Coping with temper tantrums, handling a child that hits or bites, disciplining your youngster—they’re three of the most nerve-racking and emotional topics in parenting toddlers and certainly ones with no easy answers.
Usually tantrums appear sometime in the toddler years and present yet another challenging chapter in the book of parenting. If your toddler hasn’t displayed such behavior, you are not out of the woods yet because some kids don’t produce a tantrum until they are closer to three or four years.
To help you understand why your precious buttercup turns into a writhing, screaming monster before your eyes, it is important to understand what is happening developmentally. Again, issues of control and independence are paramount at this age. Whether or not a toddler can put on her shoes by herself or get a desired object out of a tight spot are important problems for a young toddler to solve. These issues can lead to frustration and culminate in an explosion of behaviors, from the typical falling to the ground and kicking feet to holding breath until passing out.
Language development may also set the stage for a tantrum. Around this age, a toddler is just developing the skills to express to you her needs. Unfortunately, you may not be able to understand all of her blossoming, toddler-like language. Her frustration explodes into a tantrum.
One way to prevent tantrums is to try your best to maintain the daily routine, even if away from home. Routines help children feel safe and in control because they know what to expect next in their day. The smallest change in a child’s routine can produce large changes in behavior. Also, anticipate frustration. Right now, try to avoid saying “No!” to your child’s requests, and instead offer alternatives. Giving your toddler choices that are OK with you, will help her feel more in control and may ward off that impending tantrum.
Try to refrain from reinforcing the behavior—that is, try not to give your toddler attention during the tantrum so that the behavior is not being reinforced. Instead, calmly wait until the tantrum behavior(s) has subsided and then attend to your child. Your response depends on your child and the situation. For some, just let it pass and move on. Others want to be held and may be able to briefly talk about what caused the tantrum. For more helpful tips and insight read our Toddler Tantrum Guide.
Biting and Hitting
Perhaps few topics in parenting and child development raise more emotions than when one child is aggressive toward another child. It is difficult for parents not to project thoughts of whether the “aggressor” has a tendency toward violence or if the victim has a tendency toward being targeted.
Both biting and hitting are not uncommon responses in the toddler world and should not be reflected as part of the personalities of children who display these behaviors. But that is not to say that these behaviors are to be ignored; both biting and hitting need to be addressed by parents and caregivers immediately.
There are many factors that can contribute to a biting or hitting incident, with some being quite benign. For one, when children are teething, biting can be satisfying for sore gums. Another is curiosity. “What sort of reaction will happen if I take a chunk from that kid’s hand?” Or, if children are bored or tired, these sorts of behaviors may appear.
Often biting and hitting result from a child’s own frustration. If a child is playing with a toy and another toddler tries to take it, the first child may not be able to express in words her feelings about having her toy taken. Her response is a quick nip on the hand or a shove aside.
What can parents and caregivers do when a child bites or hits? Two responses are very important initially:
- First, go to the victim to comfort and then remove the aggressor from the space where the altercation occurred. Again, try not to reinforce the behavior. Do not give the aggressor any positive reinforcement (no smiles, warm eye contact, or soothing voice).
- Then, with whatever language you are comfortable using and in a calm but firm voice, convey that biting or hitting is not OK. Talk to both children briefly about what happened and remind them of words that could have been used to prevent the aggression.
It is very important for toddlers to learn words, such as ”Stop!” or ”No!” to use in this context—both for the child who is about to have her toy taken from her and for the child who is about to be hit. And remember that the child who is biting or hitting needs your guidance and support just as much as her victim. Ostracizing or labeling her will not help her learn to stop the behavior and may add further stress to her in this setting and continue the problem. These behaviors will disappear with quick interventions from responsive caregivers.
Now that we have touched upon tantrums, biting, and hitting, it seems appropriate to tackle the next important topic—discipline. In the toddler years, most parents not only have to ponder their feelings on discipline, usually based on their own experiences in childhood, but also actually put their philosophies into play with their young children. A toddler’s developmental “job” is to explore the limits—to test her environment (meaning YOU) as far as it will go. This can really push parents’ buttons.
Setting limits is critical for your toddler’s understanding of working with others in the world. Though you may be tempted to give in to the wail or alligator-sized tears, be strong and pick your battles. Ultimately, setting limits that are consistent and predictable makes children feel safe and helps them progress in developing skills in self-control. Remember to give praise when your child follows the house rules accordingly.
What Does Spanking Teach?
Hand in hand with discipline is acknowledging the challenges and frustrations with parenting. It is very important for parents to find a means to express this frustration in a safe way for themselves and their children. We emphasize this need because for some parents, spanking is a response to this sort of frustration under the guise of disciplining a child. There are many reasons why parents spank. It may be a behavior that is ingrained in one’s culture or be passed down through generations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly condemns spanking as a discipline method. And many experts believe that swatting or spanking teaches children that disrespect, pain, and violence will get them what they want. A spanking alternative? Good ‘ole communication.
Explain in a way that is appropriate for to your child’s age what she is doing that is not okay and why she must stop. “When you pull the cat’s tail it hurts her. You must be gentle. If you cannot stop yourself, I will stop you.” If communication is impossible, try a diversion: “Look at the big blue bird out the window.” When all else fails or your child is seemingly out-of-control, then try a time-out. Remove your child from the situation. The rule of thumb is one minute for each year of age. But try to avoid abusing the time-out; it is not meant as a punishment or to cause shame.
If you feel like your blood is boiling and you need a break from your child—place your child somewhere safe (such as a crib) and give yourself five minutes alone to calm down. This is a normal response in parenting—one that other parents certainly acknowledge and can appreciate.
(Are you disciplining in anger? Read why you may be doing more harm than you think.)
More Development Help
As you’re considering your child’s development, keep in mind that all children are unique. Whether your child reaches milestones early or late, she has her own developmental path to follow. The dividing lines between these months are very fuzzy. If you have any concerns or questions about your child’s development, please check with her healthcare provider.
- Review what was happening in your toddler’s last months.
- Learn what to expect in your child’s 22nd, 23rd, & 24th months.
- Take our quiz: Are You Ready to Tackle the Terrible Twos?