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Rebecca Chicot PhD

Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Biting & hitting

Aggression, impulsivity, and single-mindedness are universal traits in toddlers. When toddlers are thwarted they are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the person who has got in their way. Biting is one of the ways they express this. There are many ways that can help manage this behaviour.
In Short

There are several reasons that toddlers are aggressive including:

They lack impulse control and want their own way.

Toddlers can’t articulate their desires with language.

They find it impossible to put themselves in the shoes of others.

Don't bite them to show how much it hurts. Toddlers learn by copying your behaviour.

Understanding the flashpoints that lead to your toddler's frustration, aggression and biting is vital in preventing incidents.

Why is my toddler so aggressive?

Unlike babies, toddlers are mobile and able to reach for things they want. For the first time in their lives they may come into contact with another person (usually another toddler) who wants the same thing as them. However, toddler’s are not yet able to put themselves in another person’s shoes and they are impulsive, willful and egocentric. So, get together two toddlers who:

  • Lack impulse control
  • Can’t articulate their desires with language
  • Find it impossible to put themselves in the shoes of others
  • Want their own way

and aggression is sometimes inevitable.

However, there is a wide range in the aggression displayed by different toddlers. This variation is down to many factors including temperament and impulsivity. Psychologists even rate behaviour on a spectrum from ‘aggressive, externalising or acting out’ to ‘non-aggressive, internalising and withdrawn’. Basically, when we feel strong emotions inside this spectrum helps to describe what can be seen from the outside. Aggressive toddlers wear their emotions on their sleeves and do not hold back what they are feeling.

Why does my toddler bite?

It is so upsetting, not to mention embarrassing if your toddler bites another child. It’s such a painful form of aggression that it’s very hard for the victim’s parents to be completely relaxed about it.

Toddlers tend to resort to biting when they feel overwhelmed and frustrated by other children. Toddlers may also bite for other reasons such as to experiment or sometimes if they are teething. The reassuring fact is that biting is quite common and isn’t evidence that your toddler is going to be a violent and aggressive child.

Toddlers have strong impulses but are too young to explain, negotiate or empathise with their playmates. This means that they find sharing or turn-taking really difficult. One of the gentlest toddlers I have ever known had a biting phase and it was such a stressful time for his mum. I wasn’t at all surprised that he stopped biting quite quickly when she implemented the advice I outline here. He grew up to become an empathic and calm little boy.

If your toddler enters a biting phase try not to avoid taking her to groups and play dates as a result. Rather than hide her away, try to make sure that you are ready to step in when you see things escalating to a biting incident. This will mean several sessions where you will need to be on hand to manage your toddler through her biting phase and to make sure that no other toddler gets bitten. As with many things prevention is better. If your toddler is supervised it will give her lots of opportunities to learn to take turns and to begin to understand that other children have feelings too.

How can I prevent my toddler from biting?

As the world expert on your own toddler, you will learn the flashpoints – the factors that lead to her losing control. Tired, frustrated, stressed and hungry toddlers are more likely to lash out. This is the same for all people, you know yourself that if you are running late or have low blood sugar, for example, you may be grumpy and verbally aggressive.

In general, a large part of looking after your toddler is managing and preventing her from being overtired, thirsty or hungry. These basics needs come before play dates or classes as your toddler is just not receptive to anything if she don’t feel warm, rested and comfortable.

Apart from managing these basic ‘needs’, you need to read how your toddler is reacting to situations. If you are unable to prevent factors that make things worse (e.g. hunger), you can teach her to give you a signal when she feels she’s losing control. I read of one mum who taught her biting toddler to sign the world ‘help’ when he wasn’t coping and the mum was then able to step in and help before things got out of hand.

Note
Top Tip: Prevention is best with biting. You need to anticipate the flashpoints and help your toddler and her friends to work out how to share. Try to anticipate the flashpoints to prevent biting incidents and if they happen remain calm and firm, and quickly show your disapproval.
What should I do if my toddler bites another child?

If your toddler does bite say ‘no!’ in a calm but authoritative tone. Remove your toddler from the vicinity of the child and go to the victim. Tell the victim that you are sorry and that you know it hurts to be bitten. You may also need to perform first aid or seek medical help if the bite is very bad or on the face.

Looking after the victim is important as they are the injured party. Try and get another adult to help but your attention to the victim will show that biting doesn’t get attention – your toddler may notice that you respond to the victim and not her.

When the victim is being looked after by another adult you can go to your child. She will probably be very upset but you need to check the victim is okay and being looked after before you can see to your toddler. This is not a moment to be ‘seen to parent’ – there are actually no moments where you should think about your public performance. The most effective way you can teach your toddler that biting is not okay is to quietly, firmly and calmly explain that biting is bad as it hurts people. No more, no less. Lots of explanation will dilute the message and if your toddler is upset she will not be in a receptive mode. Biting isn’t bad behaviour for the sake of it, it is a sign that your toddler has lost control. Psychologists refer to this as ‘emotional deregulation’ or, put simply, they have lost the plot and need to be calmed down before she can listen to you.

