When Toddlers Bite (Tips for extinguishing biting)

Few sandbox moments are more stressful than when your otherwise very sweet two year old bites a playmate that dared to touch his digger.  I can only credit luck with the fact that I never had a biter.  Both of my kids were bitten by other kids, but for some reason they never did the biting.  Phew.

It had nothing to do with my parenting skills.

Biting is a very “normal” toddler behavior.  When you have a lot of thoughts racing through your head but struggle to verbalize those thoughts, you do what whatever it takes to get your needs met.

Toddler biting is not an indicator of future aggressive behavior and it can be extinguished fairly easily.

Below are some tips to help your toddler stop biting:

1.    Write it down:  I know; writing down the circumstances under which your child decided to take a bite out of another is not your top priority in the moment.  But you can do it later.  While biting is often the result of frustration due to a language barrier/communication issue, it can be due to hunger, exhaustion, teething, boredom, or needing a little extra adult attention.  Keeping a journal of the events for a few days will help you determine the pattern of behavior.  Once you can pinpoint possible causes, you can take steps to avoid those triggers.

2.    Be firm, avoid hysteria:  No one wants to be the parent of the biter.  Shock, embarrassment, and fear of judgment can cause parents to sound the alarm and overreact.  Say a firm “no biting” followed by “biting hurts”.  Avoid lengthy explanations, as these will be lost on a toddler.  Help your child apologize to the other child and move on.  Toddlers bite sometimes; try not to let it stress you out.  Repeat offender?  Remove your child from the situation and try again another day.  The behavior is an indicator of something (see #1).  Sticking around despite frequent biting is generally not a good idea.

3.    Snacks & sleep:  Exhaustion and hunger are common culprits when it comes to biting and other aggressive behaviors.  Make sure your child is well slept with a full belly before heading out for a play date or an afternoon at the park.  Always bring extra snacks and water.  Toddlers generally don’t stop to tell you that they are hungry, thirsty, or tired.  Stay a step ahead and leave when you see exhaustion setting in.

4.    Provide close supervision:  Toddlers require close supervision.  I often see parents walk away when they see their children busy in the sandbox or engaged with other kids at the park.  Stay focused on your toddler when around other kids, particularly if your child has a tendency to bite.  You need to be there to intervene and teach your child alternatives.  You can’t do that if you aren’t supervising your child.

5.    Sharing starts at home:  It always amazes me when parents seem to think that their toddlers should just know how to share.  Praise acts of sharing (whether it’s feeding you a cracker or sharing a toy) at home and call it what it is.  Point it out when you share something.  Kids arguing over the same toy?  Set a timer so that each child gets two minutes at a time with that toy.  Sharing does not come overnight and can be very difficult to do at the park.  Practice makes better.

6.    Teach baby sign language:  Toddlers often become frustrated when they are unable to verbalize their thoughts and needs.  Baby sign language has been shown to decrease frustration in toddlers and increase verbal skills.  It’s a win/win.  Riley used 14 signs at a year; Liam stuck to his 6 favorites.  They were both able to communicate frustration and ask for help.

7.    Teach alternatives:  To some degree, toddlers truly don’t know any better.  But that doesn’t mean that you should just let it slide.  Teach alternative behaviors so that your child knows what to do when frustrated, scared, or in need of help.  Liam learned to pick up his toys and move to another space if he needed time to play alone.  He’s also not afraid to speak up and ask to go home if he’s overwhelmed.  Yes, kids need to share.  But they also have the right to play independently if that’s what calms them down.

8.    Provide special time:  Kids often engage in negative behavior when they need a little extra attention from a parent.  It’s part of being a toddler.  Make sure you have some special time each day where your child can count on you to focus on him.  Reading, drawing together, art projects, and puzzles are all great opportunities to make the most of quiet play time and really spend time together.  Needing a little extra TLC is very normal part of toddlerhood, and often providing that special time helps increase positive behaviors and extinguish negative ones.

Two quick things to avoid when dealing with biting:  Never shame your child and never (I mean never) bite back.  Believe it or not, there are actually people out there advocating for these negative strategies.  Please avoid these.

Has your child ever bitten another?

