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Toddlers Biting, Hitting, and Acting Out: How to handle early aggression

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It’s common for toddlers to go through aggressive streaks. For one, their little brains are learning cause and effect: what happens when I throw this ball, make this funny sound:swipe a small, unsuspecting friend in the face? In some cases, hitting is a toddler’s way of making social contact before he has the language skills to do it with words. Then again, sometimes a hitting or biting toddler is just being flat out aggressive. For parents, that can be unnerving, embarrassing, or even anger-provoking if you’re the one getting slugged. But aggression isn’t a bad thing – wouldn’t you agree that a certain amount of fire in your little one’s personality is healthy?

Getting mad isn’t something we want to take away from our kids – anger and aggression are legitimate feelings and expressions that will be important for them to understand and use in life. But your toddler can’t go around hurting people, so the goal is to coach him to express himself in a different way. This is an uphill battle, because impulse control – part of the executive function skillset and housed in the prefrontal cortex – takes years to develop. Some kids, depending on temperament, move through this learning process faster than others.

If you have a hitting, biting, or pushing toddler on your hands, keep these ideas in mind:

Watch the triggers. Do you feel more irritable when you’re tired, hungry, or cooped-up? Same goes for your toddler. For some little ones, it’s really obvious that things start to unravel when a nap is skipped or tummies are running on empty.

If that’s the case, try not to schedule social outings that interfere with sleep. If you know that your child needs plenty of exercise or he gets squirrely and starts taking jabs at people, prioritize plenty of outdoor run-around time as well.

Hover. Unfortunately, if you’re the parent of a currently biting or hitting-inclined toddler, you may need to closely monitor him when he’s within swinging distance of another child. Especially if you can feel that spirited mood and see the glint in his eye, it’s a good idea to pay extra attention.

Be firm. It’s time to own that direct, stern, business-meaning voice. Get down on your child’s level (don’t shout across the room), make eye contact, and say, It is not okay to hit. We do not hurt people. Make this an informative statement, not a question (such as, Why did you do that?)

Look at what’s behind the behavior. Toddlers hit for different reasons – some have a harder time understanding social rules and being sensitive to other people’s feelings. All little kids are still working on the concept of empathy, but some seem to be naturally wired to tune in and be sensitive while others need more coaching. If you think this is the case, focus on talking a lot about feelings – his, yours, friends’ – and highlighting how people affect each other: You hit Jack, and now he’s crying. I bet that hurt, and it looks like it might have made him feel sad.

Other toddlers hit because they want to communicate something and don’t know how (even if they technically have the words, the right ones don’t always come out first). If you see this, help your toddler with an appropriate action or to say the right words. If the moment calls for petting or touching nicely, model that instead. If you see unnecessary aggression about to happen, step in beforehand: Do you want to say “hi” to Jack? Maybe show him the toy you brought?

If the hitting is genuinely out of anger, you might say: It’s not okay to hit. I see you might be feeling mad, but we don’t hit people. If your child has the words, give him an idea of what he might say instead of hitting, like I am playing with this toy!

Forget the apology. Asking a little kid to apologize will only get him to parrot back what you tell him to say. A better idea is to ask your toddler to check in with his friend. You can model this by paying attention to the little one who was hurt, asking how he’s feeling and if you can do anything to help. Prompt your toddler to check in if he’s capable and enlist his help in taking care of his friend too.

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