How to Stop Your Toddler from Hitting and Biting
Seeing someone hurt your child on purpose will raise any mama's hackles! Here's why children hit and bite, and how to help them get through the phase...
What’s more embarrassing than a potty accident at the mall? What’s worse than your toddler drawing on the neighbor’s walls? What’s more horrifying than a screaming meltdown in a restaurant? Having a child who hits or bites other children. It’s absolutely mortifying for a parent to watch a child haul off and belt another kid, or find out that he’s left his dental imprint on the arm of your best friend’s son.
“I would rather hear my toddler curse in church than have him bite another child,” proclaims Leah, a mother of two from Richmond, Virginia. “At least you can laugh it off and blame the television. But when your kid hurts another child on purpose, people look at you like you’re raising a psychopath or assume that you beat your kids and they’re just mimicking what they see at home.”
As appalling as childhood aggression is for parents, it’s a common behavior among toddlers and a phase that most children eventually outgrow. Understanding why children hit and bite and learning how to handle it is the best way to weather the temporary storm.
Full of curiosity and devoid of empathy, babies act entirely on impulse and never show remorse. Like little hedonists, their motto is, “If it feels good, do it!” And what feels good to someone with budding teeth? Biting. Few nursing mothers make it past the six-month mark without experiencing the shooting pain of two razor sharp bottom teeth clamping down on a nipple when the baby is finished eating. While breasts are common targets, Dad’s fingers and Mom’s soft cheek are also favorite places for baby biters to sharpen their fangs.
The best way to avoid a nip is to anticipate it and offer your tiny Dracula an appropriate substitute for chewing. Most babies nibble while nursing when they’ve finished eating and become bored. Pay close attention to your little one’s eating habits and remove your baby from the breast with a ready teething ring or other chewable to keep her happy.
Keep fingers out of the baby’s mouth and they’ll remain in one piece. Cheeks are tough because teething munchkins tend to chomp down during hugs and snuggling. The famous Dr. Spock recommends saying, “That hurts! Be gentle,” and putting your baby down for a minute to reinforce the idea that the behavior is unacceptable, even if she doesn’t quite understand why yet. And make sure to avoid giving your delicious little one love bites of your own. She’s a natural mimic and will be more prone to bite you back!
Infants can pack a mighty wallop, too. It’s not uncommon for a frustrated baby to flail her arms and land a decent smack when she’s overtired or attempting to push away unwanted food or toys. While it may be unintentional, it can become a learned behavior.
Dr. Seth Scholer, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and author of Play Nicely: A Multimedia Violence Prevention Program, says, “It would be inappropriate to use time-outs with an infant. Once she is old enough to understand (usually nine to 12 months), you can begin setting the rule, ‘No hitting.’”
Why Punches Fly
While babies will sometimes munch on a playmate’s foot, their actions most often stem from curiosity rather than anger. Toddlers, on the other hand, lash out in fits of rage, which is what sends parents over the edge imagining that they’re raising a maniac, destined to become the next Mike Tyson, or at least the local bully.
Dr. Scholer assures us that it’s not the case, “Almost all toddlers are aggressive at some point. It most likely occurs because young children have not had a chance to learn socially appropriate ways to respond to life’s challenges. For example, it is easier for a toddler to take another child’s toy than to ask, ‘May I please have a turn?’”
Dr. Cathryn Tobin, PhD, author of The Parent’s Problem Solver agrees, “Most biting problems happen because a young child doesn’t yet have the communication skills he needs to deal with his emotions. Young children have poor impulse control.”
The good news is that most children outgrow hitting and biting between the ages of three to five. But they don’t stop all by themselves; parents must teach children how to handle frustration or their violent behavior could become a permanent personality trait.
“Aggression can start becoming a stable characteristic as early as three years of life, and aggressive behavior is even more stable if it is persistent in a seven-year-old. This doesn’t mean that all aggressive children will be violent when they are older. It simply means that children who have not learned to control aggressive tendencies within the first three to seven years of life are more likely to be violent as adolescents and young adults,” Dr. Scholer explains.
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