EXPERT Q&A

What’s the best way to handle a toddler who bites and hits?

We’ve all heard the tactic “bite or hit them back”, but does this work? CareNectar expert Shenley Seabrook reviews some helpful tips to promote peace and calm.

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Question

Our 2-year-old is displaying increasingly aggressive behavior. Is this a typical developmental phase or is it something I should worry about? What is the best approach we should take to deal with her behavior?

Answer

Great question! The toddler stage can be difficult to navigate because most children don’t yet have the language skills needed to let us know what they need. Instead of words, they tend to communicate with crying, hitting, biting, tantrums, throwing things—I’m sure you’re familiar!

While this is very common, it doesn’t make the behavior any less concerning or easy to manage. One of the most popular answers parents will give to curb biting and hitting behavior is simply “Bite them back!” or “Smack their hand!” Parents swear by this, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read an anecdote about a toddler biting or hitting and the parent biting or hitting them back, and then they “never bit or hit anyone ever again”.

While this “technique” might be effective, I have some other ideas that are just as effective and don’t require you to cause physical pain to the child.

Stay Calm but Firm

When you observe this behavior, try to keep your cool. It’s normal to be upset, but keeping calm will help you to get your message across clearly and effectively. Go to the child, get down low so you can make eye contact with them, and say in a calm but firm voice, “We don’t hit,” or “We don’t bite.”

Avoid too many additional words. Most toddlers won’t comprehend a long lecture about aggression. It’s typically best at this point to direct the child away from the target of their aggression until they are calm.

Be Consistent

Use this approach as many times as it takes to stop the behavior. For some children, this will take longer, but for others, you may only need to do this a few times before they catch on.

Watch for Triggers

Keep a notebook or a file on your phone to track what is going on in the child’s environment when the hitting or biting occurs. Common situations include when children are tired, hungry, not getting something they want, another child has taken something from them, or they want something someone has. Once you establish a pattern for the behavior and recognize these triggers, try to remain close to the child in these situations to intervene before the biting or hitting occurs.

Model Appropriate Behavior

If a child watches their caregiver act aggressively, they are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Therefore, if you don’t want a child to hit when they are angry, it’s best not to use hitting as a punishment. Also, when you are playing with the child, be sure to model gentle behavior. For example, if you are playing with dolls, use a gentle touch and speak kindly to them. You might even set up a situation during play such as, “Baby Doll is mad because they want that toy. Be kind and ask to share, Baby Doll. Remember, we don’t bite, and we don’t hit our friends.”

Model Coping Skills

It’s never too early to demonstrate healthy coping skills for your children. Try working with your children to take deep breaths to help create calm in a stressful situation or when she’s feeling aggressive. Learn more about managing emotion regulation in your child here.

Praise Gentle Behavior

When you notice the child behaving gently, especially during triggering situations, be sure to provide specific praise. This might sound like, “You used your words to ask for more snacks, great job!” or “I love when you use nice hands to play with your friends.”

Remember, the CareNectar community is here to help, so let us know if you have other questions!

Meet The Expert


Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.