Hitting, pushing, shoving and biting are common ways for preschoolers and toddlers to deal with their emotions. Strikes and bites are often happening because something inside the child, some feeling, like a hiccup, just needs to get out. It could be frustration, upset, sadness, anxiety, fear or a mixed bowl of emotions.
What can we do about it? Very likely, you have heard many suggestions on how to deal with your child’s biting and hitting. Perhaps you have tried time-outs, yelled out of frustration, or taken away a toy. Maybe you have even heard the “bite back” and “strike back” bit of advice but don’t want to go down that path? Would you like to try alternatives based on love, empathy and gentle guidance?
Here are 5 ideas on how to positively deal with a child that hits and bites:
1. Observe: If biting, hitting, pushing has been going on for a little while, chances are you can pin-point some of the situations that bring it about. For a toddler, being upset and not having words to express herself is a common trigger:
For my 20 month old Bella, having toys taken away by her bigger brothers is a sure fire way to get a bite in return. We have worked as a team to instill a habit of “switching” and “asking” for toys as well as respecting when someone is not ready to share.
2. Be Pro-Active: Although understanding the reason behind the strike is not a pre-requisite to curbing the problem, being pro-active can reduce the strikes and help our children learn more positive ways to deal with their emotions.
At our weekly playgroup, one 30 month old toddler, Julia*, was keen on hitting my daughter. After the third time, I noticed Julia would strike when I was actively playing with my daughter and Julia was wandering around looking for something to do. Julia would come to strike, her mother would then rush across the room and sternly tell her NO and then walk away again. Julia would move onto the next child she could hit and this cycle would go on and on. The next week, when we started playing with some puzzles, I invited Julia to join us right away. Julia was very happy to do so, and soon her mother joined as well. Julia has not hit Bella for several weeks now – Instead, the girls are learning to play side by side with a bit of guidance.
3. Empathize: If we really take the time to look past the strikes and bites, we can see that the acts are not so much a pre-meditated crimes, but more so outbursts of emotion and a lending a loving ear can help heal the hurt.
When my soon to be 4 year old recently tried kicking and hitting me, I held him close so I wouldn’t get hurt and said “You may not kick or hurt me but I will listen to you. Do you want to tell me what you are feeling?” After some squirming, crying and huffing, he went on to tell me he was really mad. A friend that had been visiting was leaving and he just wasn’t ready to say good-bye. “I hate when people go to their house.” Crying in my arms and having a listening ear was all he needed to recover.
4. Play: For the toddlers as well as for the preschoolers, having an outlet for their frustration, anger or upset is all very important. From roughhousing to playing chase or pillow fights; games that actively allow children to release energy all help prevent biting, hitting and other aggression from building up.
During an unexpectedly long walk up our mountain, my five year old was getting really anxious to get home, he started pestering his brother and poking him (a sign he might start hitting if he gets more worked up.) I suggested we start playing animal safari as we walked. We took turns growling like bears, making elephant noises and lastly roaring like lions. The large breaths of the lion roaring helped Maxi re-focus and relieve some of his energy and soon we were home and nobody had been hurt.
5. Be Firm-Be Kind: Should your child strike you or bite you try to stay calm, show empathy and then with kindness explain the behavior is not alright. Short and descriptive phrases without loaded emotions seem to work best.
“You may not bite your friend. Biting hurts. How about we try to play together?“
“Do not bite. Please try to ask for help.”
“You seem very mad. Hitting is not ok. Do you need something?”
Biting and hitting are a normal part of early childhood and although many parents feel ashamed or embarrassed by this particular behavior, for children it is really just like learning to drink from an open cup, holding a spoon or riding a bicycle…it takes a bit of time, love and lots of patience.
How do you feel when your child hits or bites?
Have you been able to help your child curb biting or hitting? What has worked for your family?
More Helpful Information on Biting & Hitting:
From Hand in Hand: What to do When Your Toddler Bites by Patty Wipfler
From Aha!Parenting: How to Stop your Child’s Hitting by Dr. Laura Markham.
*Julia’s name has been changed.
How to Make my toddler stop hitting.No more biting.