When young children interact with others, especially other children, they may get upset easily because they're still learning language and social skills. Understand that many children between the ages of 14 months and 3 years go through a hitting or biting phase that usually disappears when they can express their needs or feelings in words. Teaching positive ways to deal with social problems can help ease them into healthy social habits. Learning when and why your child is acting out can also help lead you to a solution.
Possible causes of negative behavior
Your child may hit or bite for any number of reasons, including the following:
- Exploration — Children learn with their senses; by seeing, touching, hearing, etc. Biting may be just another way for your child to explore the world.
- Teething — Biting can help your young child soothe gums that are sore from teething.
- Cause and effect — Older infants and toddlers are beginning to understand cause and effect relationships. They may be curious to see what happens when they hit or bite but they may not understand that these actions are painful.
- Attention — Negative behaviors are quick ways for your child to receive attention.
- Imitation — Kids often act out after seeing someone else do the same thing.
- Independence — Your child is learning to act independently but doesn't necessarily have the social skills of an older child or adult. Biting and hitting are quick ways to get a toy or to make another child leave.
- Frustration — Growing up can be frustrating for young children. They don't have good control over their body and they don't always know how to express their feelings with words. Your child may bite, hit or push to express frustration.
- Stress — Events, including divorce, the death of a family pet or starting a new school can be stressful for your child. Acting out can be a way to express feelings and relieve tension.
- Self-defense — Some children hit or bite in response to another child's actions.
How to handle aggressive behavior
To help prevent or curb aggressive behavior, you need to know how to respond to it. With these strategies in your parenting toolbox, you'll be well equipped to handle destructive behaviors in constructive ways.
- Share feelings in words - Teach children that it's okay to be upset, but explain that it's never okay to hurt others and help them find positive ways to share their feelings. Encourage them to use words. For children who are too young, help them find other ways to get their feelings out, including squeezing clay or explaining that they can find something else to do the next time they don't get their way.
- Learn problem-solving skills — Teach your child how to solve problems instead of hitting or biting. For example, if two children both want the same toy, they can take turns or they can put the toy away and then each choose different toys.
- Learn to seek help — Teach children when to ask you or another adult for help with a problem. Tell them to come to you if they ever feel like they're going to hit someone and that you can help them find another solution. As your child gets older, encourage problem solving with a little help from you or another adult. You might say to a preschool-age child, "Jack is playing with your favorite truck. What do you think you should do?" If your child gives good ideas, such as asking Jack to share or finding another activity until Jack's turn with the truck is over, then you can praise your child's efforts and help with the follow through.
- Develop empathy — Help kids to see how their aggression hurts others by explaining that the child they hit or bit is hurt or upset because of their actions.
- Praise positive behavior — Praise your child's positive progress in learning to share and play with others. Other positive behaviors to look for include being patient or showing awareness of other people's needs. When your child shows signs of learning positive social behavior, be sure to offer praise!
- Model good behavior — You serve as a positive role model for your child when you practice nonaggressive methods of dealing with problems. You can also set a good example by using consistent and supportive parenting methods.
- Limit exposure to aggression — You can keep your child from seeing aggressive images on television, in movies and in books. You can also make a rule not to buy toys or video games that promote violence or aggression.
- Be aware of stress — If aggressive behavior occurs with a major life change like starting a new school, moving or the birth of a new sibling, your child may act out for extra affection and attention.
- Never get even — You should never respond to your child's aggressive behavior by hitting or biting in return. Stay calm and respond quickly, and explain to your child that it's okay to be upset, but biting, hitting or other aggressive behaviors are not acceptable.
When to seek help
Kids with serious hitting or biting problems may need to be removed from social situations involving other children for a while. When aggressive kids interact with other kids, an adult, including you, a caregiver or teacher, may need to observe, step in to prevent aggressive behavior if necessary and guide the child to learn better ways to deal with certain situations. If your child continues biting beyond 3 years of age, you may need to consult a professional. Your child's pediatrician or pediatric dentist will also be able to answer questions about biting. You, along with your child's caregivers and doctors, can compare observations and come up with solutions together.