Have you become a punching bag for your toddler? Has your toddler developed a bad habit of hitting when they get frustrated or perhaps bite you when they cry? The toddler years are a trying time for parents — it’s full of tantrums, meltdowns, and tears.
It’s common for parents to wonder how to stop their toddler from hitting and biting. It’s crucial to understand why they do it and how to prevent it. When you understand the cause of a behavior, it’s easier to stop it.
Why Toddlers Hit and Bite
It would be easy if there was a “one-size-fits-all” behavioral manual for the hitting and biting. While it’s not that simple, there are some common causes for aggression.
Toddlers want to explore and experiment — it’s the way they learn cause and effect (1). But sometimes, this means biting or hitting the nearest person, whether this is their parent or a child at the playground.
Hitting is one thing that almost all toddlers will experiment with at some point. Most will stop it as soon as they see that it isn’t accepted.
Trying to Communicate
Like the rest of us, toddlers have needs — they get hungry, bored, scared, and overwhelmed. Toddlers are still babies in many ways and, although they may know some words, their vocabulary isn’t that advanced.
One-year-olds often lack communication skills to express how they’re feeling, which typically leads to frustration. Instead of bursting out in tears, toddlers are more likely to use their bodies. You may have noticed them arching their back, throw their arms in the air, banging their heads, or stomping on the floor.
Some toddlers take it a bit further and lash out. They may hit if you don’t understand their needs or bite you if you disagree.
It doesn’t mean your parenting skills are bad. They do it merely because their little one doesn’t know how to express their distress.
We often see children on the playground, hitting other kids whenever they come near the toys. Toddlers, like all of us, don’t like it when someone snatches our stuff. Even if your little one tells them to stop or that it’s theirs, other kids might not listen or ignore them.
Understanding what it means to share develops around the age of 3. It is developmentally normal for a 2 year old to not want to share with other children. It may take time and gentle reminders for older toddlers to become consistent with sharing (2).
So, what’s a toddler to do when other children don’t respect their boundaries? They push back, often by hitting and biting.
Toddlers still don’t have that impulse-control required to not act out in anger. It’s not something they’ll fully acquire until they become older, around age 5 (3).
Having an Off Day
You know how it is when you feel tired, grumpy, and moody. Most of us chalk it up to having an “off” day. Well, the same often happens for toddlers — they can have a day where they just don’t feel like themselves.
Everything that day can be a trigger for a tantrum, and it becomes particularly difficult toward the end of the day. Even if your little one doesn’t usually hit or bite, an off day can quickly push them to aggression.
Although hitting isn’t our only instinctive reaction to being scared, it’s an innate response. Not all toddlers will hit, and sometimes it can be challenging to spot that they’re hitting in response to fear.
Not every toddler will look angry or impassive as they hit. Some may only resort to aggression when they’re distraught — others quickly start laughing.
Laughter may sound like the last response to fear, but it’s common in toddlers. It’s a way toddlers and children release built-up emotions and feelings, making them happier overall (4). When hitting is accompanied by laughter, it may be because your toddler is trying to release the tension.
It may also be because he or she thinks biting is a “game.” During office visits, I have seen toddlers smile, look at mom, bite her, and then laugh. Unless they are told otherwise, toddlers don’t realize that biting hurts.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
When new teeth are erupting, you may notice your toddler biting or chewing on a variety of objects. Sometimes this includes people.
In practice, parents will express concern that their toddler is either biting them or another child at daycare. This may occur until the final primary molars erupt, by 30 months old at the latest (5).
If you notice that your 2 year old is drooling again, the reason for biting is likely from teething discomfort.
Infants and toddlers learn much of what they do by imitating others (6). This includes both good behaviors and bad ones like hitting and biting.
When the topic of hitting comes up during office visits, my first question to the parent is “who hit your child first?” The answer is often another child at daycare or school.
At other times, it is an older sibling. Although some don’t realize it, this behavior imitation includes physical punishment issued by a parent.
