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Toddlers are notoriously challenging for parents.
As sweet and adorable as they can be, toddlers can also go from happy one minute to unhappy the next.
At this age, they’re still learning how to control their emotions, and sometimes this leads to certain behaviors– like hitting or biting.
Hitting, biting, and other aggressive behaviors are common in toddlers. They often do these things when they feel frustrated or overwhelmed by an experience. Toddlers also may have difficulty expressing their needs with words.
It’s helpful for parents to understand the reasons for this type of behavior so that they can teach their children how to act appropriately and cope better with frustration.
Why do toddlers hit and bite?
Generally, hitting and biting happens because toddlers are learning how to control their BIG emotions or they are having trouble expressing their needs, which leads to frustration.
Here are a few possible reasons specifically that you can look for:
If your little one is cutting new teeth, they can be prone to biting people or things more often. If you suspect new teeth are coming in, be sure to offer your child lots of opportunities to bite and teething toys.
Objects like a frozen wet washcloth tend to work well. This helps soothe their gums and should help with the biting.
Your toddler is tired or hungry
Have you ever been so cranky during the day that you didn’t realize until later it was because you were overtired or hungry? Your toddler is no different. They will have days where they are tired from not enough sleep, overstimulation, or a break in their daily routine.
Start paying attention to the time of day that your child hits or bites and you may find a pattern. Maybe it’s happening right before nap time or if they have gone too long without a meal or snack?
Frustration or anger
Toddlers are just like you and me; they can get angry over circumstances that happen to them every day.
Sometimes I think we really need to empathize more with our children. Even grown adults have expressed how hitting a pillow when they’ve had a bad day makes them feel better.
Why would a toddler be any different?
Keep in mind that your child depends on you to teach them life skills, including handling their frustration and anger. This stage in their life is a learning curve for both of you.
Your toddler isn’t talking yet
One main reason is simple; they can’t talk yet. Your toddler doesn’t know how to tell someone that they do not like the current situation.
If your little one isn’t talking much and has begun hitting or biting, you may have to play detective in order to find out exactly why they are lashing out.
They are modeling similar behaviors
Some children will pick up destructive behaviors they see around them very quickly. It is quite common for a toddler to start hitting or biting after he sees another child do this.
If you suspect that your toddler is copying actions from another little one, you may have to limit their contact temporarily until the situation has been dealt with correctly.
Your toddler wants your attention
If you are at a complete loss as to why your toddler has started hitting or biting, it may be simple. They are trying to get your attention. Just think about how much attention a child who bites or hits gets from their parent.
Usually, they will have some one-on-one time with their parent and get a talk about the behavior, all while having your undivided attention.
You really don’t want this to be the way your child gets to spend time with you.
They could be testing the boundaries
Toddlers realize that they are an individual all their own, and there is a life outside of their bubble. Your child is starting to understand some rules and boundaries you have set, but many toddlers will push those limits just to see what happens.
Curiosity can be a driving force for many children to explore hitting and biting to find out what Mommy or Daddy does when it happens.
How to stop toddlers from hitting and biting
1. Stay calm and focused
Your toddler looks to you for model behavior. If you fly off the handle when they do something to upset you, they will repeat those actions. Use a calm (but firm) voice when addressing their behaviors.
By giving them the positive attention they need during this transition, it will ensure they understand what you are telling them.
2. Correct privately
Toddlers can feel singled out or picked on if you try to address negative behaviors in front of friends or family. It can also be hard to correct your child with your Mother-in-law looking over your shoulder.
Take your child to a quiet space where you can both talk alone and work out a solution without negative feelings or actions around an audience.
3. Empathize with your child
Try to understand where your child is coming from. Being a toddler is hard. You do not have all the ways to cope with daily problems, and you aren’t verbalizing your feelings well.
If your child says they are upset, try your best to empathize with them. Let them know it’s ok to have angry or sad feelings.
4. Choose your words carefully
When talking to your toddler about hitting and biting, make sure you tell them that the behavior is wrong, not them. Children can feel bad when they are doing something that their parents do not like.
Building your child’s self-esteem is critical, so you should be careful to address the behavior as a separate issue.
5. Set realistic boundaries
Make sure your child knows the boundaries are there for them but it’s pretty unrealistic to expect them to follow them 100%, especially in difficult situations. There will be times when the daily routine is out the window.
Don’t let yourself feel like a failure during these times. Rather, remember that your toddler is a child, and they will need constant reminders during this phase.
Yes, I said phase! This is only a phase and it likely won’t stick around for very long.
6. Try distractions and redirection
For many young toddlers, distractions will work best when you’re trying to stop the hitting and biting. If your child is trying to bite or hit, try redirecting them to a different area or task.
Sometimes this method alone can change their entire mood and help them forget about why they were angry in the first place.
7. Supervise closely with ongoing prevention
As the parent of a toddler, you probably already know you can’t expect them to stop the behavior 100% after only correcting them once. Your child will still need supervision and continuous reminders while they are trying to learn and develop.
By monitoring your child, you can intervene before hitting and biting happens.
8. Make sure all parents/caregivers are on board with the same strategy
It is so important that all parents and caregivers are on board with the same corrective strategy when it comes to hitting and biting. If you correct your toddler one way and grandma handles it differently, your child will have mixed messages.
Having everyone using the same strategy will give your toddler a sense of structure and consistency.
9. Use positive reinforcement
Your toddler will need positive reinforcement to replace the negative attention they get when they hit or bite. Make sure you praise them for handling their frustration or anger without hitting or biting and encourage them to continue proper methods.
10. Help your child calm themselves by offering alternative solutions
And, of course, we always want to be showing and teaching our little ones better and healthier ways to cope with their emotions!
The best way to stop an undesirable behavior is to replace it with a more acceptable one, right?
Here are a few alternatives you can try with your toddler to replace the hitting and biting:
Encourage your toddler to use their words – If your toddler is talking, it can be really helpful to encourage them to use their words. They need reminders that they can use their words to ask for help when they need it.
Do an angry dance – These dances can include movement and vocal sounds if your child wants to be loud and release anger.
Angry coloring – Let your child scribble angrily on a large piece of paper until they get all of their feelings out.
Taking some alone time – You can offer to sit quietly somewhere with your toddler to give them some time alone to calm down and regroup.
Deep breathing – Show your child how to do some deep breathing exercises. For example, deep breath in through the nose, out through the mouth.
Take a walk – You might offer to take a walk with your child or let your toddler walk up and down the hallway to release anger. Encouraging body movement may help dispel some frustration.
Books to help with hitting, biting, and big emotions
When our toddler was going through the hitting and biting phase, we found that reading books to him about these behaviors actually helped a lot!
Here are a few books you can read to your toddler to teach them about their emotions and help with these behaviors:
Bonus tip: From one parent to another, I highly recommend getting the board book version if it’s available. The durability they provide is exactly what you need at this age!
When should I talk to my pediatrician about serious hitting and biting?
There can be times when a child’s hitting or biting is a sign of something larger going on.
If you’ve addressed all of the possible reasons for the hitting and biting and you are still struggling to make any improvements, talk to your pediatrician. There may be an underlying issue that needs the help of a professional.
Hopefully, you’ve found these tips helpful and they help to curb your toddler’s biting and hitting behavior.
With any change in routine or parenting technique, it may take some time for the effects of this approach to be seen. Try to be patient and use positive reinforcement when rewarding your toddler for appropriate behaviors like staying calm.
And remember, make sure all parents/caregivers are on board with the same strategy too– This will make it easier for everyone!