Hitting and Biting in Toddlers
It is essential to know that biting and hitting in toddlers is a common and normal behaviour that, for the most part, they will outgrow with our guidance and support. This does not take away from this being a difficult phase of parenting. It can bring up feelings from our past and experiences of how we were parented and, at times, can cause debate about how this should be managed within our own family.
A Toddler may bite or hit for several reasons. Understanding potential causes can help us as adults to respond in a way that can help guide behaviour instead of punishing or shaming.
Curiosity - a toddler’s job is to be curious and explore the world around them. Biting can be a way to explore tastes, textures, and reactions. Unfortunately, this can include people too!
Communication – toddlers may use hitting and biting to show their frustrations. Toddlers are in the early stages of understanding their emotions and finding the language to identify these.
Attention – here, I do not imply this to be “attention seeking” but seeking to have a need met. Often toddlers do not yet know the difference between positive and negative attention. They may have an unmet need: hunger, sleep, sensory stimulation, or overstimulation. Toddlers cannot articulate this and may not understand the need themselves. The unmet need drives the behaviour.
While we as adults can see that this behaviour is unhelpful, a toddler is very much still learning the way of the world. So how can we help to guide them instead of punishing them?
- I would never recommend old-school advice such as “Bite them back; they will only do it once” There is no logic here. It makes no sense at all.
- Instead, try some detective work. Look at patterns or specific triggers that precede the hitting or biting. Is it related to when they are tired, hungry, or overstimulated? Feeling unseen and unheard? Busy or rushing them? How is our mood or parenting going? Grumpy, tired days result in more of this behaviour?
- Just step back and think about what was happening before the hitting or biting occurred.
- We can use this information to prevent, redirect or reduce the occurrence.
- Offer outlets for energy or frustration – increase physical activity – dancing, jumping, and climbing opportunities.
- Oral stimulation – provide things to chew, bite and put in their mouths. Crunch on ice, homemade icy poles, chewy foods, frozen flannels, crunchy fruit like a whole apple.
- Every time your toddler bits or hits, stay calm and remind them of the behaviour we want to see.” We do not bite/hit anybody”. “Gentle hands”.
- Punishment will not work on a toddler – it may temporarily make you as a parent feel better if they have done this to another child, but it will not necessarily stop future bites or hitting.
- Role model – show the person who is hurt some empathy. Acknowledge to your child that that action has hurt someone else – but remember the key to reducing or stopping the behaviour is understanding the “befores” not what happens after the fact.
You and your partner are the only ones needing an opinion on managing this in your household. Educate yourself, have a game plan and stay calm and consistent for your little ones. Knowing that there is always a driver behind every behaviour is essential. It is not always easy to keep cool but remember; we are the adults. If you feel this behaviour is beyond normal for age and stage and causing stress in your family, reach out for professional support.