How to Stop Your Toddler from Hitting and Biting

It’s never easy to see your baby get hurt, but having someone hurt him on purpose will raise any mama’s hackles. Why do children hit and bite, and what’s the best way to get through the phase?

What’s more embarrassing than a potty accident at the mall? What’s worse than your toddler drawing on the neighbor’s walls? What’s more horrifying than a screaming meltdown in a restaurant? Having a child who hits or bites other children. It’s absolutely mortifying for a parent to watch a child haul off and belt another kid, or find out that he’s left his dental imprint on the arm of your best friend’s son.

“I would rather hear my toddler curse in church than have him bite another child,” proclaims Leah, a mother of two from Richmond, Virginia. “At least you can laugh it off and blame the television. But when your kid hurts another child on purpose, people look at you like you’re raising a psychopath or assume that you beat your kids and they’re just mimicking what they see at home.”

As appalling as childhood aggression is for parents, it’s a common behavior among toddlers and a phase that most children eventually outgrow. Understanding why children hit and bite and learning how to handle it is the best way to weather the temporary storm.

Biting Babies

Full of curiosity and devoid of empathy, babies act entirely on impulse and never show remorse. Like little hedonists, their motto is, “If it feels good, do it!” And what feels good to someone with budding teeth? Biting. Few nursing mothers make it past the six-month mark without experiencing the shooting pain of two razor sharp bottom teeth clamping down on a nipple when the baby is finished eating. While breasts are common targets, Dad’s fingers and Mom’s soft cheek are also favorite places for baby biters to sharpen their fangs.

The best way to avoid a nip is to anticipate it and offer your tiny Dracula an appropriate substitute for chewing. Most babies nibble while nursing when they’ve finished eating and become bored. Pay close attention to your little one’s eating habits and remove your baby from the breast with a ready teething ring or other chewable to keep her happy.

Keep fingers out of the baby’s mouth and they’ll remain in one piece. Cheeks are tough because teething munchkins tend to chomp down during hugs and snuggling. The famous Dr. Spock recommends saying, “That hurts! Be gentle,” and putting your baby down for a minute to reinforce the idea that the behavior is unacceptable, even if she doesn’t quite understand why yet. And make sure to avoid giving your delicious little one love bites of your own. She’s a natural mimic and will be more prone to bite you back!

Infants can pack a mighty wallop, too. It’s not uncommon for a frustrated baby to flail her arms and land a decent smack when she’s overtired or attempting to push away unwanted food or toys. While it may be unintentional, it can become a learned behavior.

Dr. Seth Scholer, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and author of Play Nicely: A Multimedia Violence Prevention Program, says, “It would be inappropriate to use time-outs with an infant. Once she is old enough to understand (usually nine to 12 months), you can begin setting the rule, ‘No hitting.'”

Why Punches Fly

While babies will sometimes munch on a playmate’s foot, their actions most often stem from curiosity rather than anger. Toddlers, on the other hand, lash out in fits of rage, which is what sends parents over the edge imagining that they’re raising a maniac, destined to become the next Mike Tyson, or at least the local bully.

Dr. Scholer assures us that it’s not the case, “Almost all toddlers are aggressive at some point. It most likely occurs because young children have not had a chance to learn socially appropriate ways to respond to life’s challenges. For example, it is easier for a toddler to take another child’s toy than to ask, ‘May I please have a turn?'”

Dr. Cathryn Tobin, PhD, author of The Parent’s Problem Solver agrees, “Most biting problems happen because a young child doesn’t yet have the communication skills he needs to deal with his emotions. Young children have poor impulse control.”

The good news is that most children outgrow hitting and biting between the ages of three to five. But they don’t stop all by themselves; parents must teach children how to handle frustration or their violent behavior could become a permanent personality trait.

“Aggression can start becoming a stable characteristic as early as three years of life, and aggressive behavior is even more stable if it is persistent in a seven-year-old. This doesn’t mean that all aggressive children will be violent when they are older. It simply means that children who have not learned to control aggressive tendencies within the first three to seven years of life are more likely to be violent as adolescents and young adults,” Dr. Scholer explains.

An Eye for an Eye?

