Why Your Toddler is Biting and Hitting

Biting and hitting are common problems during the toddler years, and whether your child is on the giving or receiving end, your goal is the same: you want the behavior to stop. But how? Well, that depends (first) on WHY your child is biting and hitting and (second) if he or she has a clear understanding of right and wrong.

What’s the Reason?

There are two big reasons young children bite and hit. The first is reaction. People respond to pain, and babies and young toddlers get a kick out of watching the response. The pain isn’t important. In fact, they don’t understand they are causing pain. All they know is that a specific action causes a predictable response. They are exerting control over their environment, and it’s fun. You can tell they enjoy the game because their bite or punch is accompanied by a smile or giggle.

The second big reason is more sinister. As toddlers gain experience interacting with their environment, they learn that exerting pain gets them what they want. Think of it as baby bullying.

Re-Direction

It’s important to understand which reason applies to your child. If he or she is a happy biter or hitter and just looking for a response, then your best bet is simple re-direction. Don’t react in an exaggerated way. Give a firm “No!” and move on by providing a quick distraction, such as an activity or object or their reflection in a mirror. Be sure to respond in fun and exaggerated ways when your child engages in socially-acceptable actions. And try to head trouble off at the pass by anticipating a bite or punch before it happens and providing a quick re-direction that results in appropriate behavior.

Right vs Wrong

Dealing with biting and hitting changes when it becomes a tool your child uses to get his or her way. By the time it gets to this point, children have a clear sense of right vs wrong, and while they know the action is wrong, they continue to bite and hit because it works. So… you have to make sure it doesn’t work. Biting and hitting should never result in your child getting his or her way, even when you were fine allowing what your child wanted. Instead, WAIT until he or she is displaying appropriate behavior and THEN grant the wish.

Language and Discipline

Many times, children bite and hit because they are unable to express themselves with language. Read to your children often, encourage words, and try to anticipate needs BEFORE frustration kicks in. If you are concerned about your child’s language development, be sure to talk to his or her doctor about it.

Delinquent biters and hitters may require more than anticipation and re-direction. Sometimes discipline is required to extinguish the behavior. Discipline should always be predictable and consistent. An immediate time out lasting one minute for each year of age is almost always effective as long as you do it every time your child displays the problem behavior. After the time out, give a loving hug, explain why the time out occurred, and move on. Never bite or hit your child as a form of discipline. It’s not effective and is entirely hypocritical.

When Someone Else’s Kid is the Problem

If you are a babysitter or daycare worker, these tactics are appropriate for the biters and hitters in your care. But what if your child is the recurrent victim of a biter or hitter? First, set up a meeting with the adult caregiver. Find out what’s going on and how they plan to get the situation under control. Feel free to send them a link to this article if they need some pointers. Finally, if the behavior doesn’t stop, it’s time to find another child care option, one with better supervision and an effective and appropriate means of dealing with those baby bullies.

For more advice for your child’s toddler years, join Dr. Mike in the PediaCast Studio!

Mike Patrick, MD
Dr. Mike is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s and host of PediaCast, our pediatric podcast for moms and dads. Each week, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers listener questions, and delivers interviews with pediatric experts on a variety of topics. Dr Mike is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, where he serves as a faculty advisor for medical students. On the home front, he is married with two kids: a college-aged daughter and a son in high school. Prior to working in the emergency department, Dr Mike spent 10 years in a busy private practice, a time he says most prepared him for the practical advice he shares on PediaCast. Dr Mike also has an interest in roller skating. He learned to walk with skates on his feet, and his first job (age 10) was as a disc jockey at his hometown roller skating rink. He has also worked as a DJ at two radio stations, experiences which further prepared him to host our podcast!

One thought on “Why Your Toddler is Biting and Hitting

  1. Dr. Mike–wow! I have to disagree with your article and the reported causes of biting by kids. And using the word bully is a loaded and socially charged buzz word that DOES NOT apply to toddlers. As a pediatric SLP at a children’s hospital for 14 years and the mother of a toddler biter at daycare, I worked tirelessly to educate myself about children and biting.
    What I learned is that there are 3 reasons children bite. 1. Exploration. 2. Communication. 3. Response to sensory stimuli AKA fight or flight.
    Most babies from 6-18 months learn about the world by mouthing everything! They mouthe and bite anything and everything. Sure, adult supervision and direction is necessary to help the babies learn what is appropriate and safe to mouthe and the child continues to develop. I might add that babies are also cutting teeth at this time and biting helps to relieve this discomfort.
    In the midst of this time frame, first words are emerging. As a result, cause-effect is being learned. When words are new or not available to the child, biting works as an effective means to get the point across. Your article somewhat addresses this cause of biting. Yes, adult assistance is required to help a child learn socially acceptable means of requesting or protesting. If a toddler is language delayed, biting is used to communicate. Most likely, the child would benefit from a speech language evaluation and possibly speech intervention, within the daycare setting if possible.
    (A brief aside about daycares and time-out discipline–most daycares do not use time-outs. Daycares cannot remove your child from the group and devote 1 staff member to ensuring 1 child stays in time-out. It is a safety risk for the rest of the children in their care. Also, time-outs in their genesis were to prevent behavior, not to react to behavior. When you see a behavior about to happen, you remove the child and give them time to cool off and re-group. That’s how time-out started.)
    As a toddler grows to ages 2 and 3 years and has age typical verbal communication skills but is still biting, the sensory processing and coping skills need to be assessed by an occupational therapist, again, within the daycare setting. Often, pre-biting signs are present yet subtle: finger splaying, reduced engagement, seeking less stimulating areas of the room, crashing on pillows. Other children in daycare are noisy and unpredictable. So it the child that bites has tactile defensiveness, getting bumped by another can result in getting bit. Do you know how often other child bump into each other at daycare? A LOT! If the child has auditory hypersensitivity, a loud “NOOOOO! MINE!” from another may result in a bite. Do you know how often toddlers in daycare refuse to share and yell? A LOT.
    If biting persists past the ages of 4-5 years in an otherwise typically developing child, then social work or mental health evaluations are necessary.
    I hope that this response helps others who happen to read your article seeking direction and advice about toddlers who bite. There are professionals (SLPs and OTs) out there who can help. Your pediatrician or the daycare providers may be able to direct you to SLPs and OTs who can help or contact your state’s Early Intervention system for assistance.
    And, Dr. Mike, I would highly encourage you to make friends and to discuss biting with a Developmental/Behavioral Pediatrician and a pediatric therapies group.

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