to get negative or positive attention or gain a preferred item?
- Be consistent: Set boundaries that indicate that this behavior is unacceptable. Make sure your child immediately knows the consequences of hitting or biting.
- Support positive behavior: Praise your child when they use words to communicate.
Teaching Alternative Behaviors
Teaching your child alternative behaviors before hitting or biting occurs can help minimize the outbursts. Here are some strategies for minimizing the likelihood of hitting or biting:
- Teach your child use simple words like “stop”, “help” or “want”, depending on what it is they need.
- Learn to identify the early signs of frustration or anger. Teach your toddler to use words when you observe them getting frustrated. You can teach them to say small phrases such as, “no please” or “frustrated.”
- Use signs or signals. If your child cannot say words, you can teach them to sign or give you a picture that represents frustration. Whatever they can use to present a signal for you and other people that they are frustrated.
Setting Up Your Child’s Environment for Success
- Encourage your child to talk about their emotions. Be attentive and responsive to their attempts to communicate. You guide rather than create their responses.
- Engage in supervised group activities with other children. As you learn to identify the early signs of frustration or anger, the activities will provide an opportunity for teaching alternative behaviors (e.g., sharing, waiting, and turn-taking).
- Use visual schedules to create predictability in your child’s routine. This can help reduce anxiety and frustration, which are common antecedents for aggression.
When to Seek Professional Help
If you find that despite your best efforts, your child’s hitting or biting continues, it may be time to seek professional help. A behavior analyst can offer guidance and strategies for managing your child’s behavior effectively.
By recognizing your child’s signs of frustration and implementing strategies prior to the behaviors, you can help your toddler navigate this stage and emerge with better emotional regulation and communication skills.