So what do you do when your precious child launches an assault on a sibling or friend? Dr. Tobin recommends behavior prediction and intervention rather than reaction. She writes, “If you can identify the situations when your child is more likely to become aggressive, you will do him a big favor by avoiding the situation altogether or redirecting him as needed.”

Dr. Tobin also advises parents to keep a close watch during potentially tense situations and to intervene. “I know you want to play with Jason’s blocks. Let’s ask if we can take turns. If not, we’ll play with the cars.”

Dr. Spock recommends paying your hitter or biter lots of extra attention in case his or her aggressive behavior is actually a ploy to get a big reaction and undivided attention from caregivers.

While plenty of moms will recount stories of hitting and biting their children back to teach them a lesson, every published pediatrician and child psychologist wholeheartedly disapproves of this eye-for-an-eye method of discipline. They say that it only promotes aggressive behavior because hitting or biting is endorsed by none other than a child’s greatest role models: his or her parents!

According to Dr. Scholer, “There is no one correct response to an aggressive child. Parents should have a skill set that enables them to respond appropriately, using strategies such as setting the rule, redirecting, promoting empathy, time-outs, or taking away privileges.”

For young children who can’t really understand an in-depth discussion of the Golden Rule, a firm response like “No hitting!” and some time alone in the crib or bedroom is a good response to violent behavior. Older children can be taught empathy and can have privileges like TV time, games, or other favorite activities removed for their transgressions.

No matter how you decide to deal with your child, always remember to sincerely apologize to the parents of the victim and assure them that you’re working on the problem. And if your child is in the midst of a hitting or biting phase, you might want to warn other parents before play dates so everyone can keep an eye out for trouble and jump in to diffuse tense situations before a potentially painful result.

Assessing the Damage

As surely as most children go through a brief hitting or biting stage, most also find themselves in the role of punching bag at some point. If your child is the victim of an assault, take a breath and don’t freak out. Toddlers are rarely strong enough to hit with enough force to even cause a bruise. They are more likely to strike out blindly and slap another child or give a hearty shove, dumping their victim on his or her bottom. However scary and unkind this may seem to you and your little one, it’s not cause for alarm, and overreacting can make the situation worse for everyone. Simply pick your child up, comfort him just as you would if he’d tripped and fallen and send him off to play with another group of kids or settle him quietly beside you with a toy or snack.

Dads—resist the urge to buy tiny boxing gloves and show your child how to defend himself. Rather than teach your child that aggression is acceptable, instruct him to say, “That hurts!” and walk away to play with someone else or to tell the nearest adult what happened.

Bites are another story, because they can cause real damage. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Human bites can often be as dangerous as, or more dangerous than animal bites because of the types of bacteria and viruses contained in the human mouth.” Here’s how to treat a bite that breaks the skin:

  • Apply direct pressure to stop bleeding.
  • Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Use antibiotic cream or spray.
  • Apply a clean bandage.
  • Ask your doctor about tetanus shots or antibiotics to fight possible infection.

The instinct to protect our young kicks in with a vengeance when we see them get hurt, and it can take a whole lot of willpower to resist resorting to toddler behavior, too.

If the aggressor’s caregiver doesn’t witness the incident, you are completely within your right to say, “That’s not nice. We don’t hit!” before removing your child from the situation. If you know the other child’s parents, calmly telling them what transpired should do the trick.

As hard as it may be, don’t blame the child’s parents for his actions. Realize that it’s just a stage in most children’s development, and the roles could be reversed some day with your little sweetheart taking a swing at someone.

If your child is the victim of a habitual aggressor, it may be in everyone’s best interest to take a break for a while until the child outgrows the behavior. If the aggressive child belongs to your best friend or cousin and avoidance isn’t possible, keep a close eye on the kids and intervene if you see them fighting over a toy or any other situation that might escalate into violence. If your child is being hurt at preschool or daycare, talk to his teachers about the problem and see what they recommend.

When to Seek Help

Most kids outgrow their violent tendencies well before they enter kindergarten. However, according to Dr. Scholer, “Five percent of children have persistently aggressive behavior that persists through adolescence and early adulthood.” If you feel ill-equipped to handle your child’s behavior or suspect that it’s lasted too long and occurs too frequently, consult your pediatrician. The earliest intervention is the most effective, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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