Ah toddlers. One minute they are the cutest thing in the whole world and the next minute we want to pull our hair out. One behavior in particular that can be painful, distressing and get you “stay away from that kid” looks from other parents is physical aggression like biting, hitting, pinching, pulling hair...need we go on? As a pediatrician and a mom of two toddlers, helping parents navigate how to help your child through these behaviors is on my list of priorities.
Why do toddlers take to physical aggression?
Toddlers are experimenters who are figuring out how to express themselves. The are constantly testing out what will work and what won’t work when it comes to getting what they want. Experimenting with physical aggression is just one of the many communication methods that children try. And all kids do it to different degrees, so don’t let the parent shaming get to you - you are far from failing as a parent. And just like with most things regarding parenting, how you respond can make all the difference.
What causes my kid to hit or bite?
Hitting normally occurs when your child is upset, hurt, scared about something, or is unable to communicate something effectively which then leads to frustration and then an outburst of anger. Rest assured that most toddlers will go through a hitting phase and then once they have realized that it’s not getting them anywhere, they will stop. I’m also very reassured when a parent says that their toddler hits at home but it never happens at school. That’s a child who knows her boundaries and that’s an essential life skill.
How can I teach my toddler not to hit?
Most children are very empathetic and know what is right and wrong, so you don’t need to go into a long lecture on how hitting is bad and how hitting hurts other people. They can probably read that emotion on your face or they realize it when the other child starts crying. If you keep your focus on trying to figure out what caused the hitting in the first place rather than why the behavior is inappropriate, you’ll get a lot farther.
What should I do if my toddler starts hitting?
If your toddler is new to hitting, make sure to keep them at an arm's length or remove them from their current situation to kindly tell them “I can’t let you do that” or “That doesn’t feel good.” It’s easier said than done, but try to be loving and calm rather than reactive or angry because acting with aggression towards your child's hitting will likely reinforce the hitting behavior in their mind.
Make sure to make eye contact, restrict them from actually hitting,set boundaries but not through scolding. Stay there with them and hold them close until the subsequent tantrum or crying has passed. Consider saying phrases like “I’m right here keeping you safe” or “I understand that not getting ‘xyz’ made you feel bad.” Listen more than speak and try modeling how you would like them to express themselves in the future.
Pro tip: I concede that this is easier said than done so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t always be present and ready to intervene in a calm manner. If you fail, dust yourself off and try again next time. The key to making this work is consistency. Also remember that you may have to sit there with your screaming child for 40 minutes the first time around, but it will get easier and faster with subsequent tries.
Consider playing your child out of the aggressive behavior and out of their “reactive brain” and into their “thinking brain”. Watch this video to help with how to do this.
A word of advice
The physically aggressive behaviors will likely go away over time as the toddler learns that they are not getting any attention for it and that there are other ways to communicate what they need. The one thing to always keep in mind is that hitting is a reaction to some emotion just like crying or having a tantrum is a reaction. Letting your child know that they have someone to help them through the emotion and not try and suppress it, will help your child be better at regulating their emotions as time goes on.
To help you understand more about these and other behaviors that children in this age group commonly have, one of my favorite quick reads is Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Another great resource is a website called Hand in Hand Parenting.
If you feel like aggressive behaviors are not improving over time or if you need more support, make an appointment with your pediatrician to help you with more resources around the topic.
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