Teach Communication

Controlling Hitting, Biting, Pushing, and Shoving

To a toddler, hitting and biting are ways to communicate. Here’s how to teach him better ways to express himself.

By Cynthia Hanson, American Baby, October 2006 
 Use Your Words!  
As a 2-year-old, Pete Crowley, of San Francisco, was impulsive and territorial. So his mother, Brigitte Crowley, wasn’t shocked when her son slugged a boy in his weekly playgroup who had snatched away his toy. But she was mortified. “I yelled, ‘Peeeeeeeeeeete! No hitting! We don’t hit!'” Crowley recalls. “Then I got down at his eye level, held his hands, and made him apologize.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an isolated incident, so every time Pete pushed and shoved, Crowley instructed him to use his words, not his fists. “I worried that Pete could turn into a bruiser,” she says. “I hoped it was just a normal stage of growing and learning how to share.” 

A Common Problem, Several Reasons
Actually, hitting — and biting too — are normal behaviors during a child’s first three years, when emotions run high, but kids lack the ability to express themselves effectively. The first time your little angel does the unthinkable, you may envision the beginning of a lifetime of antisocial behavior. But there’s no cause for alarm — at least not yet. “Toddlers are little cavemen — think of Bamm-Bamm in The Flintstones,” says Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam). “Toddlers are uncivilized and primitive. Hitting and biting are just primitive ways to communicate.”

Indeed, before a child has an extensive vocabulary, hitting and biting are powerful communication tools, up there with screaming and crying. “These behaviors are probably the most effective forms of communication that toddlers have,” says Victoria Youcha, a child development specialist with Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers. “Before you can prevent the behavior or stop it, you need to understand what your child’s trying to tell you.”    
Age and Defense
Age Matters
By the time he reaches the 1-year mark, he’s ready to test limits and experiment with cause and effect. Just as a toddler will repeatedly press a button on a toy to make it sing, he may smack and bite to elicit your shriek of displeasure and horrified expression. “It’s rare that toddlers hit or bite out of aggression,” says Ruth Carter, an infant and toddler development specialist at Bellevue Hospital Center, in New York City, and a former preschool teacher. “Adults perceive it that way, but what’s really going on is that toddlers are seeing how much they can get away with.”

Between 18 months and age 2, a child will hit and bite for attention. Indeed, there’s no faster way to get you to stop talking on the phone than if your daughter chomps your calf or thumps her older sister. As Carter notes, “Hitting and biting are hot-button issues that make adults respond immediately.” 

That’s what Tamarian Graffham, of Tracy, California, discovered several years ago when her daughter, Bronwyn, now 5, bit a girl at daycare who’d been playfully hitting her with a plush toy. “Bronwyn bit the girl’s arm as hard as she possibly could,” the mother of four recalls. “I took her home and discussed the whole ‘biting is bad’ issue, and I repeated ‘Noooooooooooooo biting!’ about six billion times. That was the first and last time Bronwyn ever bit another child.”

And of course, toddlers hit and bite to vent frustration when parents say “no” and playmates won’t share. These actions allow toddlers to demonstrate how upset they are. “As tough as it is parenting a toddler, it’s also tough being a toddler,” Dr. Karp says. “They’re slower, weaker, and shorter than everybody else. They don’t speak clearly. Since they lose all day long, toddlers love to make a big splash with a hit or a bite.”    
Stopping and Preventing Behaviors
For many toddlers, hitting or biting is a one-time event. But for others, it’s a habit until age 3, when most kids outgrow the misconduct, thanks to increasing language skills and an ability to regulate emotions. Even so, experts say parents must address it as soon as it starts. Resist the urge to raise your voice, because an emotional reaction will only enhance the entertainment value for your child. Be fast and firm, serious and stern. Here are some strategies to help you correct the behavior:

Be consistent. There’s no timetable as to how many incidents and reprimands it will take before your child stops hitting and biting. But if you respond the same way every time, he’ll probably learn his lesson after four or five incidents. “Eventually, your daughter will realize, ‘If I hit the dog, Mommy swoops in and redirects me, so I won’t do this anymore,'” says Carter. For 2- to 3-year-olds, a time-out is another effective intervention. “When my son Daniel was 2, he would slap my arm if he didn’t get his way. I said, ‘No hitting’ and ‘Do you want a time-out?'” says Shana Aborn, of Ridgewood, New York. “Sometimes that was enough to stop him in his tracks.”

Give him an alternative. A 2-year-old can learn to open his mouth wide and roar like a lion or clench his teeth and growl like a bear. “Making a loud animal noise is satisfying to toddlers because it’s scary and funny,” Youcha says. “The 10 seconds that it takes for your child to think about the sound and then make it will buy you time to distract her and redirect her to another activity.”

Know your child’s triggers. Once Aborn realized that Daniel was prone to smacking her arm when he was fatigued, she became adamant that he nap every afternoon and go to bed on time every night. Does your daughter bite when she’s hungry? Give her a healthy snack, and adhere to a strict meal schedule. And don’t forget about outdoor play as a prevention technique — even in chilly weather. “Being cooped up inside all day increases a child’s frustration level,” says Dr. Karp.

In social situations, toddlers often hit because they don’t want to share. For a playdate at home, remove all toys that have emotional meaning to your child and make sure that there are enough interesting toys to go around. “If there’s only one school bus, a conflict could erupt,” Carter warns. When the playdate is at someone else’s house, shadow your child so that you can distract him before he has a chance to unleash his inner Bamm-Bamm. “If you know your son will yank a certain toy away from a playmate, redirect him by saying, ‘Come over here and look at this neat toy,'” Youcha says.

Consult an expert. If your child is still hitting and biting after age 3, it may indicate an emotional issue or health matter that’s best addressed by a pediatrician or child development specialist, says Youcha. In preschoolers, these behaviors may be linked to stress from delayed language development, a recent death or illness in the family, or a new teacher or student whose presence has changed the classroom dynamic.

And how is Pete Crowley? Now a 5-year-old preschooler, he’s anything but a bruiser. “Pete learned quickly that there would be consequences if he broke the rules,” says Brigitte Crowley. “When he was 3 and I was a volunteer in the classroom, a girl whacked Pete in the head because he was sitting where she wanted to sit. He sat with his hands on his lap. I don’t know if he was being a good boy because I was there or because I’d reminded him so many times to keep his hands to himself. Either way, Pete made me proud.”

Source: http://healthykids.com/hk/printableStory.jhtml?storyid=/templatedata/hk/story/data/1161112892167.xml&catref=cat1890056 

Freelance writer Cynthia Hanson lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and son.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, October 2006.

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