Toddler Aggression Part 2 (Tips for confronting parents)

I received a couple of emails from parents in response to my last post about toddler aggression.  Specifically, they want to know how to handle things with other parents.  Whether your child is the aggressor or the victim, it’s a tricky subject.  As I said in my previous post, aggression is a very normal part of toddler development.  Some kids try it out a few times before moving on, while others go through long phases of using aggressive actions to convey their feelings.  Either way, it’s hard for parents on both ends.  The parent of the aggressive child has to make a quick decision re: how to best handle the situation, while the parent of the victim tries to soothe the child and smooth things over so that play can continue.  It’s no fun on either end.  To some degree, it all comes back to the fact we all have our own parenting style.  While I tend to stick to a “no aggressive behavior” rule, there are others who see it as a stage to work through.  As one bloggy mom pointed out, in a house full of boys there is more roughhousing than in a more girl-dominated house.  It’s true.  Groups of boys play differently than groups of girls, for the most part.  The question remains, how do you handle it with another parent when aggression comes between the kids?  At the end of the day, you have to do what’s right for you.  But here are a few tips to help you along the way:


1. Show empathy: Chances are we’ve all been on both ends of toddler aggression at some point.  Try to put yourself in the other parent’s shoes for a minute before you react.  We all want to protect our kids, and no one wants to have the kid who is always aggressive.  It can be hard to know what to do in those situations, especially at the park or somewhere else in the community.  It’s difficult to make a time out work when there really isn’t a good place for it, and kids can easily become over-stimulated and/or overwhelmed when away from home.  Give one another a chance to handle the situation before jumping to any conclusions.

2. Resist advice-giving: Is there anything worse than having someone give you a five point plan for ending aggression within one minute of your child hitting another child?  Friends come to me for parenting and child development advice fairly regularly.  When they ask, I answer.  If they don’t ask, I try my best to remain quiet.  I do things my way, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for my friends.  Keep it simple and save your advice for when your friend (or the stranger at the park) actually asks for it.

3. Focus on your child: The important thing is to show your child that you are there for him.  Reprimanding the other child actually takes away from your ability to sooth your own child.  If there is not another parent present, it’s perfectly acceptable to say something like, “hitting isn’t allowed at the park”, after you’ve attended to your own child.  Put the feelings of your child first.

4. Try not to overreact: Toddler aggression is most often related to frustration, low verbal ability, hunger, boredom, or over-stimulation.  And, of course, there’s the fact that kids don’t really learn how to share until somewhere between 3-4.  It’s generally not considered “bullying” when an aggressive act by a toddler is impulsive and related to one of the above-mentioned triggers.  The best thing that you can do for your child is to stay calm and attend to his needs.  Try not to take it personally.

5. Take a break: Some kids just aren’t meant to play together.  By the time preschool rolls around, they might play together beautifully.  But if it’s not working out in the tot lot, take a breather.  Find another child with similar interests to try to introduce play dates and work on sharing.  There is no rule that says that all kids have to get along all of the time.  Focus on friendships that work so that your child can feel successful.

6. Be honest: Because I tend to view toddler aggression as a normal part of child development, I don’t feel the need to make it a big issue with a friend or another parent.  I might not schedule future play dates if one of my kids is being aggressive or enduring aggressive behavior each time, but I know that the other parent is probably aware and working on it in some way.  I’ve had a few parents tell me that another parent went on the attack 6 months after the fact and seemingly out of the blue.  If you have strong feelings about it, talk about it openly and honestly. Tell your friend that you need to take a break from play dates until the kids can play without aggression.  Be kind, but honest.  You are the only one who can advocate for your child.  If it’s important to you to do so, then do it right away and try to remain calm and empathic.  Stuffing your emotions will only cause a larger explosion later on, and it’s not an adaptive coping style to model for your kids.

7. Offer solutions: It’s amazing how many parents stick their toddlers in the sandbox and then walk away.  Toddlers do not have the cognitive ability to problem solve independently.  Talk with the other parent about finding ways to reduce frustration between the kids.  Are their certain toys that trigger aggression because they are particularly hard to share?  Remove them.  Are there times of the day that are better or worse for playing?  Would it help to schedule in specific snack and water breaks?  It’s the parents who need to do the problem solving at this stage.  Try to talk it out.

8. Plan ahead: Have a plan in place for how you will help your child if another child is aggressive toward him, whether on a play date or at the park.  Similarly, have a second plan in place for how you will handle it should your child become aggressive.  Toddler aggression is more difficult to handle when you are caught off guard and unsure of how to proceed.  Consistency is always the key to helping a child correct a behavior. Make sure your child understands what to do when another child is aggressive and what you will do if he is aggressive.

Friendships don’t have to end because kids go through stages that are difficult to handle.  Your kids might need a break, but that doesn’t mean that you and your friend can’t connect in other ways.  Try to remember that we are all in this together, and that we’ve all been there.  There is nothing worse than watching your child be victimized by another when all you wanted was a nice day at the park, but the best thing that you can do is empathize with your child and help him feel better.

Have you ever had a friendship suffer due to aggression between kids?


