Biting, Hitting, and Pushing: How To Understand It and What To Do About It

“I’m two! I do!”

Toddlers are in an exciting yet infuriating stage of development – they are eager to explore their world (and have their caregivers notice and delight in that exploration) yet simultaneously are not quite big enough to do everything themselves (and therefore require your help and support, despite craving the ability to do things without you).

  • Speech and language development is starting to come online but not fast enough, which causes frustration when the toddler wants something but cannot convey his or her need/desire adequately. 

  • Self-regulation and calming-down skills are low yet frustration is around every turn, often resulting in tantrums.

  • Some toddlers are still exploring their world through sensory experiences, including seeking oral sensory input through licking/spitting/biting. Suddenly they have teeth that can do damage in ways that their adorable baby gums did not.

Behavior Has Meaning

In over 17 years of working with very young children and preschoolers, and with teenagers in juvenile detention, I have never met a single child whose bad behavior was due to sociopathic traits or malicious intent. Outside of those exceedingly rare circumstances, children’s behavior has meaning and function; it is the adult’s job to try to make sense of the behavior and then develop strategies to motivate the child to turn the behavior around. Challenging behavior is a completely normal and age-appropriate part of life. This does not mean it is OK – you are right to be concerned about it and to want to change it. Before we can change it, though, we need to understand why it is happening.

To figure out the meaning/function of a behavior, ask yourself these questions:

  • What might be causing the behavior? Is my child hungry, tired, thirsty, hot, or overstimulated? 

  • What does my child hope will happen in this moment? Is she needing space, wanting a toy, or frustrated about something?

  • What usually occurs when my child acts this way? How is this behavior functional, and working for him? Does he get the space he was wanting, or the toy he desired? Does he get extra attention from me in this moment? How might I give positive attention on the front end (to prevent the behavior) rather than reacting with negative attention on the back end once the behavior has already occurred? How can we flip this script, so that my child is doing whatever he can do to get my positive attention?

What To Do About It

  • Stay calm. Tantrumming adults rarely succeed in calming down tantrumming children. Your goal should be to maintain a nurturing yet firm stance.

  • Acknowledge and label the feeling first. This doesn’t need to take a long time, but a quick “I see that you’re frustrated/disappointed/angry/excited” goes a long way towards helping kids to recognize and become aware of their own emotions.

  • Hold the limit. Once you’ve acknowledged the feeling, remind your child of the rule by using positively stated language. For example, “We keep our hands to ourselves” or “Teeth are for eating, not for biting” or “We keep each other safe”.

  • Give a clear and natural consequence. For example, “If we cannot be safe with the toys then we will not be able to use the toys.”

  • For younger children (under 2-2.5 years old), we practice lots of repetition of rules and then distracting/redirecting to move children along to something else. For older children who have strong receptive language, we can start to use consequences such as removal of privileges (i.e., taking a toy away) or time out.

  • Toddlers love any semblance of control, especially since they have little power in their worlds. Offer choices whenever possible but make sure you are OK with both of the choices!!! For example, “It is time to leave now. I know you’re frustrated that it is time to go. Would you like to put the toys away, or would you like me to do it?” The key here is that, either way, the toys are being put away and you are leaving.

  • Use simple, clear, one step commands. Less is more with toddlers.

  • As children get older, pick your battles. Use selective attention or ”active ignoring” for any behavior you find inappropriate but not dangerous (i.e., whining) by saying, “I cannot pay any attention to you when you are whining. The second you are able to talk in a regular voice then I will be able to listen.” For behavior you cannot ignore (i.e., physical aggression or unsafe behavior that you must address), use time out or removal of privileges.

  • The key to time out is to make it motivating. If “time in” is not valuable, your child will not care about having to go to time out. Therefore, make sure you are doing whatever you can to make time spent with your child (when they are not misbehaving) meaningful; use labeled praises, behavior descriptions, reflective statements and enthusiasm to help your child feel seen, witnessed, loved and understood. This helps to enhance your relationship and also proves useful for when you withdraw that attention (through use of selective attention or time out); your child will then want to do whatever they can to access that positive reinforcement again – including behaving well. The second you notice your child correct a behavior or make a better, safer choice, give a clear labeled praise to highlight what you saw. The key is to praise the behavior you would like to see more of. For example, “Thanks so much for keeping your body safe today and keeping your hands to yourself just now. Great job keeping little Johnny safe!” 

  • Remember that toddlers are a work in progress. Challenging behavior can be so tough for adults to manage, and it often triggers adults based on our own life experiences (especially traumatic ones). Remember that it is normal and that this is an opportunity to teach our children how to behave well. 

  • For additional support around specific circumstances such as developmental delays, trauma exposure or other factors that might be impacting your child’s behavior and emotions, please reach out to me for a free consultation.

If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we… teach? Punish? Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?
— Herner, 1998