Have a shared plan to deal with biting

To help your toddler to come out of her biting phase quickly it is important to agree on a consistent plan with your partner, grandparents, nursery staff and other carers so that you are all working together. It really won’t help if one person decides to try their own technique and please don’t let adults bite your toddler back. This is because the message your toddler will take from this is not just ‘an eye for an eye’ but that physical aggression is okay if the aggressor is a big adult.

Instead, it’s important that together you are consistent in:

  • Learning to see the warning signs of a biting incident.
  • Teaching your toddler to have a signal if she is getting frustrated or ask for your help.
  • Giving a firm, authoritative no if they try to bite (intervene and stop this happening).
  • Give the same message biting is bad and biting hurts.
  • Read stories about biting e.g., ‘Teeth are Not for Biting’ by Elizabeth Verdick.

Nursery staff and other parents (whose children may even have been bitten by your toddler already) will be more supportive if you talk to them. If you can demonstrate that you are being firm and consistent with your toddler other parents will be more likely to trust you and help you.

Try to remember that biting is a common (though aggressive and unpleasant) behaviour and that your toddler will grow out of it with your help. With a consistent approach, she will learn to cope with frustration and other children’s needs in a more acceptable way. Hopefully, before too long, it will all be a distant memory.

Other forms of toddler aggression

There are many ways that toddlers can be aggressive, from roaring and screaming to pulling hair, hitting, kicking and throwing objects. Biting is, of course, one of the most extreme forms of aggression as it can cause real damage and is unbelievably painful but what you need to do when coping with aggression is the same:

  1. Intervene and stop the aggression.
  2. Check the victim of your toddler’s aggression is okay and get help for them.
  3. Take your toddler to one side and calm her down with a quiet and soothing presence.
  4. Simply explain that we don’t e.g., pull hair as it hurts.
What if my toddler is aggressive to objects or self-harms?

If your toddler is hurting herself, headbanging or smashing up the place you need to calm her down in the first instance. She has lost control. She can’t hear or process your ‘important life lessons’ until you help her to calm down first. In the long term, you need to identify what is winding up your toddler and if there is a pattern. You also need to reduce the factors that make her aggression worse – namely; hunger, fatigue, cold, overheating, noise, even strong smells. These internal and external factors make everyone feel more tetchy; whereas having a late lunch can tip a toddler into a full on aggressive meltdown.

Toddlers can experience a multitude of emotions and experiences in just a few minutes. They will learn lots of important lessons from adults helping them to play ‘nicely’ and they will learn just as much from the often wordless (but frequently vocal) interactions. Toddlers model or copy adult behaviour. Play with her yourself, and let her play with older cousins and siblings so that she sees good standards of behaviour. It can be frustrating if your toddler picks up a ‘bad habit’ from another child. If you feel that your toddler is modelling some bad behaviour, you can try and mix up her play a bit so they get to share time with a range of other children. Don’t feel that you have to be completely passive about who your toddler plays with. That’s not to say that you need to ostracise loud or agressive toddlers. They’ll have lots of good qualities too. Just try to make sure that your toddler has the opportunity to play with others who are gentle, empathic and good humoured behaviour. These gentle souls can be great teachers for your toddler.

Toddler aggression at playgroups and playdates

When I took my toddlers along to playgroups it often struck me that it was a little like having your own personal ‘odd friend’ along; that you had to apologise for, intercede on behalf of and protect. All the parents are in the same boat (though some parents had a tougher time depending on the idiosyncrasies of their toddler). At a nice, welcoming playgroup this is well understood and there is a sense of camaraderie. If you feel that the playgroup that you and your toddler attend is becoming too stressful it might be worth meeting up with a couple of like-minded parents to go to the park. Or try out a few playgroups until you find one that both you and your toddler enjoy.

At any playgroup, bullying and aggression should be stopped. In a large room full of exciting toys and excited toddlers it’s not really an option to get lost in a magazine or your phone and hope for the best. That day will come but toddlers need help in these early days of socialising. Again, this does not mean micro-managing every interaction; a few pushes, grunts and hard stares are part of toddler life. Help your toddler to realise that other children want to play with the same toys as her and that turn taking helps to make things fair for everybody.