I have often witnessed a parent “tap the hand” of their toddler to stop an unwanted behavior, only to see it followed by the toddler hitting the parent back. Particularly at this age, hitting is misinterpreted as an appropriate response to being upset (7). This can increase the frequency of hitting rather than discouraging it.
How to Stop a Toddler from Hitting and Biting
We’ve found that some of these tactics work on their own, or as a combination with others to prevent a toddler from hitting and biting:
Stop the Aggression Kindly
When you notice your toddler is about to hit, it’s important to stop it. If they’re about to hit you, grab and hold their hand firmly, but kindly, to prevent the blow. Don’t hesitate, even if they’re just trying without following through — you want to show it isn’t acceptable (8).
It’s the same with biting, scratching, or kicking. Teach your toddler they aren’t allowed to harm others. Then tell them something like, “No, hitting hurts!”
Move to a Quiet Place
If you’re out in public or have guests at the house, go somewhere private and quiet. Even if you have to pick them up and carry them while they kick and scream, it’s best for them.
When in a public place, I recommend taking them back to the car until the tantrum or outburst resolves. Once your child is calm, your can resume your outing.
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
Moving them to a quiet place is more effective at calming them down as opposed to staying in the same “hot spot.” You should avoid addressing the issue in public. Toddlers feel embarrassment, just like all of us, so seeing other people around can worsen the situation (9).
Once in a quiet location, you can calm them down and tell them their actions weren’t acceptable.
Teach the Use of Words
You want your toddler to be able to use their words, as opposed to their teeth or fists when feeling angry. However, 1- to 3-year-olds don’t always know how to express themselves verbally, so they need some help. This can be challenging for parents as their toddler is steaming, and they’re just trying to calm the situation.
It’s best to do this once you’ve moved your toddler to a quiet spot. Then, once they’ve calmed down, look your child in the eye and talk to them as firmly but calmly as possible. Say something like, “I can see you are angry, but we don’t hit in our family.”
The key is keeping a calm voice — if you’re feeling annoyed or impatient, try to suppress it. They can learn a lot about modeling self-control from you (10).
As parents who have experienced our fair share of public toddler meltdowns, we know it can be worrying and embarrassing. However, always keep in mind that your toddler learns from you. So, if you’re throwing a fit over their fit, they will see this as the way to act.
Once the situation is calm, you can do a debrief. Go over what happened and tell your toddler that hitting is never okay.
Also, encourage them to use words. A good way to do this is by re-enacting the situation. Pretend to get frustrated, then use a doll or teddy as a victim.
Hit the toy lightly and then ask your toddler if this is the way to react. Your toddler will probably laugh and say no.
Then, do it again, but instead of hitting, tell the toy that you’re angry because you want to sleep. Use labeling words that your toddler can understand and use later on. If it’s too complex, they can get frustrated.
Drive the Negative Feelings out
Sometimes, your toddler just needs another way to force the negativity out. Once you’ve prevented them from hitting, those built-up emotions are boiling inside. As your little one becomes more uncomfortable, they’re likely to burst out in tears or throw a tantrum.
Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Yes, tantrums are a headache, but they’re also a way to let out strong emotions and distress.
Let them cry while you’re staying close. If they want a hug, give it — if not, leave them be as you provide comfort with your voice.
Look at it as a massive wave of emotions, which are crashing on the shore. Once they’ve settled, only calm remains — you’ll see the difference right away.
When it comes to a toddler who bites, almost all of us are guilty of nibbling on their fingers to show them how it feels. It’s just too irresistible. However, it’s essential to avoid giving in (11).
If your toddler bites you while you’re nursing, they’re exploring your reaction. So when your little one bites, take them off the breast and say, “No,” and then latch again.
If they continue to bite, repeat the process, but no more than twice. After two tries, stop feeding altogether — take a five-minute break and try it again. Soon, they’ll realize that this isn’t how to behave.
When it comes to biting in school or daycare I occasionally see a patient who has been bitten by another child. Understandably, the parents are very upset and concerned about possible infections. In the majority of cases, preventative antibiotics are not needed. Making sure your child is immunized against Hepatitis B is an important preventative measure. Most establishments require this vaccine for attendance (12).
