What to do When a Toddler Bites, Hits, Shoves or Throws
Show me a toddler that doesn’t bite, hit, shove or throw and I’ll show you a pig that flies. These behaviours are just part of the territory that comes with being a toddler. They don’t however mean that the toddler is ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ and in most cases it is not a reflection of ‘bad parenting’ either, for most it’s simply down to biology and healthy dose of chance.
Why do toddlers shove, bite, hit or throw?
There are many, many reasons – but it usually boils down to one of the following:
- frustration (that they can’t have something/do something – or indeed because they are made to do something they don’t want to do)
- feeling unhappy/sad/insecure – perhaps after the arrival of a new sibling/house move/starting preschool
- brain immaturity meaning that they do not have an ‘off switch’ when it comes to flipping out
- brain immaturity meaning that they cannot calm themselves down/reason with themselves or understand the consequences of their behaviour, particularly when it comes to understanding other’s feelings
- because they can’t cope with an invasion of their personal space
- because they are not getting enough exercise/rough-housing/physical & messy play
- tiredness or over-stimulation
- because the adult with them has missed their early calls for attention/help
- because they enjoy the physical sensation (particularly biting and throwing).
- parenting that is too strict, authoritarian and controlling with too many punishments
- because they are modelling your behaviour, or that of another adult (or child) close to them.
The easiest and most obvious way to deal with hitting, biting, shoving and throwing in toddlers is to look for the cause of the behaviour. Once you identify triggers a good first step is to try to avoid these as much as possible. Importantly consider any emotional cues – often what we deem as naughty and violent behaviour from toddlers is actually a cry for more attention, unconditional love and connection from us. By re-connecting with them and spending more time playing, rough-housing and enjoying fun ‘special time’ with them these behaviours usually dramatically lessen naturally. Giving your toddler more control over their daily activities, choices and self care also helps hugely too.
With this in mind though it is important to have realistic expectations of toddlers. The parts of our brain responsible for regulating impulse control and hypothetical thinking (which is important to understand and predict how our actions will affect others), as well as empathy (understanding how others feel, which is crucial in the development of sharing – something else toddlers just can’t do because of their brain development) are very immature in the first three years of life, they are still pretty immature right up to and including the teen years actually, but in the first 3-5yrs it is better to think of these behaviours as skills your toddler has not yet developed. It’s a little like expecting them to be able to read and write fluently, or understand algebra. We don’t expect toddlers to be capable of any of these, yet we do expect them to be capable of sophisticated behaviours beyond their years, despite the fact that the same part of the brain is involved.
Once you have reset your expectations the next step is how to cope in the moment. The first step, and indeed the key here, is you – your reactions and your behaviour. Remember you are modelling to your toddler the behaviour you want to see from them which means you need to be:
If you yell, spank, force them into time out or the naughty chair you fall short at the very first hurdle and run the risk of perpetuating this cycle of behaviour for years to come and likely the next generation of your family too.
Once you have put a space between your child’s action and your reaction it’s time to respond to them – with your full attention, put the phone down, abandon your conversation or shopping temporarily and focus on your child. Fully. At this point it’s also time to keep them, you and anybody else in the situation safe too – moving away from roads/dangerous objects etc..
- Tell them what they have done wrong and why, but calmly and in simple language they understand – keep it short “You mustn’t hit Johnny, it hurts him and now he’s crying”, “Owwww, you bit me, that really hurts, we don’t bite people”, “Stop – you mustn’t throw toy cars in the house, they will break something”
- Help them to understand and name their feelings “I can see you didn’t like it when he hugged you and it’s OK to be angry, but you mustn’t hit people”, “Did it feel good to bite me? Are your teeth hurting? “Are you bored with being in here?”
- Help them to find an alternative, more acceptable solution “You can come and hit this cushion if you want to”, “How about I give you an apple to bite into?”, “”Shall we go in the garden so you can throw your ball around?”
These responses however won’t elicit a magic response, because the main ‘problem’ is that your toddlers is, well – a toddler! Until their brain matures you can expect lots more similar behaviour, although in time, with consistent (and I cannot emphasise that enough) responses (and we’re talking months here probably, not even weeks) your toddler will learn and in time the behaviour will cease. One of the key ways to encourage this is to avoid tricky situations and try to find the cause and remove it before the behaviour occurs, really however- as with much of parenting. the onus is on you and not your child. There are really only three things that really eliminate these totally normal toddler behaviours once and for all: time, patience and understanding.
By Sarah Ockwell-Smith – Our resident Baby and Toddler Expert.