Teaching sharing to toddlers

There are opportunities to learn about sharing and turn-taking all around. Here are some opportunities to teach about sharing and turn-taking:

  • If you are making a snack for your toddler and a friend make sure that she helps prepare it and hands it to her friend.
  • Give your toddler lots of opportunities to help you share food out at mealtimes e.g., one tomato for you and one for me.
  • If you are playing with sets of toys share them out e.g., you can have 10 bricks and your friend can have ten bricks.
  • At the playgroup police the swing and the slide with your toddler and her friends e.g., your friend can have 20 pushes then it’s your turn for 20 pushes. Keep the turns short so that your toddler doesn’t have to delay gratification for too long and it will become a habit for them.
Robert went through a horrible phase of pinching faces. It was always other toddlers at the local church coffee morning as there were lots of toys and if anyone tried to take his toy or use it too he’d push or pinch their face hard. Luckily I had quite a few friends there that knew neither of us was a maniac but for a while, I was always hovering near him and had lots of cold lattes. By the time he was three he just got better at sharing and not getting so angry, practice makes perfect I suppose.
Real mum story. Jenny, mum to Robert 3 and a half years.

Quiz: Does your behaviour affect your toddler’s aggression?

Take our quiz to see if your attitude to aggression may be contributing to your toddler’s behaviour.

1. If your toddler hits another toddler at a playgroup do you:

a) Tell her immediately that hitting is not allowed.

b) Try not to interfere too much as they need to slug it out a little bit.

c) Have my nose buried in a magazine when we go to playgroup, it’s a little bit of ‘me’ time.

2. Do you have consistent rules in your house about what level of aggression is “allowed” e.g., hitting, kicking and shoving?

a) Yes, we have the house rules that I always enforce.

b) Mostly but if’s she’s tired I let things slide.

c) I don’t really know what to do when my toddler is violent.

3. Have you suggested ideas for what to do when your toddler feels frustrated and angry?

a) He can’t speak properly yet so it’s not something I have discussed with him.

b) I have told him when I am angry I hit a pillow instead of a person.

c) I have encouraged him to sign to me when he’s losing control and I will help him calm down.

4. Are you pleased when your toddler stands up to other children?

a) Yes it’s Lord of Flies out there and she needs to stand her ground.

b) I think it’s important to stick up for yourself but not sure what to suggest to her.

c) I like my toddler to be assertive and feel confident to say ‘no’ but not to lose control and physically hurt anyone else.

5. What do you do if your toddler hurts you?

a) Hurt her back.

b) I make a big deal out of it.

c) I pull a sad face and explain simply that her shove hurt me.

6. Have you ever smacked your toddler?

a) I smack my toddler when she’s naughty, it’s the only language she understands.

b) I have smacked her a few times when I’m at the end of my tether.

c) I have never smacked my toddler.

7. Do you have a temper?

a) I lose my temper quite frequently and find it hard to wind down.

b) I only lose my temper very occasionally and usually calm down quickly.

c) I can’t remember losing my temper – and when I do it’s usually in response to pain and directed at an inanimate object like a piece of lego I’ve trodden on!

8. What about conflicts between you and your partner?

a) We have frequent loud rows and blows have been exchanged in front of my toddler.

b) No physical aggression but loud arguments do occur.

c) We have our conflicts but we try and discuss our issues respectfully and resolve them quickly and privately.

9. What do you do when your toddler plays the peacemaker?

a) Heave a sigh of relief that I don’t have to weigh in.

b) Say ‘well done’.

c) Say – for example – ‘you were very calm when your friend knocked you over by mistake’ and then give her a hug and say I’m proud of her.

10. Do you make your toddler say sorry?

a) Yes, if she’s in the wrong, I insist on a sorry or she knows she will be punished.

b) Sometimes, if I am being watched by judgemental parents.

c) No, I explain that it makes a person feel better if you apologise but don’t insist.

11. What do you say when your toddler is angry?

a) I tell her she’s silly to get angry over such a little thing.

b) I say ‘calm down’.

c) I try and acknowledge her anger, however ludicrous it might seem to me as an adult, e.g., ‘I know you are very angry that you can’t wear your swimsuit in the snow but you will get too cold’ but my body language is important to help her calm down so she can listen to me. She’s not on receiver mode when she’s having a tantrum.

All toddlers will be aggressive and physically hurt other people and damage things at one time or another. However, your attitudes around aggression and your own aggression can be a model to your toddler. Some behaviour can promote aggression in your toddler and some behaviour can promote emotional regulation and alternatives to aggression.

Mostly a’s: Your behaviour might sometimes increase the chances that your toddler will act aggressively and your response to their aggression may not help them to wind down.

Mostly b’s: You are not very aggressive yourself but you don’t really know how to handle aggression in your toddler and other people in your life.

Mostly c’s: You are very good at regulating your toddler’s emotions and help her find alternatives to lashing out and getting angry.

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DISCLAIMER
This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.