Editor's Note:Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
How to Prevent Hitting and Biting
It’s always better to be proactive than reactive. Consider some of these tactics that work toward prevention:
Predict the Reaction
Try to predict when your toddler is going to hit someone, especially at the playground with other children. By stopping them before they do it, you’re also helping them stop the impulsive, repetitive behavior.
It’s easy to do this — simply listen to the voice in your head telling you that they’ll probably hit someone soon. Once you hear this, it’s your signal to go and calm the situation. You know your toddler better than anyone, so don’t doubt your inner instinct — being prepared is the best way to prevent hitting.
Once you hear the signal, get close to your toddler, but be warm and comforting. Avoid approaching them with verbal warnings and threats — this will only worsen the situation, prompting them to strike. Instead, do a friendly patrol.
You don’t have to say much. If their arm’s out or they’re trying to bite, hold them and let them know that you aren’t letting go. When you can, try to make eye contact — remain firm and don’t give in.
Give Lots of Positive Attention
Try always to be present when you’re with your toddler. Be positive with what they’re showing or telling you, and praise whenever they do something right.
Try your best to give specific praise. So, instead of merely saying, “Good job,” say, “Good job using your words.” Doing this can also help to prevent tantrums as you’re showing your toddler that they’re acknowledged.
We understand it’s not always feasible to give your undivided attention, especially if you work from home. But try your best.
Maintain a Schedule
Routines are crucial for toddlers. They don’t always understand everything that goes on around them, so sudden changes can cause distress.
By following a set schedule, your little one is somewhat prepared for what the day holds. This gives them comfort and a feeling of safety. Before leaving home for an activity, go over the plan for the day as well as your expectations. Doing so can limit a toddler’s frustrations. If things don’t go as planned, it is ok to end the activity early and head home.
Set up a maintainable schedule of play, naptime, meals, and bedtime. Ensure that they get plenty of time to play and be active. It’s recommended that toddlers get at least 60 minutes of unstructured active play and 30 minutes of structured play per day (14).
Ideally, try to spend much time outdoors, letting them burn off steam. This may even help them sleep better at night. Then, have set times for naps and bedtime.
Remember to unwind a couple of hours before bed to help your little one fall asleep faster.
Give Lots of Snuggles
Provide warm snuggles and cuddles throughout the day. This is an easy thing to do, and it will benefit both your toddler and you. By actively showing your love, you’re creating a safe space for your little one.
Offer Simple Choices
Toddlers want to be as independent as possible, but they probably still need your help with most of it. By asking them a simple question, like if they want help with their shoes, you’re giving them a reasonable amount of control.
I find this works best when offering two choices. For example, “Do you want to wear the blue shoes or brown shoes?” In this way, your child feels some independence from choosing which shoes to wear. It also avoids a “no” answer, resulting in a battle to put shoes on. This can prevent potential outbursts due to frustration.
Provide All Kinds of Stimulation
Often, toddlers resort to hitting or biting when they’re feeling bored. Combat this by providing lots of stimulation. This can be physical, social, musical, and intellectual.
In your daily schedule, set out times for different activities. They don’t have to last long or be complicated. Thirty minutes is ample — you can bring out some pots to bang on, sing a song, or read a story.
Sometimes, the best prevention is a good distraction. If you feel your toddler is about to bite or hit, suggest a different game or activity. If he or she is teething, offer a teething toy on which to bite instead. Toddlers find the simplest things quite exciting as long as you show enthusiasm too.
It’s clear that hitting and biting are two unacceptable behaviors which we need to stop our toddlers from continuing. But it’s also important to keep in mind that it’s a natural reaction. Getting angry and punishing your toddler won’t help, and may even reinforce the habit.
Children react the way they do for several reasons, making parents wonder how to stop their toddler from hitting and biting. However, it’s essential to understand the reasons behind it. It’s usually a way for them to experiment, communicate or a simple reaction to being scared.
The best thing to do is kindly stop the aggression, move to a quiet place, and teach them how to use their words. Be consistent about correcting their behavior, and it won’t be long before you notice the biting and hitting stops entirely.