Hitting, Biting, and Pushing? (Tips for dealing with toddler aggression)

Toddler aggression is a very normal part of child development, but that doesn’t make it any easier for parents.  Not all toddlers engage in aggressive behavior, but when they do it can be hard to know how to proceed.  Riley had a brief stage of trying out a few moves.  She once kicked out of frustration while at the park.  That was the end of that park trip.  Another time she returned a hit with a hit.  Again, we went home immediately.  It wasn’t really her natural response.  She saw other kids trying out aggressive behaviors and decided to try her luck.  Liam doesn’t have it in him at all.  He’s been the recipient of many acts of aggression lately, which he immediately reports through a steady stream of tears.  But he never returns the aggression.  I’m lucky.  I didn’t have to deal with it much at all.  But it does happen, and it is considered “normal”.  Aggressive behaviors often stem from lack of language skills, a desire to be more independent, low frustration tolerance, exhaustion, hunger, a change in routine, lack of exercise, or boredom. In some cases (as was the case with Riley), these behaviors are simply experimental.  Toddlers love to test limits and boundaries.  Regardless of the cause, the best course of action is immediate intervention. Rest easy, most of these behaviors will improve by age three and disappear by age four.  Until then, here are some tips to help you help your child decrease aggressive behavior:

1. Apply logical consequences: Whether you are at home or out in the community, choose immediate consequences that fit the behavior.  When Riley dared to hit a child in the sandbox (even if the other girl did hit her first), I picked her up and brought her home.  Removal from the situation works well because your child has a chance to decompress away from the trigger. A brief time out (or break), removing a toy that triggered the event (as one bloggy friend says, “a toy time out”), or a switch to a different activity are all logical consequences that will stop the behavior.

2. Avoid reasoning: I hear it all the time.  A mom deals with aggression by initiating a conversation with a toddler about why aggressive behavior is not nice, including a long list of potential natural consequences.  Toddlers do not have the cognitive ability to understand reasoning and lengthy explanations. They respond to immediate consequences that make sense.  While Liam is not a hitter, he is a thrower.  When I remove a toy because he threw it he generally has a quick temper tantrum.  And then he doesn’t throw that toy again.  A simple, “no throw your toys” is all the explanation he needs.

3. Stay calm: It’s really hard to stay calm when a child is being aggressive at the park or somewhere else in the community.  We’ve all had that feeling.  What do the other mothers think?  Most of the time, I believe they are thinking, “I’ve been there”.  Still, it’s hard to be the one dealing with the aggression.  Yelling, shaming, or spanking will only result in increased aggressive behavior. Stay calm and repeat the rule, “There’s no pushing. Pushing hurts”, and give your child a break from that activity for a few minutes.

4. Set clear limits: Toddlers understand basic rules.  Make a list of house rules and post them (with pictures to depict each rule) in the most used room in the house. Review them regularly.  When a rule is broken, refer to the list (ex: “One of our rules in this house is no yelling.  Please don’t yell”).  Provide reminders each time you go the park, a party, etc. Kids quickly become over-stimulated in the company of other kids.  You can’t expect them to remember the rules every time.  Don’t give chances. You will only become more frustrated as the behavior continues.  It’s best to take action immediately.  Treat the behavior as a symptom of something else. For whatever reason, your child is acting out.  Prolonging the incident will only increase the frustration.

5. Be consistent: You should apply the same basic rules and consequences at home, during play dates, at the park, at parties, and just about everywhere else.  Consistency = easy. When the rules are constantly changing, it’s almost impossible to keep up.

6. Apologize: Whether you decide to bring your child home or just have a time out/activity change, your child should always apologize after a quick cool-down.  Teaching your child to apologize is part of teaching mutual respect. When you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry (but you also get a consequence).

7. Positive reinforcement: Even the most aggressive toddler isn’t aggressive all of the time.  Try to catch your child being great (sharing, playing fair, etc.) and praise him out loud.  Make a simple sticker chart and provide intermittent rewards for friendly behavior.  Kids love to be praised, use it to help them improve their behavior.

8. Exercise: Sometimes kids become aggressive because they haven’t had enough exercise and need to burn off some excess energy. If your toddler is always in a stroller, he isn’t getting enough exercise.  Get out the riding toys, walk to the park, or run around the mall on a cold day.  Do whatever makes the most sense for your family, but remember to focus on exercise.

9. Consider triggers: Try to make a mental note of what triggered the aggressive event so that you can get a sense of the pattern.  As mentioned earlier, exhaustion, hunger, lack of exercise, disruption in routine, boredom, low verbal skills, desire for independence, and low frustration tolerance are all common triggers. If you can pinpoint a specific trigger (or a few) for your child, you can prepare in advance.  Sometimes certain kids just don’t play well together.  That’s ok.  You can always catch up with that mom by phone or at another time.  Don’t force a play date for the sake of mommy time…you might live to regret it.

Toddler aggression is frustrating for sure.  Try to remain calm, find the trigger, and always remember to remind your kids of the rules.  Consistency is the key to helping kids learn the best way cope with their feelings.

How do you deal with aggressive behavior?