Around 18 months old, I started noticing my daughter exhibiting offensive behaviors to other children. Whether it was hitting, hair pulling, biting, or kicking, she always found a way to get her hands on other children.
It would come out of nowhere: at a play date, library storytime, or birthday party. I couldn’t leave her side out of fear that she would hurt another child.
This whole stage really threw me for a loop because she was a very bright child. She had the ability to express herself in full sentences and was always a happy child.
She was the sweetest girl otherwise, always there to hug and kiss and loved her family and friends. That’s why this had us so baffled!
The frustration as a parent was that it seemed like nothing I did would stop it.
She didn’t respond to a lot of the suggestions I received and it seemed like we were at a dead end, left to ride out through the rest of her toddler years.
A lot of people’s responses were ‘it’s just a phase’ and I knew that. I didn’t imagine that I would be walking across the stage with her at high school graduation in case she pulled another classmate’s hair.
However, I was still concerned and hoped to get this phase over with as soon as possible.
I’ll share with you some ideas of ways to help your toddler to stop hitting, biting, and pulling hair. Although, I can’t promise immediate results because toddlers are very confusing little beings!
A lot of these strategies helped us, combined with giving her time to mature and LOTS of patience.
2 Things You Need to Know About Correcting Behaviors
1. Be consistent
The most important thing when correcting a behavior is to be consistent. Babies and toddlers strive on consistency to learn a new skill or understanding a new concept.
It’s not enough to just show or tell them the correct way to behave or discipline them here and there when you see a challenging behavior. You need to provide constant feedback every time they demonstrate that behavior.
This requires you to always be close by when the behavior would happen so you can very quickly change it.
2. Don’t focus on negative behaviors. Reward the positive ones
Discipling a child when they do something bad is actually shown not to work in the majority of cases.
What does work is showing a child that they’re doing something right.
So always remember to focus on rewarding your toddler when they’re doing the right thing instead of having constant pressure on them when they doing something wrong.
Identify What Causes the Behavior
The first step in changing a challenging behavior is figuring out what caused it.
Pay close attention to the actions that occur right before your child hits or bites. This requires you to really be present and give your undivided attention.
Take notice of what you see.
Did another child take their toy? Maybe they’re mad. Were they just watching their favorite show? Maybe they’re excited. Did they just rub their eyes? Maybe they’re tired.
This may not always be easy. Sometimes these behaviors seem to occur for no reason, just out of the blue, or for different reasons every time.
However, getting a peek into what’s causing these feelings may really trigger a better solution.
Once you’ve figured out the actual action that caused them to exhibit behaviors like hitting, biting, or hair pulling, you can identify why they are doing it.
One of those reasons may be as follows:
1. They can’t express their feelings or emotions
My daughter was very expressive language-wise. She could basically speak in full sentences as soon as she turned 2.
That made it even more puzzling why she would hit, especially because the main reason is typically when the child can’t verbally communicate.
Sure, she could tell me what she wanted for dinner and what toy she wanted to play with, but she did not know how to express her feelings and emotions.
This is a higher-level skill and one that actually has to be taught (other than saying, I want milk).
The actions of hitting and biting might just be their way of expressing themselves.
They may hit out of pure excitement or bite when they’re feeling angry. They might be lonely and kick for attention or sad so they pull hair.
I realized that one phase of my daughter’s aggressive behaviors was when she was excited. Her daycare provider told me that when she saw her teacher come in, she would run up to her and bite.
When she was singing her favorite song during circle time, she would hit a classmate next to her.
*These challenging behaviors don’t always have to be out of anger*
Once we discovered WHY she was having these behaviors, we were able to teach her alternate, appropriate ways to show her feelings.
During these circumstances, I would stop my daughter before hitting and teach her the words for her feelings.
When I could see her get really excited, I would say, “say I’m happy!” Or when she was sad or angry, I would teach her those words too.
So, when you notice that your child may be experiencing an emotional state, educate them on how to express that feeling with words instead of actions by saying, I’m so excited or I’m angry.
2. They can’t express what they want or need
Another reason why my daughter would friendly-hit was for play. At times, she just wanted to play, but didn’t know how to say it.
I would see her walk over to a random kid and whack him over the head for no reason.
While I immediately thought that she was just being rude, I realized maybe she just wanted that child to play with her. She just didn’t know how to express it.
This is another skill that may have to be taught.
So every time I would see her trying to play with someone, or go near another child, I would tell her to say: ‘Will you play with me?’
This also goes for children who may hit because they want something.
Teaching them the vocabulary is the best way to work it out.
Check out my tips on How to Teach your Toddler to Talk, if you’re having trouble getting them to be more expressive.
3. They have a sensory processing issue
Everyone processes sensory information a little differently. Sensory information is the things that we take in through our senses- what we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel.
Our brains and bodies then interpret this information to produce an action in response to it.
Some children may be overly sensitive (hypersensitive) to certain feelings or information and some may be under sensitive (hyposensitive).
If your child is hitting, biting, or pulling hair, they may have an issue processing sensory information. This could just be in the form of not knowing how to respond to it appropriately.
Since they aren’t old enough to communicate that, it may come in the form of hitting, pushing, or biting.
Some kids seek out the feeling of being touched because their bodies love the feeling.
They may bite because they like the feeling of things in their mouths. They may push because they like the way the pressure feels when pushing against something.
You can try giving them this sensory input before a situation that could be difficult. Check out a bunch of sensory activities here that may help to give your child the sensory input they need so they won’t be prone to touching others .
4. They want your attention
For a child who seeks attention, negative attention may be just as good as positive for them.
Whether you’re yelling at them for doing something wrong or praising them for doing something right, you’re giving them your undivided attention.
If you notice that your child is exhibiting bad behaviors in order to get you to look, listen, or talk to them, they may just be seeking your attention.
The best thing to do in this instance is to ignore the behaviors.
If you yell, time out, or even show a modeling behavior after they kick or bite, that will be reinforcing the negative behavior that they’re doing.
For example, at times I would see my daughter hitting her younger brother. I would see her whack him and then look up at me and say, Mommy, I hit Brayden. I could tell this was just to get me to come over and interject.
As long as they are not hurting anyone, ignore the behavior until it stops. Look away or walk away and don’t address the behavior at all.
5. They don’t know what good behavior looks like
Every child is wired differently so something that is innate in one child, may take a while to learn for another.
It’s so important to model good behavior for your child so they can see what is the right thing to do.
Sometimes using words like don’t hit or be a good girl may not get the point across to a toddler. Therefore, a physical model showing them how to treat other people nicely is so important.
When they are in a situation that may cause a difficult behavior, show them exactly what they should be doing instead.
6. They’re bored
This seems like a bad excuse for defending your toddler’s challenging behaviors, but it’s often the case for many children.
Your child might be very smart and constantly needs stimulation and excitement to stay engaged.
Like I stated before, I knew my daughter was smart because of her vocabulary and cognition at such a young age. That’s why I couldn’t figure out why she wouldn’t understand that hitting was wrong.
The hitting, biting, or hair-pulling may just be their frustration and boredom.
Therefore, you want to keep your child stimulated with mentally challenging activities. Consider puzzles, coloring books, flashcards, imaginative play, building blocks/lego, and educational games on a tablet.
7. They know it will get them what they want
Toddlers can be a lot smarter then we are led to believe.
They may be aware that hitting another child helps get them to hand over their toy or that kicking another kid will make them run away so they can use whatever toy they were playing with
This comes after practice. Once they do it a few times and experience the outcome that they want, they will repeatedly try it and expect the same outcome.
When my daughter would hit her younger brother, one of the strategies I tried was to ignore her. At the same time, I would just take my son out of the situation and show him a lot of attention.
Once I realized that she was hitting him because she knew the outcome was getting her baby brother out of her way, I had to change my strategy.
So figure out what they are getting out of the situation or outcome and that may be what you need to take away.
8. They’re not exposed to other kids often
If your child doesn’t get social exposure often, it’s possible that they just haven’t learned how to be appropriate around other kids yet.
The best you can do in this case is to give them as much social exposure as possible.
Mommy-and-me classes, daycare, and playdates are great ways to get your toddler interacting and playing with other children.
TIps for parents
Watching your child exhibit negative behaviors like hitting and biting can be awful as a parent.
You may feel like it reflects badly on your parenting skills and are frustrated because nothing you do seems to help.
Trust me, I know, because I’ve been there.
However, there are a few different things we can do while we identify and change the behavior.
1. Remain calm
I know it can be hard to stay calm and collected when you’re trying to discipline a toddler. However, yelling, screaming, and arguing doesn’t work with your already strong-willed toddler.
By getting angry yourself, you will just be promoting aggressive behavior in your child.
Therefore, try to stay calm and collected as you speak and tell them the right ways to behave.
It’s important to get down to their level by kneeling, squatting or sitting as you reinforce your rules.
This takes away the feeling they would get when being scolded or talked down to and should help them be more responsive to what you have to say.
2. Redirect to another form of behavior
Obviously the best way to change a bad behavior like hitting or pulling hair is to extinguish it. However. often that doesn’t happen so quickly for a toddler.
If your child still needs to get their frustration or emotions out, teach them a more socially appropriate way of doing it.
So another way to reduce the negative behavior that you see is to redirect it to a better form of behavior.
This could include hitting the table (instead of a person), stomping their feet, yelling, or running around.
Again, these behaviors are not ideal either, but they could be better than hurting another person.
3. Social exposure
As I stated above, if your child is not used to being around other kids, they may not know how to behave around them.
Increasing their exposure to social situations with peers their age will help them to explore how to behave.
They will be watching other children model the right behaviors (hopefully) and learn how to interact to get what they want or need.
Exposing them to these situations can help them learn fundamental social skills including sharing, and taking turns with others.
4. Positive behavior chart and rewards
Some kids are very visual learners. They need to actually see something tangible to understand the expectations and what they will get out of it.
You can use a sticker chart or checklist to let your child see how they are behaving and how it is affecting the consequence or reward that they will receive.
This reward chart is great because there are a variety of options to choose from for which behaviors you want to address.
In this case, keeping your hands and feet to yourself, using kind words, and sharing are some great behaviors to spotlight.
Your child will get a star for every good behavior that they show and you can determine what kind of reward they will receive at the end of the day or week.
For some children, just seeing their stickers or stars add up on the chart will be enough for them to understand what is expected.
It’s important to note that we want to highlight the positive behaviors and not the negative ones.
So instead of disciplining or taking something away when they bite, reward them for doing something good, like sharing or using their words.
5. Wait it out
If I had a dime for every time someone said, it’s just a phase, I’d be rich!. I knew it was a phase, but it was frustrating not knowing how long this ‘phase’ would last.
Although I knew she wasn’t going to still be pulling her classmate’s hair in her college dorm room, I couldn’t help but imagine what preschool or kindergarten could be like with a child who had an overbearing interest in reaching out and hit someone.
However, the phase does end. It did for us and it will for you. With maturity, understanding, and the right behavioral and parenting strategies, your child will eventually stop.
So if you’re feeling frustrated and like you have tried everything to no avail, just wait a few weeks and cross your fingers. It will be over soon.